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Brenda - our tempestuous diva

Published May 9, 2004


By Jodie Ginsberg

Brenda Fassie was the wild child of South African pop - her temper tantrums, drug abuse and sexual antics ensured she was rarely out of the tabloid gaze. Hailed by Time magazine as 'The Madonna of the Townships,' Fassie stormed into South African charts - and onto international airwaves - in 1984 with the hit Weekend Special.

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Fassie, who died in hospital on Sunday, quickly gained renown for a savage temper and scandalous antics on and off-stage.

In 2001, she preceded Janet Jackson's bare-bosom stunt when her breasts popped out at a concert and an unabashed Fassie allegedly proclaimed: "This is Africa!"

But her rise to fame also kicked off a lengthy, stop-start battle with drugs. In 1995, she was found lying in a cheap Johannesburg hotel room next to a lesbian lover who had apparently died from a drug overdose.

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The outspoken Fassie said she went through the 1990s in a drug haze, fuelling speculation her career was over, but she thundered back with a series of record-breaking albums that turned the petite diva with the piercing voice into an African superstar.

It was a period that also transformed the former singer of bubble-gum pop into the Queen of Kwaito - the pulsating hip-hop music that emerged from the townships in the 1990s.

Her best selling single, the wedding song Vulindlela, was used by the ruling African National Congress in its 1999 election campaign.

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Despite the revival, Fassie still struggled with drug addiction and in 2002 she checked into a rehabilitation clinic for treatment for cocaine and alcohol abuse.

At the time, Fassie told the Sowetan newspaper she was hopeful of recovery: "I hope that when I come out of this place I'll be the real Brenda people used to know. I've been rehabilitated before, but I hope that this time it is for real."

Always outrageous, Fassie was known for her sharp tongue - on and off stage, but boasted an army of loyal and loving fans.

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When she appeared at a 1999 election rally in Soweto alongside then-president Nelson Mandela and his deputy Thabo Mbeki, the cheers for Fassie were by far the loudest.

Fassie fell into a coma two weeks ago after an asthma attack which led to cardiac arrest and some brain damage.

Hordes of well-wishers trooped to visit her in hospital, including Mandela, his former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and President Thabo Mbeki.

"She's definitely a diva if you look at the drug and sex scandals. But she can also be very nice," said Sunday Times newspaper reporter Lesley Mofokeng, once the target of Fassie's wrath at a music awards show.

Fassie unleashed a torrent of obscenities at Mofokeng for his critical articles, and then raged at a male pop rival who beat her for song of the year.

Her voice boomed out of radios throughout Africa, where her tours draw huge crowds.

"Out of a thousand people you talk to in Africa, maybe two would say they don't know Brenda," agent Sello "Chicco" Twala once said.

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