was born in Randfontein (west of
Krugersdorp) but grew up in Sophiatown which she
describes as having been "a wonderful place". She
was discovered around 1948 after singing at a picnic
in Johannesburg. A talent scout from Gallo
approached her and it wasn't long before she become
She rose to fame in 1949 aged 19 when she
appeared as a nightclub singer in the
British-produced movie, "Jim Comes To Jo'burg" - the
first film to portray urban Africans in a positive
During a photo-shoot for Drum magazine at a mine
dump, Dolly and the white photographer, Jürgen
Schadeberg, were arrested under the Immorality Act,
which forbade interracial relationships.
When Alf Herbert’s African Jazz and Variety show
opened in 1954, Dolly appeared and stayed as
Herbert’s main attraction for many years. She became
an international star when she sang with the
Afro-jazz group, the Elite Swingsters in 1964.
After Sophiatown was flattened by the Apartheid
government in the late 1950s and early 1960s,
Rathebe found it more and more difficult to perform,
especially after an 8pm curfew was imposed.
She moved with her family to Cape Town,
and to survive, ran a shebeen for many years. In 1989 she re-united with the Elite
Swingsters to perform in a film that was set
in 1950s Johannesburg.
group stayed together, issuing a new album,
Woza, in 1991. This was followed by two more
albums, A Call for Peace (1995) and Siya
Gida/We Dance (1997).
In her latter years Rathebe was a
leading light in Pretoria's Ikageng Women's
League. In 2001 she received the Lifetime
Achievement Award at the South African Music
She funded the construction of a
multi-purpose hall at Sofasonke village near
Klipgat, north of Pretoria. The hall is
named Meriting kwaDolly, which means Dolly's
In 2003, at the age of 75, Dolly
appeared in a Johannesburg show, "Sof'Town,
she sang Randfontein, the story of a
drunk miner returning home to find his wife
in bed with another man, who is then beaten
and chased out.
Dolly Rathebe died on 16 September 2004
from a stroke.