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The Brenda crisis: Manufactured for exploitation

Carefree women like Brenda Fassie are labelled as controversial because they aren't concerned with putting others at ease, but rather living their lives on their own terms
Author: Ree Ntuli
Thu, Mar 11, 2021

Brenda Fassie in France, 1991. PHOTO: Alain Benainous/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

There is something to be said about society's fixation with women who refuse to bend to convention.

A woman who dares walk in her truth and power almost always ends up being labelled 'difficult', 'bad', 'unlovable', or any other variation of these. This is often said in obvious attempts to diminish the praiseworthy successes these women work excessively hard at achieving for themselves.

I imagine this to be what may have necessitated Brenda Nokuzola Fassie to name her 1991 album I Am Not A Bad Girl. No doubt to try and dispel some of the myths that were peddled about her by the media at the time.

In the documentary with a partly similar title, Brenda Fassie, Not A Bad Girl, director Chris Austin is evidently labouring under the same necessity as Fassie, to do away with some of those myths, and bring to light the truth of Fassie's person. He captures MaBrrr – as she is affectionately known to many of us – doing hot girl sh*t in Soweto, which became her home after moving from her maternal home in Cape Town's Langa, to pursue a career in music.

We see her in the many different roles often imposed on all of us by life by virtue of our existence.

She is a mother to her son Bongani, a daughter to her pianist mother Makokosie, a sister to her nine siblings, a wife and a musician. She fits in all these roles as ordinarily as any of us fit into ours. She is socially and politically aware, and not at all confused about her place and her limitations within a politically volatile South Africa at the time.

Through her music, she pushes all the limitations. When she isn't touring the country, she's sitting on the bonnet of her fancy car, surrounded by friends and enjoying cold beverages: "This is me, you see? I'm myself. It's just that I'm a singer and I happen to be famous, but it doesn't change me from the same way they are," she joyfully exclaims in one part of the documentary.

She does not let her star separate her from ordinary Black South Africans anywhere in the country, particularly the ones in the townships.

There is a tendency to carve out roles for entertainers – particularly female entertainers; to put them in suffocating little boxes and burden them with responsibilities they did not sign up for, because it makes us comfortable, because who else but a random girl or woman on TV is responsible to model perfect roles for our children?

In one of her brief appearances in the documentary, Shado Twala says she feels as though Fassie – who, at the time, is in the prime of her career – doesn't understand the position she has and how to use it, and that to her it is sad because Fassie could use her position "positively" by doing more meaningful work.

Twala says Fassie could try to find sponsorships for township kids and encourage them to "do something profitable for themselves, to ensure that they're kept off the streets and positively groomed into becoming responsible adults."

A noble, but rather unfair expectation when one considers that Fassie was, in fact, already making a positive contribution to South Africa in her own unique way, such as incorporating her politics into her music and donating song royalties to worthy causes such as the Boipatong Relief Fund.

She has been labelled "the problem child" by people like Duma Ka Ndlovu, perhaps from his own encounters with her or from a brotherly fondness. However, many a damaging narrative has been forged from labels such as these.

Her mother is visibly hurt by the labels associated with her daughter as she appears in the documentary to say that she reads and hears all the things written about Fassie being a bad girl, however, she disagrees and suspects that it could be jealousy behind the headlines – headlines that would haunt Fassie throughout her career and life.

With Not a Bad Girl, Austin did something remarkable and unconventional by capturing a part of Fassie's life wilfully ignored by the media then, because controversy was, and to this day remains, the currency.

The documentary beautifully captures the many areas of Fassie's life, from the utterly iconic musician and performer she was, to her being a girl from next door, living life on her own terms.