Once in a Generation

When Brenda Fassie's Record Company, EMI, called her "a once-in-a-generation artist, a true idol" they knew that they'd backed pure gold.

Her 1998 comeback album, Memeza, sold 50 000 units in the first four hours of its release and, ultimately, more than 600 000 copies.

Four of her albums, Amadlozi (1999), Nomakanjani (2000), Mina Nawe (2001) and Mali (2003) were the biggest-selling albums of the year. In the last eight years of her life she earned R6 million in royalties alone. The music purists who dismissed Fassie's brand as "bubblegum" surely missed the point. The multitudes of young fans knew what they wanted and they voted with it by buying her music.

Yet Fassie was often broke. "I'd rather have happiness than money. People ask for it; sometimes when I don't have it. I make other people's problems my problem because they want me to; they ask me to," said the star who once agreed with a reporter that she was "ridiculously generous with family, friends and even friends of friends".

Time magazine called her the Madonna of the Townships, the Sunday Times called her South Africa's undisputed queen of pop and the Sowetan said she was the chick with chutzpah. But for most she was MaBrrr or simply Brenda, a phenomenon like no other.

Born in Langa, Cape Town, she started singing with a neighbourhood band called The Tiny Tots at age of five. At 17, she was brought to Joburg by producer and talent scout Koloi Lebona and went to Gibson Kente's music and drama school in Soweto. Singing with the band Brenda & The Big Dudes, she cut her first single, Weekend Special, and became an overnight sensation - a starry night that lasted 20 years.

Unpredictable, volatile, passionate, Fassie had a love-hate relationship with the media, who documented all her highs and lows, of which there were many.

"I am a shocker. I like to create controversy. It's my trademark," she once said. She was brazen: "I'm going to become the Pope next year. Nothing is impossible." It was said that though she might not have been good looking, she had a "raw, animal magnetism that made her irresistible to men and women".

You know what? At the next OKTV Awards I wanna go there just in my jacket with nothing else on. I loved it when Madonna did that. I thought, "Wow, woman, you are me... Madonna in Soweto"

To quote the diva herself: "You know what? At the next OKTV Awards I wanna go there just in my jacket with nothing else on. I loved it when Madonna did that. I thought, ‘Wow, woman, you are me... Madonna in Soweto'." On another occasion, however, she said she didn't understand why people compared her to Madonna. "Maybe it's because of the way we dress," she said.

When she married ¬- for the only time and to Nhlanhla Mbambo, a millionaire's son from Durban, in 1989 - there were three receptions.

Only close friends were invited to the one at the Sandton Sun Hotel in Joburg. To avoid gatecrashers at her Cape Town wedding, held in Parow, computerised invites, with a secret watermark, were printed. One thousand people pitched at the church, standing on pews, hanging over the pulpit and forming a solid mass at the altar. The priest said he had officiated at many weddings "but never have I experienced anything like this. I may be bruised, battered and bewildered, but it was wonderful".

It took Brenda the bride 30 minutes to walk from the car ¬- a black Cadillac with tinted windows - to the altar as TV crews and photographers jostled to capture her. Her dress had a four-metre train and Yvonne Chaka Chaka was her chief bridesmaid. Police had to be called to restore order among the fans.

More than 18 000 people packed the KwaMashu Stadium for her Durban wedding, where Fassie and her groom arrived by helicopter. She wore a different designer gown to each occasion.

Visitors to her hospital bed before she died included former president Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and President Thabo Mbeki.

Brenda's only child, a son, Bongani, born in 1985, was her constant companion. Bongz - his pet name - is now the name he uses professionally. He is an accomplished jazz pianist. When his mother died, he paid her this tribute: "I know that Brenda Nokuzola Majoni Fassie was a great loss to all of us locally and globally, but the one thing she told me was to spread love, strive for better things and to have confidence in myself no matter what people say."

- Researched by Gillian Anstey with information sourced from extensive newspaper articles


back to the Brenda Fassie memorial page

"I like to create controversy. I'm going to become the Pope next year. Nothing is impossible."
Brenda Fassie
Brenda Fassie, 1984
Picture: Joe Sefale © Sunday Times


Newspaper sources: An exercise in image-making

In this lesson plan, learners are asked to think about different images that the media communicate. They will see that one person can be represented in many different ways, or that one person has different sides. Brenda Fassie was a very complex person.

Lesson page
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Archive Photo Gallery
MaBrrr channels Madonna and other great divas.
Artwork Photo Gallery
Watch the Brenda sculpture develop from clay mould to glowing likeness of the queen of African pop.
Orbituary audio archive
Listen to SAfm/Metro FM’s obituary of Brenda, broadcast on May 10, 2004 (5’42").
Go on a 360° virtual tour of the Brenda Fassie memorial, located at Bassline, in the Newtown precinct of Johannesburg.
Madiba remembers Princess Brenda
Madiba describes his surprise when he heard Princess Brenda coming down the stairs in his house
Zola Budd Track
The Sunday Times Heritage Project’s first memorial is to Brenda Fassie, a woman variously described as the Queen of African pop and the Madonna of the Townships
Brenda Fassie and Zola Budd
MaBrrr struts her stuff and takes on taxi drivers with her big hit, “Zola Budd”