Bataung Memorials is very famous for the tombstones they make for celebrities. I had a moment to chat to Lebo Khitsane, the brains behind those most talked about tombstones.
When I posted on my social media that I was going to a cemetery for an interview, my online friends were shocked. Yes, this interview was done inside Westpark Cemetery in Johannesburg, South Africa you better believe it.
I must say Lebo is the busiest person I have ever interviewed in my whole entire life. His phone rang every minute during our interview, and it was all business. We got interrupted many times but we made it work and this is how it went down;
Kiki: It is such an honour to finally meet the man behind all the master pieces that get us talking all the time. I am a fan of your work because you are unpredictable.
Lebo: Oh, thank you so much. I am humbled.
Kiki: You know when a public figure passes on, we mourn with their loved ones but at the same time we are curious about the Tombstone that Bataung is going to make because we know you go to the extreme.
Lebo: Hahahahaha, yes we do go all out.
Kiki: I promise you I am one of those that starts picturing it in my head. What made you decide to start this type of business?
Lebo: The need to create different kind of tombstones that will give people that exclusivity that sets them apart from the norm.
Kiki: So who comes up with the designs?
Lebo: I create all the designs and come up with all the concepts, and decide on the stones. I do all of that. I think of the deceased’s character, their role in the community to make sure that we come up with something that will represent that particular person.
Kiki: WOW! How long does it take you to get all the work done? From the concept to actually getting the final product?
Lebo: It takes us 3days.
Kiki: Only 3days to do all that work? (I was pointing at Joe Mafela’s one)
Lebo: Yes, it took us 3days because we’ve got a huge factory, we’ve got the capacity, the machinery and the technology to make wonders.
Kiki: That’s amazing because I was expecting you to say 1 week or so and that you need to be booked in advance type of situation. I am impressed.
Lebo: Noooooooo, 1 week? That’s too much. As long as we have all the information and the material is available we can do anything. We do have to work overtime of course.
Kiki: I am looking at Ntate Joe Mafela, next to him it’s Mandoza, and then my friend Gugu Zulu, with Shoes Moshoeu next to him with an entire stadium. I see Simba Mhere, Vuyo Mbuli, Baby Jake, Flabba, the list is endless….This is all you?
Lebo: Yes, it’s all our work my sister.
Kiki: When I was told that we were meeting here I became a bit emotional because the last time I was here we were burying uGugu. So looking at the work you do, I am assuming that most of the times you do not have an emotional connection with the people you create these master pieces for. After creating it do you perhaps start to feel some sort of connection?
Lebo: There is a connection, hence I create beautiful stones like these. During the work, I communicate with the deceased spiritually. I go into that zone, I put myself in the family’s shoes, and I put myself in the deceased’s shoes asking myself; ‘If I was this person, will I be happy with this stone?’
Kiki: Speaking of families, are they the ones that approach you, or is it the state or you go to them and offer your services?
Lebo: It’s the families that approach us.
Kiki: You have made a mark where tombstones are concerned. When you were growing up did you know that you were going to be doing this?
Lebo: Not at all. I actually hated cemeteries when I was growing up. My mum passed away when I was 6 years old. Cemeteries used to terrify me because I’d think my mum is in there but I can’t talk to her or touch her. I didn’t want to go to cemeteries at all up until I started the business. Now I basically live here.
Kiki: So how did you get into the business if you didn’t even like it?
Lebo: I don’t even know how I ended up here. I was in the printing business, and then I did clothing, and then Bataung. It all started in my Dad’s workshop in Katlehong. He used to do bugler gates and all the steel work. When he retired I asked if I could use his property to start Bataung. He gave me his blessing. A year and half later, he passed on.
Kiki: Shame sorry to hear that. Can you remember the first celebrity tombstone you made?
Lebo: It was for Jacob Mpharanyana. A legend from Katlehong. The 2nd one which happens to be the first one here in Johannesburg is that of Bra Sticks Morewa who was followed by Lindiwe Chibi. And then there was DJ Khabzela as well.
Kiki: Oh yes I remember all of them. OMG!! Looking at all the ones you have done, which one would you say was the most difficult or maybe too demanding?
Lebo: None of them were too demanding to be honest, BUT if we talk about the one that made the most headlines with too many opinions from people was Joe Mafela. It actually jammed my website. That was epic.
Kiki: Hahahaha, we can never forget that one. It trended on social media for days.
Lebo: It was epic hey. I got calls from Spain, from the USA people complimenting and wanting to use my services. It was epic! But then at the same time you get negative reviews people complaining about it saying it’s a waste of money that could have been used on other things.
Kiki: Who’s money is it? Why would someone complain about money that is not even theirs?
Lebo: You know? I mean the family knew what they wanted to honor their loved one and we gave them exactly that. So all those opinions and complaints from people who are not part of the family are irrelevant to us. It’s not about the money, it’s about the memory that the deceased left behind. It wasn’t about anyone else, it was about Joe Mafela.
Kiki: Do you also work with ordinary people or you are reserved for the famous?
Lebo: I create stones for a lot of ordinary people. Yesterday I was in Botswana, there is a family there that wanted me to do a stone for them. When I was at the private cemetery in Botswana I realized that I have about 6/7 stones in that cemetery. Those are ordinary people but very beautiful stones. And then I saw 3 copies of my stones.
Kiki: What?? So they stole your designs?
Lebo: Yes, they did. One of the stones I did in Fourways, I saw it in Botswana. But still it can never be the same as the original. It’s just like buying a fake LV bag.
Kiki: Hahahahaha, this is crazy. So people come to your website to steal? WOW!!
Lebo: A lot of them. Some have my catalogues and they try to create what I have done. That is why I always have to up my game. What I do is a gift from God. All glory to him. I am just an ordinary guy from Katlehong but with his power I manage to create all this. It’s a talent I was born with so even if they steal, they won’t get too far. If people copy you, that means you’re the best in the game. Coco Chanel said, “If you want to be original, be ready to be copied.”
Kiki: I am looking at these ones here, yes they are extra ordinary but it’s the ‘normal’ ordinary, but then the designs change up there from Vuyo Mbuli and Simba Mhere it becomes a whole new world.
Lebo: Akere we improve every day. Vuyo Mbuli’s one was a hit, and it still is a hit. We travel the world to see what the trends are and then work on that. We move with the times. I also own West Tombstones now.
Kiki: What’s the difference between West Tombstones and Bataung?
Lebo: 14year old Bataung bought out 34year old West. So now we own the two leading companies. As you can see they are a lot of beautiful stones in here by West. This one for Zodwa Khoza, is by West.
Kiki: Thank you so much for the chat, I know you have to rush and do some work but I appreciate you making time to talk to me. I hear you do a lot of charity events as well so hopefully I will attend one of them soon.
Lebo: Yes definitely. Thank you for talking to me.
This is African talent at its best. You can get hold of them through their website HERE. It was a great conversation and I respect him more because of the charity work that he does to give back to the community. That’s the way to go Bro Lebo, big up to you!