Thandi Klaasen: Tributes for South African jazz star

Thandi KlaasenImage copyright
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The musician’s face was disfigured in an acid attack

South Africans have been paying tribute to renowned jazz musician Thandi Klaasen who has died aged 86.

President Jacob Zuma said the nation had lost a leading pioneer of jazz who promoted a “cosmopolitan culture”.

Born to a shoemaker and a domestic worker in racially segregated South Africa, she performed with US stars such as Roberta Flack and Patti LaBelle in a career of more than 50 years.

Klaasen was battling pancreatic cancer at the time of her death.

“She was a role model to many of our young and upcoming musicians and her legacy will live on for generations to come,” Mr Zuma said in a statement.

As a teenager, Klaasen’s face was permanently disfigured in an acid attack by a jealous rival.

Recalling the incident, she said that “even if people in the street make you feel like you have leprosy or like you’re dirty… you must be strong”.

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Black people were forcibly moved from their homes during minority rule

Klaasen grew up under white minority rule in South Africa, and gained a reputation for fighting both racism and sexism.

“Her career as a singer and dancer began in the mid-1950s when the apartheid and patriarchal system were entrenched but that did not deter her from pursuing her dreams,” the governing African National Congress women’s wing said in a statement.


Analysis: Milton Nkosi, BBC Africa, Johannesburg

Affectionately known as Sis Thandi, Klaasen was not just a brilliant jazz musician. She was far more than that. She was the very embodiment of triumph over adversity.

The horrific acid attack on her face did not dim the fire in her soul to share her rare talent in the arts. She also survived intolerable racial obstacles which were experienced by many black artists during the dark days of apartheid in Sophiatown, which was demolished by the then-minority regime as part of its policy of promoting segregated living.

Klaasen became a pillar of support for younger female artists like Mara Louw and many others by offering her wise counsel on issues that where outside the realm of jazz.

World renowned musician Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse put it aptly when he said: “Sad news. Rest in peace Thandi Klassen, always humble and so gracious. We have lost a giant of South African music.”


Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa said Klaasen had a “silky smooth voice which serenaded audiences the world over”.

“How much richer we are having heard her sing. How much she touched our spirits and made us complete beings in a world in which things were falling apart,” he added.

The main opposition Democratic Alliance described her as a “guiding light” in the arts industry.

“South Africa is a country filled with talent and hope, and Thandi Klaasen’s story shows what we can achieve – even in the most difficult of circumstances,” it added.

Mr Zuma gave her one of South Africa’s highest awards, the Order of the Baobab, in 2006 for her “excellent achievement in and contribution to music”.

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