Thembiso Twala, the prince of Newtown
Walk into the art district of Newtown in downtown Johannesburg and ask for the man who sits in a tuk-tuk with his band mates in front of the Bassline music venue. “You’re looking for Prince?” regulars will ask.
Youngsters shout his name across the park where Brenda Fassie’s statue looks out at the fading grass. When you find him, he’ll tell you he made Newtown, preaching the gospel of one love, jazz and art.
Prince leaves traces of himself all over the neighbourhood – and at the back of Kaldi’s coffee shop, his guitar sits waiting to be played.
At 50, Thembiso Twala has grown with Jo’burg’s urban art scene and earned his royal moniker by the time the millennium hit.
“I’ve made this town. Each town has its own prince, and I’m happy even if I’ll never be the king,” he laughs.
He’s an outcast in Alexandra, the township where he rests his head, and it gets to him.
“They are making me a stranger. They say I’m not South African, in Alex, in my town. I don’t dream of being a prince of Alex,” he says.
Twala found respite in music, bringing the notes to Newtown youngsters. Artist Wendy Cooper did a collage of him playing a flute with rats following in his wake, Pied Piper-style. It’s a nod to how he turned this part of the city into an art haven.
He’s played concerts and even owned a gallery in Newtown but sometimes wonders how he’ll pay for bread. “That’s how the economy goes. You can be good to the world, and the world is not good with you.”
He’s the Prince of Newtown and it’s what he’s most proud of – even if most people don’t know it and would walk straight past him.