Brenda Fassie, the legendary South African pop singer who sold millions of records across Africa and around the world, died in a Johannesburg hospital on May 9, 2004 after spending 13 days in a coma. The post-mortem said her final dose of cocaine was the cause of death. She was only 39 years old. MaBrrr, as she was affectionately nicknamed by her fans, had tried to resolve her severe addictions over the years at various treatment centers – in fact, more than 30 times – but, unfortunately for MaBrrr and her millions of admirers, she never found a truly successful drug rehab program.
Fassie, the youngest of nine kids, was named after Brenda Lee, the American singer. Her pianist mother let her earn money by singing for tourists in the streets. In 1981 at 16, Fassie left Cape Town to seek her fortune as a singer in Johannesburg’s Soweto district. Soweto, short for “South West Townships”, had long been under the grinding heel of South Africa’s white supremacist apartheid policy. Poverty, drugs, alcohol, prostitution, illness and crime were rampant, and drug rehab facilities as we know them today were virtually unknown. But there was art, there was music, there were night clubs to sing in and a vibrant culture was being created by Soweto’s people. Nelson Mandela lived there for years, as did Bishop Desmond Tutu and other famous black South Africans.
Five years before Fassie arrived, Soweto police opened fire on 10,000 protesting students marching peacefully from Naledi High School to Orlando Stadium. In the events that unfolded, 566 people died. The impact of the Soweto Uprising, as it became known, reverberated throughout the country and around the world. Soweto became the stage for violent state repression and the roaring social and political oven in which Fassie forged the direction of her music – by the mid-’90s, she was the unequivocal voice of black oppression. But she had also formed a drug addiction so strong that it managed to resist one treatment program after another. Without access to a real drug rehab, Fassie was unable to break the habit.
In 2001 Time magazine dubbed Fassie “The Madonna of the Townships” and indeed she was. Fassie managed to combine ground-breaking musical success with a personal accessibility and human fallibility that drew a fierce loyalty and protectiveness from fans. Her career was studded with record sales and awards, but punctuated also by periodic scandals, recurring battles with drug addiction, and lows in her musical career that saw her written off by the press.
On June 12, 2006, two years after her death, family and friends paid tribute to Fassie at the unveiling of a huge new tombstone at Cape Town’s Langa cemetery. Wreaths from former president Nelson Mandela and President Thabo Mbeki – who had both visited her in the hospital where she lay in a coma – were placed on the family grave where Fassie was buried with her mother and father. The family is planning a museum in her honor, where her music and other memorabilia will be displayed. And perhaps most significant is the planned Brenda Fassie Foundation that would financially assist young drug addicts in need of a successful drug rehab program.