Gugulethu “Gugs” Zulu has passed away. He leaves his young wife Letshego and their daughter Lelethu – who just a couple of weeks ago, turned one. The racing champion and “fastest brother in Africa” passed away at around 05:00 this morning near the footsteps of Africa’s tallest and most treacherous mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro. The couple were part of an expedition that was climbing on behalf of the charity Trek4Mandela, in honour of Dr Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela and to raise funds for underprivileged girls.

So far what we know is that he had struggled with the high altitude at Kili from around 21:00 last night, having complained about a mild bout of flu over the weekend. Letshego was with him but was doing much better. He had always said she was far fitter than he was, being a biokineticist and all. When they took him down by stretcher he was already fighting for his life.

I have known Gugs since we were young high school boys. I met him and his sister Liyanda while staying with my aunt’s family in Diepkloof Extension, Soweto. His mother Puleng and my mom’s youngest sister Edna Manchu are best friends. Actually, they are more like sisters than friends. So my cousin Seabelo, who was Gugs’ best mate, introduced us and we all frequently played together as boys do. Gugs was always smiling, that’s probably the most common description passed around of him. Even as kids that was his trademark. It was always hard to find him down, forlorn, sad or overwhelmed by the complexities of teenagehood.

His family owned a Volvo and Gugs was driving that car just as soon as he could reach the foot pedals. Sometimes without his parents’ consent, or indeed knowledge. In our spare time we would ride bicycles around Diepkloof and “explore”. He was already quite a fit young man who would show us plenty of dust just as quickly as he showed his contagious smile.

One day I found out Gugs was attending a driving academy. That of course didn’t surprise me at all. What did surprise me was that his parents had allowed him into this path. After all, the only other black racing drivers I knew of were Benedict Maaga and Philip “Township Tornado” Kekana. That told me that this sport was the preserve of white people and that black people would never crack it. Later he landed his own first car, a white Ford Escort, which he drove like he stole it more often than not. Luckily he exceled at Isondo Racing Academy, and quickly graduated to winning his first national championship in 2000. Gugs is one of a few racing drivers who have won championships both on and off the road. The rest of his professional record is a matter of public record.

Racing was not the only thing in Gugu’s life of course. Motor events, cycling, gym, TV presenting were just some of the activities he was involved in. I think he was one of those stars that compress an entire lifetime’s experience into one short life. Gugu drove my wife Nokuthula around for her hair appointment, then pretty quickly as you can imagine, to our wedding venue in our borrowed BMW M3 Convertible back in 2005. Then he dressed himself up and took on the MC job by the horns, took charge of the proceedings with both respect and fun, considering the diverse people who attended. Although he was quite worried about it beforehand, his speech was witty, pertinent and lovely, peppered with motoring quips. This was before he began charging for such speaking services, so perhaps he owes me an invoice for that.

I remember soon after he and Letshego had decided to be the “Adventure Couple”. He would say Letshego was still hiding in her shell, that he was trying hard to get her out so she could shine brightly. As the “star” in the relationship (of course he could never accept such a label), it was often part of her “duties” I suppose, to mingle and meet everyone when they were out in public. Some of those times she was not comfortable, being the shy type. Of course she eventually did break her shell and is now achieving in a number of industries under her own brand.

At one point in his life Gugu wanted to quit motor racing because the sport he loved so much, was no longer able to back him financially in the manner that could support not just him anymore, but his future wife and family too. He asked me if he should continue with his passion, or if he should take an offer for a “well-paying and stable 9-5” with a local retail giant. I told him I could not answer that question; that only he could, after considering whether better future prospects were ahead in motor racing or in a new career, given his plans to marry. Needless to say, he stayed and his racing career was renewed soon after.

With the addition of Lelethu, the Zulu family from Petervale in Johannesburg has experienced its first grandchild and she is fittingly loved as such. Gugu told me he only wanted one more. “Kids are expensive Thami” was his excuse. “Come man, don’t be weak,” I joked. “You have to at least match me”! I completely understood of course, being a father of three myself.

Our last one-on-one, face-to-face conversation took place a few weeks ago when again he said he was at a crossroads in his life. He needed to decide on a number of issues pertaining to his career. An expanding family was a possibility and there were more, different work opportunities on the table. We decided to conclude our discussion upon his return from Kili. I guess that is one discussion I will have to have with myself for the rest of my life.

Similar to Michael Schumacher, Gugs did not meet his final fate on the high-speed, high-risk racing arena, despite a number of crashes and near-crashes during his career. In the early years his father Peter would tell me that one of the reasons he would attend almost all of his son’s races was to be there for him, in case something tragic happened. Thankfully it did not. But like the famous 7-time Formula One champion, Zulu was ultimately conquered by Mother Nature. And against such a force, none of us can win.

Rest in Eternal Peace Mageba.

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