A Voice Like Honey: The life and times of Dolly Rathebe

Her fans called her ‘Rats’. And for short they called her ‘Katz’. Yes, Dolly ‘Katz’ Rathebe. When Dolly sang the blues, she really sang the blues. She sang her way into your heart. And when she moved on stage, she really moved. She made the hair on your neck stand up.

Dolly Rathebe – singer, movie star and cover girl. The people in the townships loved her. She was one of them. She was part of them.

Dolly now lives in Mabopane. She is much older now. (She won’t say how much). She lives a quiet life. Those wild, happy, sad days of the 50’s have long gone.

But some things haven’t changed. Her skin is still smooth. Her voice is still like honey. She still laughs. And when Dolly laughs, she really laughs.

Josephine Malatsi was born in Randfontein. Her father was a teacher. Her mother was a domestic worker. Josephine was their only child.

Yes, Josephine Malatsi was Dolly Rathebe’s real name. At school Josephine had a friend called Dolly Rathebe. She loved her friend so much she even borrowed her name.

Dolly’s (and we mean Josephine) father died when she was still very young. Dolly and her mother left Randfontein. They came to live in Sophiatown.

Everything happened in Sophiatown. Sophiatown was the home of jazz. It was the home of politics. And it was the home of the gangs – gangs that were big and dangerous.

In Sophiatown Dolly went to St Cyprian’s School. She was a naughty child. She pulled chairs away when people sat down. And sometimes she let people sit down – on drawing pins.

Sometimes Dolly and her friends stole fruit from backyards in the township. They went and ate the fruit at Makouvlei. Makouvlei was an old rubbish dump outside Sophiatown. The kids had fun there. They sang and danced. At Makouvlei Dolly learnt something about herself. She learnt she could sing.

Dolly joined the school choir. But she soon got bored. She didn’t like standing still when she sang. And she didn’t like singing boring songs.

Then Dolly sang at wakes. When somebody died in Sophiatown, people went to the dead person’s house. And they sang the night away. Everybody went to wakes – thieves, gangsters, teachers and shopkeepers. And they all had a great time.

In 1943 Dolly left school. She left before she finished standard five. Her mother died. And Dolly had to look after herself. She got a job doing domestic work in Johannesburg.

One day Dolly went on a picnic with some friends. In the evening some people played guitars and penny-whistles. And Dolly sang. The people on the picnic listened to her beautiful voice. But one man listened extra hard. That man changed Dolly’s life.

The man’s name was Sam Alcock. He worked for a record company. The company paid him to find singers. And when he heard Dolly sing he knew she was special.

Dolly started singing in clubs in Sophiatown. The crowd in Sophiatown gave singers and musicians a hard time. A famous writer called Can Themba once wrote, “The people in Sophiatown don’t like nothing and they don’t like no-one.”

But Dolly won their hearts. She sang songs about life in the townships. She sang about the good times. And she sang about the bad times.

Then Sam Alcock took Dolly to some people who were making a movie. The movie was called ‘Jim Comes To Jo’burg’. They asked Dolly to sing a song. The song went like this.

‘Jo’burg City, the GoldenCity,

What did I come here for?

Oh, Jo’burg City, the GoldenCity,

I’m far away from my home’

Dolly got the job in the movie straight away. Nobody but nobody sings those lines like Dolly Rathebe. Somebody once said she sings the song ‘like a slow moving river’.

Thousands of people went to see ‘Jim Comes To Jo’burg’. Soon everybody in the country knew Dolly Rathebe. And they loved her.

Dolly then went back to the stage. Now she was a big star. And then she made another movie. The movie was called ‘The Magic Garden’. The movie was very funny. People all over the world saw the movie.

Dolly had thousands of fans in South   Africa. They wanted to see her. So Dolly travelled all over the country to meet her fans. She went with big bands like the Harlem Swingsters. And they filled the halls wherever they went.

Dolly was big news. The newspapers and magazines wrote about her. They took photo graphs of her. Drum magazine put Dolly on three of its covers. And in 1957 the great Can Themba wrote her life story for Drum.

Dolly sang everywhere. She sang in white night clubs. She sang in City Halls. She sang in the townships

Then white musicians complained about people like Dolly. They said the black stars were taking their work. The government passed a new law. The law did not let black people sing in white night clubs. The law did not let black people sing in the big halls. And the townships did not have big halls for the big stars.

 So Dolly went to live in Cape Town. And she sang no more. She opened a shebeen and sold liquor. She saved the money to build a house.  Now she has built a nice house in Mabopane.

“I’m not scared to say how I built my house. That’s one thing they can’t take away from me,” says Dolly laughing. And when Dolly laughs, she really laughs.

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