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Mr Thami Mnyele (Posthumous)

The Order of Ikhamanga in

Mr Thami Mnyele (Posthumous) Awarded for:
His excellent use of art and cultural activism to confront injustice. His creative works remain a living legacy and witness that oppression does not diminish one’s talent.
Profile of Mr Thami Mnyele

Mr Thami Mnyele was born on 10 December 1948 in Alexandra Township. By the late 60s, his mother sent him to a boarding school in Pretoria. He loved art from an early age but there were no art classes. He used pens, pencils and paper material to draw at the age of 14. In his last year of school, his mother could no longer afford school fees, so he left school.

In 1971, Mnyele joined Mhloti Black Theatre. Years later, he wrote:
“from time immemorial, black talent in South Africa was white-produced, white-directed, and even white-owned. The result was a misrepresentation in the arts of what black life and black theatre was all about; its aspirations, desires and wishes. On top of the above humiliations, the black man was shamelessly and shamefully exploited. Mhloti Black Theatre emerged because of and as a result of this muck. To fight and to begin the eradication of it for all eternity”.

Mnyele decided that his personal direction lay with the visual arts in 1972. He secured a grant to the Art Centre in Rourke’s Drift in then Natal province, where he received one year of formal art training. He worked as an illustrator for the SACHED Trust for seven years.

In 1979 Mnyele was forced into exile in Botswana, where he became a leading figure within the Medu Art Ensemble and a committed African National Congress cadre. He vehemently rejected any separation between his art and the demands of South African resistance against the apartheid regime. Medu Art Ensemble members preferred to call themselves ‘cultural workers’ rather than ‘artists’. The term implied that art makers should not see themselves as elite and isolated individuals, touched by creative madness or genius; but simply people doing their work, whether painting, music or poetry.

On 14 June 1985, Mnyele was shot dead by South African Defence Force (SADF) soldiers outside his home in Gaborone. He had planned to move to Lusaka the next day and the SADF took large collections of his works that were packed into a portfolio.

A week later, security policeman Major Craig Williamson displayed the portfolio and the works in it on SABC television, as evidence of Mnyele’s ‘terrorist’ activities. To date, these works have not been recovered from the security police.