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South Africa Holiday: Dolly Rathebe

In the 1950s Rathebe became the nation’s sweetheart, singing with Johannesburg’s top bands and touring the country. Her name, Dolly, became part of township slang meaning "okay".

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Dolly Rathebe 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 a star.
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 light.
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.
The 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 Awards.
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 Retreat.
In 2003, at the age of 75, Dolly appeared in a Johannesburg show, "Sof'Town, A Celebration!", where 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.
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