Sisana Dube’s eyes well up with tears as she recalls her journey over the past few years with painstaking detail. Hers is a story filled with tales of hunger, eviction, death and perseverance.
Thandazile Sisana Kubheka was born in the destitute town of Dumbe in KwaZulu-Natal in 1990 before her family relocated to Swaziland.
As a young student there she experienced xenophobic-fuelled bullying from her schoolmates. “We were not accepted. And because of our accents you could hear that it’s Siswati but it’s Zulu-ish,” she laughs.
She came back to South Africa after high school and lived with her grandma and her five younger siblings.
Growing up, Sisana wanted to be a doctor.
She recalls attentively watching Medical Detectives and dreaming of one day helping others heal. Looking back, she attributes this fascination to an interest in the show’s background music.
It was her grandma that brought her down to earth: “She said ‘I think you should go and look for a school to study media because this whole doctor thing of yours doesn’t exist’. I was hurt, but at the same time I was like I’m not into it that much. It’s not me. I’m gifted in music, maybe I just loved the way they dress.”
Soon after, Sisana’s grandma revealed that she had saved up some money for her to go to Joburg and attend college. When she came to Joburg she was enrolled at Damelin where she studied TV and radio.
“One thing I liked about myself is that Joburg wasn’t a big deal for me. The lights, the technology and everything that was going on. I was just like ‘Okay, are we done?’”
But she’d soon be exposed to the harsh realities of life in the city. Because her grandma could only pay her rent and school fees, she was forced to hustle to make ends meet. Her mom, who still lives in Swaziland, would send her R200 a month, which was barely enough to support her day-to-day expenses as a
She even started growing dreadlocks because they didn’t cost much to maintain. She also started selling sweets at school and found herself dating men as a means of survival.
Despite all the chaos she found a way to complete her studies before getting a job at SABC as part of a 6-month auditing project.
After her contract ran out, she found a job as a backing vocalist and started saving to record her album. As she was finding her feet, her grandma died. Her three younger brothers were kicked out from their homestead in Dumbe by their step granddad and moved in with Sisana in Joburg.
Then the backing vocalist jobs dried up and she could no longer afford rent and other daily living costs. It was during this emotional period that she wrote Ekhaya (Home), a song that’s on radio stations across the country. Her mom eventually paid the rent, but there was more to worry about.
“You can have the rent, but what are you gonna eat? And you have to remember that when you have food the first thing you think about is the kids, not you. Bare in mind I had a 9-year-old brother. The others boys were 14 and 15.”
Sisana’s major break came late last year when a friend called her and told her she’d met “some guy from the UK who’s looking for an African artist” and arranged for them to meet.
Sisana made it clear from the outset that she had reservations about someone else owning her music and that if they were to work together she’d need to be in control of this.He then advised that she start her own label and he would help her by managing her as an artist through that label.
She gave him her album which he sent to a few of his connects and before she knew it BBC was sending her e-mails asking to do a documentary on her.
“It’s too big, it’s too much,” she says, before recalling how emotional she got recently while she was in the Urban Zulu change rooms getting dressed.
“I was asking God ‘Did you forget that I was worthless; how could you? I don’t deserve any of this. There’s nothing special about me.”
Last month she was in a taxi going home when heard Ekhaya playing on the radio. She got so emotional that she had to get off and catch her breath.
She says: “It was just the other day that I was nothing. Everything that happened in my life didn’t happen long ago – It’s still fresh, it still hurts me. I haven’t even healed yet.”
BBC journalists will wrap up shooting the documentary in May.
She still finds herself crying in disbelief at the opportunities that are starting to open up, and it’s only just the beginning.