“A beguiling story, so glamorous and enchanting; a researcher and writer’s dream” – these are the words of writer and academic Dr Nokuthula Mazibuko Msimang, who is conducting research, documenting and publishing a manuscript on the life of South African musician and artist Dolly Rathebe, who is also credited as being Africa’s first black female film star.
On 1 August 2021, Dr Mazibuko Msimang was appointed as an inaugural fellow in the Artist in Residency Fellowship Programme, launched at the Future Africa Institute at the University of Pretoria (UP). The programme has been established for the purpose of advancing the humanities through the arts to specialist and non-specialist audiences through creative outputs.
“My most recent and exciting news is that I have partnered with publisher and distributor Xarra Books on the project,” Dr Mazibuko Msimang said. “The entire 50s is a treasure trove of drama, history, art, music and literature. There was so much going on politically and artistically. It was the time of the Defiance Campaign – when Nelson Mandela led the fight to say no to the rush of apartheid legislation – and the historic 1956 women’s anti-pass march led by Lilian Ngoyi, Rahima Moosa, Sophie de Bruin and Helen Joseph, escalating the mood of defiance and determination to achieve equality for all people.
“Dolly Rathebe, Miriam Makeba, Dorothy Masuka, Letta Mbulu and Abigail Kubeka were powerful female singers who sang the blues of those heady and exhilarating times. Their stories were captured in magazines like Zonk and Drum by the celebrity writers and photographers of the time. Through Dolly Rathebe’s music and life, the fabulous 50s come to light. I am thrilled to be supported by UP’s Faculty of Humanities and the Future Africa Institute at UP to tell this history.”
Following a recent interview on local radio station ChaiFM about her fellowship, Dr Mazibuko Msimang has been invited to share readings of the manuscript to listeners as her work evolves. Another profound development is that the manuscript is to be made into a documentary project. “This is very much in its early days, in the pre-production phase; we have resources for a five-minute pilot and will have to raise funds to film the rest,” she explained.
Another space to watch is the Javett-UP Art Centre, where Dr Mazibuko Msimang is collaborating with curators Gabi Ngcobo and Tumelo Mosaka in a Dolly Rathebe special presentation, earmarked for March 2022.
Reflecting on her fellowship so far, Dr Mazibuko Msimang said that she has spent a lot of time reading books about the 50s and listening to Rathebe’s music, marvelling at her compositions. “It is amazing to think of big songs she wrote, ‘Bombela’, for example, an African classic that went on to win a Grammy award for Mama Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte,” she said. “This opportunity has afforded me the time to study our history and honour our heroes. Mama Rathebe spent her whole life on stage, sharing her God-given talent. She built a community hall in Pretoria, which was another gift to her society. I am humbled and inspired by the depth of her artistry, as well as her boundless generosity.”
UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe commented that the Future Africa Institute at UP is a continental asset for collaborative transdisciplinary research, which produces knowledge for transformative impact. “The arts play a vital role in holding a mirror up to society and Dr Mazibuko Msimang is playing a significant role in telling our uniquely South African stories,” he said.