Sunday Times E-Edition


Sherna No Ah

Sisters Motsi and Oti Mabuse always had a gnawing feeling that, despite their professional success and happy marriages, something was missing in their lives. That was any knowledge of their roots — their ancestors’ stories having been wiped out by colonialism and apartheid.

“A lot of Africans don’t know their heritage,” says former Strictly Come Dancing pro Oti. “We had no information. The apartheid regime took away people’s identities, land and houses.”

Oti is being sincere when she says taking part in DNA Journey, the series that follows celebrity duos as they learn about where they come from, was the best thing she’s done, despite any professional success. “It gave me back my family tree, my bloodline.”

For Strictly judge and older sister Motsi, the experience was “empowering”. The pair had previously tried to unearth their family tree on a DNA genealogy website, so they doubted the programme-makers would have enough to fill a prime-time show.

“I thought they wouldn’t find anything. I told them: ‘You’re just going to get to my grandmother and you’ll be stuck there!’”

Defying expectations, the discoveries roll in — an African royal connection, links to Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, but the heart-wrenching war story of their paternal grandfather, Paulus Mabuse, who died before they were born, provoked most tears. It came as a shock that he’d served during World War 2.

That discovery was bittersweet. South Africa declared war on Nazi Germany on September 6 1939 and 80,000 black South Africans volunteered for the Native Military Corps. But black soldiers were treated as inferior to their white counterparts — and, after the war, their contribution to the

Allies’ defeat of the Axis powers went largely unrecognised.

“They went to war but were treated differently,” Oti says. “They fought for what they thought was freedom for the whole world and came back to South Africa ”— just as apartheid was beginning.

“The authorities promised them a brighter future,” says Motsi. “And when they came back, white soldiers got land, were celebrated, made politicians and generals. Our soldiers, who also gave up everything, got a pair of shoes or a bicycle or a jacket.”

Paulus enlisted at the age of 27 and was sent to Beirut, Lebanon, as part of 61 Tunnelling Company. Researchers found records showing that he made a stand against the injustice he faced and was given 28 days’ field punishment — labour duties and being attached to a fixed object for two hours a day.

Motsi and Oti’s father had scant knowledge about Paulus, who died when he was young. Why was his story not passed down?

“They came back from war and there’ sa lot of trauma that’s not been dealt with,” says Oti. “The men then had to work in the mines. There wasn’t that father-son connection or time for this conversation.” Motsi adds: “It was all about survival.”

“Because of the way they’d been treated, there was a lot of shame,” says Oti. “For us to hear the story for the first time, for my dad to hear the story about his dad, was emotional.”

Through genetic testing, the sisters also discover they are part of the San tribe, one of the oldest cultures on Earth, providing a direct link to one of the original peoples of Southern Africa and the deepest branch of humankind. Tutu and Mandela are also part of this group, while singer Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse, whom the sisters idolised, turns out to be their cousin.

And there’s a connection to a Kekana royal family in Hammanskraal, in northern Gauteng. “The queen of the village was our mom’s great-great-grandma!” Oti says. But their mother is disbelieving: “She’s like: ‘This is nonsense!’”

Motsi, who lives in Germany, says doing the show was a gift not just to herself but to future generations. “I can say to my daughter: ‘That’s where you come from. If you doubt yourself any time, you can go back to South Africa. Your history is there.’”

Motsi’s young daughter is bonding with her Ukrainian grandmother. Motsi is married to Evgenij Voznyuk, a dancer from Ukraine, whose parents fled the war and moved in with the family a year ago. “My daughter has a deep connection with her grand-mom, her babushka, which is important. You never know how much time you have on this planet.”

But living with your mother-in-law is never easy? “It helps not speaking the same language. Avoid communication!” Motsi jokes.

DNA Journey was a chance for the sisters to work together again after Oti quit Strictly last year. —





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