"For me as craftsman, the act of creating art should complement the act of creating shelter for my family or liberating the country for me people. This is culture." - Thami Mnyele (unpublished autobiography, 1984)
Thamsanqa Mnyele was born the third of five children in Alexandra, near
Johannesburg, on 10 December 1948. His father was a religious leader and his
mother a domestic worker.
By 1972, Mnyele had decided his personal direction lay in visual art, so he secured a grant to the ELC Art Centre in Rorkes Drift, Natal, where he received only one year of formal art training. After that year, he had to leave, for he was the family breadwinner. Mnyele got a job as an illustrator for the SACHED Trust, where he worked for the next seven years.
He called for artists in the struggling communities to use their talent to express their demands and he encourage artists to become a part of a growing mobilization at grassroots level. Mnyele was later to reflect on his position:
“What is a good artist in relation to a freedom fighter? ...I had managed to pick up most of the skills I needed which would enable me to be of service back home. To be of service is to integrate. The musicians of the fifties had not integrated into the community, they were the community itself. The community produced songs about the sudden ban of the African brew by the government; the community performed at a child baptismal ceremony and the community still performs at the funeral of a deceased member. Wouldn't it be good if I designed posters for these activities, painted banners, made postcards, Christmas cards, and taught these skills to those who need them?” (unpublished autobiography: 1984) In June 1976, Mnyele, Fikgile and Ben Arnold held an art exhibition at the Dube YWCA. In describing the exhibit, Mnyele wrote:
“[W]e had to make a decision and take a stand to say: were we involved in the struggle and life around us, or were we merely producing "pictures"? ... We had people standing at the door counting and there were more than a thousand people crammed into the place and there were more waiting outside …We the artists were very excited because it meant we communicated, you know, something clicked.” (Staffrider 1980 Sept Oct, p.41)
The Dube exhibition, located physically within the June 1976 uprising, received no attention in the Johannesburg art world, or in the press. But it became a signpost of a new attitude towards the arts, one which permeated resistance culture for the next decade and a half.
In 1979, Mnyele was forced into exile in Botswana. There, he was to become a leading figure within Medu Art Ensemble and a committed ANC cadre. He organised cultural workers through Medu Arts Ensemble. In those years he also participated fully in Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the ANC's military wing. In the early 1980s, Mnyele also spent some time training in the MK camps in Angola, and later in Lusaka. During these trips he worked with ANC printers designing posters, mastheads, and stickers under the ANC's name. He designed the first draft of the current ANC logo during this period. Mnyele chaired the Gaborone Culture and Resistance Festival in 1982, and gave the keynote addresses. He was also a spokesperson for South Africa's visual artists at the follow-up conference in Amsterdam in 1983.
On June 14, 1985, Thami Mnyele was shot dead by South African Defence Force (SADF) soldiers outside his home in Gaborone. He had expected to move to Lusaka the next day and large collections of his works that were packed into a portfolio were taken by the SADF. A week later, Security 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.