Dolly Rathebe was born in Randfontein, west of Johannesburg in 1928, but grew up within the unique cultural and political milieu of Sophiatown in the 1930s and 1940s.
As a young woman, Rathebe was drawn to the burgeoning and vibrant music scene in Sophiatown and started singing with local jazz bands in neighbourhood clubs. In 1949, she was spotted by a talent scout and was offered the lead female role in Jim Comes to Joburg, one of the earliest South African films made for a primarily black audience. Although she was essentially untrained as an actor, her sparkling performance as a nightclub singer revealed a raw, natural talent. Dolly, as she was popularly called, was in great public demand and became the first African female movie star.
Soon Rathebe was singing in every suburban and township lounge and gracing the cover of the ubiquitous Drum magazine. Her fame as a jazz singer therefore grew considerably. The fact that she had been arrested with Drum photographer, JÁ¼rgen Schadeberg for contravention of Apartheid laws while on a photo-shoot, only served to swell her now widespread fan base. “Dolly” was now the nation’s sweetheart and as a measure of her mass support, her very name became synonymous for “all right” or “okay” in township slang.
In the next decade, Rathebe toured the country and the region extensively with South Africa’s top bands, including the Manhattan Stars and the Harlem Swingsters. She also featured as the star attraction on Alf Herbert’s famous African Jazz and Variety Show which opened in 1954 and ran for many years. Similarly, when the seminal South African production of King Kong opened in 1962 it included Rathebe in its illustrious line-up. That production eventually took the UK by storm, but sadly, in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre, resulted in many of the country’s top performers remaining in exile for many years.
Rathebe, however, returned to her homeland. The precipitous impact of the dislocation of stable communities into dormitory townships and with a cultural landscape largely denuded of its best talent, authentic cultural expression went into utter decline and was to take a long time to recover.
Although Rathebe’s career was to be briefly revived in the mid-1960s when she joined the Elite Swingsters - the Afro-jazz group which achieved some international success, she was never able to recreate her former fame. Rathebe finally retired from her music career and after stints in Port Elizabeth, Durban and Cape Town, eventually moved to Mobopane, near Pretoria in 1971, occasionally making an appearance on the stage and in the studio – her last recording was with the reunited Elite Swingsters in 1991.
In her later years, Rathebe occupied herself with community work and development. Motivated by the need to give a helping hand to the poor and the less fortunate, she was instrumental in the building of a community hall in Mabopane and funded the construction of a centre called Meriting kwaDolly, (“Dolly's Retreat”) at Sofasonke village near Klipgat, north of Pretoria. She was a member of the executive committee of the Ikageng Women’s League.
Dolly Rathebe was a principal player in the cultural renaissance which flowered briefly before it was terminated by Apartheid. She contributed hugely to the development of what was to become the inimitable and enduring sound of South African Jazz. Sadly she passed away soon after she had been nominated for national honours.
For her excellent contribution to music and the performing arts and commitment to the ideals of justice, freedom and democracy, the South African Government bestowed Dolly Rathebe with the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver at the National Orders awards on 19 October 2004.