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This daughter of a shoemaker overcame the odds. When challenges came her way she beat them all and rose to the top. 

Police harassment, unlawful arrests and assaults on innocent people in the streets of Sophiatown, made those who were oppressed much stronger, legendary singer Thandi Klaasen remembers.  Klaasen was born and grew up in Sophiatown. She said all races lived side by side, with no racial discrimination. “People were happy and really enjoyed their lives there. Then the previous government removed them to make room for a white residential suburb,” she said. The township’s name was changed to Triomf.

Mixed fortunes

Klaasen had mixed fortunes when she was a teenager in Sophiatown. Her life changed when her friend betrayed her by getting tsotsis to pour thinners mixed with petrol on her face. This damaged her face permanently and she spent almost a year in hospital. Her promising singing career was nearly crushed as a result. “It was a blow to my life, my family and my friends,” she said. “The pain was unbearable.”  Klaasen’s music talent was discovered when she was still a young girl at primary school. She was inspired by Emily Kwenane, lead singer of the local band, the Jazz Maniacs.  Klaasen said she was encouraged by the group’s performance when they visited their school. She loved to watch them play.  Klaasen sang alongside greats like Miriam Makeba and Sophie Mngcina. She formed a quartet to compete with the local popular male band of the time, the Manhattan Brothers. “We proved that what men could do we could do just as well,” she said.

Rich talent

In 1961, Klaasen travelled to London in the United Kingdom with King Kong, the musical, for a nine months  performance.  In February 2006, Sophiatown got its old name back. Klaasen said this was an important occasion to reunite with old friends. Musicians like Abigail Khubeka and trumpeter Hugh Masekela attended the celebrations Klaasen said South Africa was rich with young music talent that needed exposure. She said she would like to work with young talented musicians, including kwaito artists.  “I’m prepared to work with kwaito artists because their music is liked by the young and old.” She appealed to them to support older musicians because they had made it possible for the music industry to survive.

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