The SADF killed the 'terrorist' whose weapon was art – and still it lives on

Harry Thamsanqa "Thami" Mnyele.

Harry Thamsanqa "Thami" Mnyele.

  Thami Mnyele + Medu Art Ensemble Retrospective, edited by Clive Kellner and Sergio-Albio Gonzalez (Jacana)

Early on the morning of June 14 1985, the South African Defence Force (SADF) launched an attack on the ANC in the sovereign state of Botswana, killing several people. One of the casualties was 37-year-old Harry Thamsanqa “Thami” Mnyele.

A day later, a proud Craig Williamson appeared on TV and told South Africa about the military operation in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. He also mentioned that Thami Mnyele and some friends had been killed and showed the weapons that were allegedly found at the site.
Williamson said: “Thami was a terrorist.”

That would have been the end of it if not for the Medu Art Ensemble Retrospective, an intensive effort to collect and display the art of one of South Africa’s fallen.

Art was Mnyele’s first love. Born in Alexandra township on December 10 1948, the third child of Sarah Mnyele, he started drawing and painting when he was 14. He led a nomadic childhood, first moving east to Tembisa, then south to Soweto, northwest to Makapanstad and then to Rorke’s Drift in KwaZulu-Natal. Eventually his travels took him out of the country to exile in Lusaka, Angola and later Gaborone.

During all of these forced movements, Mnyele was producing art, exploring his skills and creative instinct. A Black Consciousness Movement comrade notes: “His creativity was bruised by observing what happened in the Alex township and Makapanstad. All his family that lived in these township areas had fallen right before his eyes – his sister burning to death as the result of an exploding prima stove.”

In his travels to these different destinations he made many friends and met artists who would shape his work and vision. Among these were Wally Serote, Molefe Pheto of Mihloti Black Theatre and Mdali, Fikile Magadlela and Ben Arnold. Mnyele’s imagery turned away from mystical sensibility towards a more didactic and militant stance.

At that early stage, the Medu Art Ensemble was a blacks-only cultural group initiated by the ANC and Serote on his return to Botswana and after some years of study in the United States. This group distributed publications, research, graphic art, music, theatre, film and photography as it promoted resistance to apartheid in South Africa. By the time Mnyele joined Medu, the group was in full swing as a South African cultural organisation. Medu is a Sepedi word meaning roots, and the group helped nurture Mnyele and his art.

The Thami Mnyele Retrospective takes us back in time to South Africa’s dark and painful past of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. A time when art was used as a weapon against the severe apartheid regime which forced some people into a life in exile or brought on an early death.

The catalogue and exhibition took many years to produce because his work was scattered all over the world and these South African treasures had to be traced. It is said that some of his paintings could still be out there.

“Initially, we could not commence with the exhibition because there were too few paintings we had that were done by Thami. We had to go out and collect more,” said Judy Seidman, Mnyele’s long-time friend in exile and a member of Medu.

In the catalogue, Mnyele is quoted as saying: “All the art institutions that I have been to have helped me with certain skills to develop as a creative artist. But these skills do not do any good to what I intend to be, an international good artist.”

Despite all the suffering and oppression, Mnyele still managed to dream and be ambitious. That dream is the same one he compromised for the struggle for his country. He fought culturally and did it with talent and what he had in him, which was humility.

Mnyele died at an early age, but after creating such a great and substantial body of work in 23 short years.

The question we should ask is: what sort of message would he be painting in today’s South Africa?

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