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The woman who became a pop sensation at 65

When Olpha Selepe told her children she wanted to release her own pop song, they pleaded with her not to.

 

They didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but it just wasn’t what 65-year-old retired teachers did. Her siblings agreed, urging her to drop the idea. It would be embarrassing for the whole family, they said.

 

With other people’s opinions fresh in her head, she knew there was only one option left.

 

To record the song in secret.

 

By the time her family found out what she’d done, the track was already a viral hit – and Selepe, now known across the country by her stage name GeeSixFive, was famous. The song was being shared all over social media, it topped South Africa’s iTunes charts, and people across the country were holding her up as an example of it never being too late to achieve your dreams.

 

But on 7 December, just a few short weeks after the song’s release, Selepe tested positive for Covid-19. Two days later, while self-isolating with family in Durban, she died.

Short presentational grey line

Olpha Selepe had polio as a child. Because of the disease, she only had the use of one arm.

 

Growing up in Eshowe in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province, her mother would tell her that she’d need to make sure she always excelled academically because she wouldn’t be able to do manual work.

 

She remembered this advice through school, studied hard, and became a primary school teacher in Newcastle’s Madadeni township in KZN. Later, she was promoted to becoming the school’s headmistress.

 

Her niece, Sbu Mpungose, told the BBC that Selepe was “very strict… but fair”, and loved power dressing.

 

“You’d always find her in two-piece suits. She was a sharp, sharp dresser, she really loved looking good,” she says. “But more than anything, she wanted things to be done right. She was always a very bold person.”

 

Selepe had the same meticulous approach to her home, Mpungose said – which began as “a shack”, but was built up into a brick and mortar house that was “always really beautiful”.

 

While she ran a tight ship both at school and at home, music was where she could let go. As a Roman Catholic, she sang in the church choir for many years. She also released an album of children’s nursery rhymes.

 

“She would always be the one to stand up and conduct the choir,” Mpungose said, laughing. “She would always be the lead singer or the one to start a song. Leadership really was her thing… and that never changed.”

Olpha Selepe during a short period teaching in East London

Selepe spent three years in the UK from 2002 to 2005, teaching at a primary school in East London. But after she returned to South Africa, she experienced tragedy – her daughter, one of her four children, died as a result of HIV.

 

“After that, I saw her becoming softer,” Mpungose said.

 

On 28 March 2018, Selepe finally achieved another long-time goal – she graduated with her master’s degree in education. She was 63 years old at the time. She applied for a Ph.D. in education shortly afterward.

 

During her Ph.D. interview, the panel asked her: “If people speak about Mrs. Selepe, what do you want them to think of?”

 

She answered without skipping a beat: “Music.”

 

Selepe was accepted onto the Ph.D. – but she couldn’t get music out of her mind.

 

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