Artist and Hero

2008-08-06 00:00

If this book was a movie on the South African revolution it would be star-studded, based on the names of the people the lead character was in close contact with. Thami Mnyele is presented as an artist who assisted the revolution, but was also a freedom fighter, like many of the people we now name streets after. Names like Baleka Mbete, Thabo Mbeki, Steve Biko, O. R. Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim and others make appearances in this book.

Mnyele starts as an artist trying to make a livelihood from his talent but he gets increasingly frustrated by the inequalities that plague his daily life and ultimately joins the struggle. He orchestrated a lot of the imagery, logos and artwork of movements like the trade unions, Umkhonto WeSizwe and the United Democratic Front. The art events he held while in exile became strategic planning political conferences and workshops. Discussions made it obvious that art was the most important way to revive the morale of disillusioned freedom fighters.

A conflicted individual, Mnyele’s weaknesses were in conflict with his strengths. He was a disciplined man, who never drank alcohol after one bad experience, yet on more than one occasion he failed to support his offspring. He expressed remorse and a desire to make things right, and the reader gets drawn into the experiences of a man trying to find himself in a world with no certainty. Marriage to the struggle and the pursuit of ambition are the main reasons so many South Africans do not have relationships with their fathers. It is a South African story through and through.

While the sub-title The Life and Death of Thami Mnyele is suggestive, the book focuses more on Mnyele’s life. His death and eventual exhumation and reburial 20 years later are described but do not overshadow the life and work of the man. It is a book you need to read more than once, for its historical significance and surprising relevance to South Africa today.

Brian Khoza

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