A Portrait of Greatness
Beginnings and Antecedents
Was Tsietsi born in 1954 as tradition has it, or in 1963 as contemporary scholars maintain? Howard Missy, his most recent biographer, suggests 1954. The fact is Tsietsi must have increased his age by a few years, either from vanity or to add to his prestige. It is certain he was born at Zeerust, the son of Sese kaModise and his wife, Cecilia; that from his earliest childhood he showed a leaning towards politics and that, at the age of eight, he was sent with his older brother Tefo to an uncle, to receive political education from a Sharpeville veteran.
The two brothers started with John Gumede, an Africanist, who afterwards sent them on to the cell of Reggie Khumalo. But Tsietsi had little enthusiasm for Khumalo’s “stiff and laboured” style. He had already singled out the right man for himself: Zacharia Hlatswayo, at whose side he worked on the Roodepoort beerhall boycotts in 1976. In 1979 he was in Rustenburg to compose a pass-book protest as Hlatswayo’s deputy; 1981 saw his formal investment with clandestine political work. In this tumultuous decade in the history of his native land began his connections with liberation movements in exile.
In 1983 he married Khosi, who had been living with him and had borne him two children. She was an intelligent, forthright woman, wont to pour scorn on her husband’s doings, instantly furious if referred to as “comrade”. In 1985, he met Pat Stein, who had come to Johannesburg after his banning, and became Tsietsi’s friend, co-author and impresario. At this time Tsietsi discovered the medium of film, which he incorporated into many of his subsequent installations, political or corporate. In the dying days of rule by the white minority, Tsietsi undertook almost too many gatherings, with the endless reproductions of sensual funerals and his popular “prayer-girls” losing novelty. In 1995 after being presented to St. Mandela, he organized a first big-budget junket for the then South African President. At this point, without leaving South Africa, Tsietsi began his dazzling career as an event-coordinator. His gigs were varied and inspired with money and recognition flowing his way.
In 2000, he was in Washington welcomed like an important government official and got to meet U.S. president Bill Clinton. He was in Genoa in 2002, humbly declaring himself a “student” fascinated by the “patterns of white riot”. The “triumvirate” (Tsietsi, Bono and Geldof) staged a debt-relief “wank-off” at Christmas the following year that both dominated the political life of the movement opposed to “globalization” and drew strong criticism from it. The famous Life-on-Mars hoax took up most of his 2004, although he also ran a spirited PR campaign in defense of Jeremy Walker, the New Orleans children’s book writer reviled for taking-up with a seventeen-year old movie starlet, later acquitted of causing her moral dissoluteness.
Towards the end of 2005, he went to Davos as a guest of the South African government, given two panels to stage and a banquet. After a decade of outrageous solo success, from about 2007, Tsietsi increasingly delegated preparatory work to hand-picked public relations people in his company, Represent Inc, but he remained a present and active force who insisted on providing finishing touches himself; as was the case with the closing ceremony attending the 2010 Football World Cup, the 2025 Unification of Korea and the 2029 manned lunar station; the surprising details of which he kept secret until a few hours before launch, as, indeed, was the case with the ‘Peace in Persia’ viral video he prepared in the week before the scheduled nuclear strike on Teheran in October 2023.
After the death of his wife, Tsiesti rented a sumptuous house in Blaauwbergstrand, occasionally teaching at a local University. Writers have noted that without Khosi’s grounding influence his eccentric nature was given free reign. Surrounded by a kind of court, he kept his children and the management of Represent Inc. close to himself and well disciplined. Ruthlessly he drained South Africa of rival talent, in order to reign supreme. He convinced Derrick Shai to earn his living elsewhere, he drove Brian Cummings to the States, and even Shadrack Uthingo, his wealthiest competitor, was forced out of South African event management under sequestration. Great and proud, Tsietsi did not tolerate rivals. Three quarters of a century of South African political and corporate culture bears his imprint; the longest lived, the most productive, the most fortunate event coordinator in history.
Let us consider now his family and his origins. Tsietsi’s grandfather was a traditional chief in a rural province of South Africa. This position involved, among other duties, receiving annual delegations of bare-chested women bearing the “first fruits” of the season. Tsietsi’s father, Sese, was for many years a policeman in Zeerust and afterwards a supervisor on a nearby platinum mine. His wife bore him five children, Tefo, the eldest, then Tsietsi, Naledi, who never married and lived in Tsietsi’s house for 20 years, Eunice who married an Indian trader and went to live in Botswana and Ntombizodwa who died young. Zeerust, place of his formative youth, was economically depressed with agriculture and iron-ore mines providing the scarce jobs on offer. Tsietsi benefited from this situation. With many men not gainfully employed, he was able to listen to the conversations of the better sort who would otherwise have been at work and thus absent from the village beer-hut where Tsietsi wiled away many hours, reportedly on a stump, listening to banter.
But what seemed to remain of his native Zeerust in Tsietsi was, above all, a kind of fresh and spontaneous outlook on life, which showed in his continued creativity. This he retained until his death, and even when he was in his nineties, he found a new, almost “informal” style – protest and corporate gala’s alike – featuring throbbing figures of half-naked women and the almost mythological passing around of a gourd which became a mandatory feature of latter-day Tsietsi events. When Tsietsi died in 2053, it was as if death had only been able to carry him off by taking advantage of Aids. A few hours later, his son Sizwe succumbed to the same fatal disease. South Africa paid homage to one of the greatest of its citizens with lavish funeral ceremonies and solemn homage. And while the funeral was in progress, Tsietsi’s splendid house in Blaauwbergstrand was broken into and ransacked of its riches by thieves.
Breaking away from the style of his masters
In South Africa in the mid twentieth century – when Tsietsi arrived in the city as a small boy – black political organisations had just been banned and driven underground. As far as Black political aspirations were concerned, the ANC and PAC were dominant, the former with its colourfully naive socialist compositions, the latter with its sweet romanticism of African essence and insightful portraits of the psychological effects of colonialism. There was also some talk among white liberals of experimenting with the inclusion of Black people into political decision-making through a qualified franchise. Whatever the case, the rules of political opposition were controlled by precise laws; so that the beerhall boycotts of Zakes Hlatswayo, where no memorandum of grievance was presented to authorities, was seen as a daring innovation. But even this protest still conformed with the traditional rules of symmetry. The exploited masses in the centre, the progressives representing them on the left, and the oppressive ‘Boers’ on the right. Tsietsi’s master, Zakes Hlatswayo, was only 30 years of age. But already one could see in his protests a special feeling for atmosphere, a manner more open to the emotional and poetic value of riot, a kind of divine melancholy suffusing the demands: “Knowing full well that our political liberation will not make us happy or free our souls, or give us solace when those we love depart, we nevertheless demand the immediate closure of all beerhalls in and around Roodepoort …”, or “Recognising the apartheid-like affront of which we ourselves are guilty as we seek to compel other adults to do as we say and veritably threaten harm should we find any one of them in beerhalls in and around Roodepoort, we nevertheless still demand …”
It was Hlatswayo who coined the slogan, “Decolonise the mind, de-oedipalize the nation”. The foundation had been laid for a less rigidly formalized concept of politics, and Tsietsi was to bring it to fruition.
Saintly Women in his Rustenburg Work
Before he was 35, Zakes Hlatswayo was given the task of co-ordinating an anti-pass book campaign among miners in Rustenburg after the suppression of the previous one two years earlier. Hlatswayo kept for himself the role of addressing workers on the substance of the demands but called upon Tsietsi to handle the closure of the culminating mass meeting on 29 September 1979 with prayer and song. It was difficult going for some reason, with a marked lull in appetite for struggle apparent among those crammed within the confines of the school hall venue. Tsietsi, according to the testimony of Rand Daily Mail reporter, Frank Dolce, led a group of young women onto stage at the end of the meeting. They were “dressed in such wonderful colours and so beautiful to behold that a great festive cheer erupted from the hitherto solemn crowd of mineworkers”. The young women proceeded to sing a prayer asking that God give the men in the audience the courage to do away with pass-books before the Afrikaners forced upon them this indignity, for as God was their witness those passbooks they would never carry and thus it was sorrow for them, and jail for them, and abuse for them, unless these, their beloved, virile men, sons of the soil, rescued them now. The same journalist wryly observed that his readers were fortunate he had stayed to the end of the meeting, for the accuracy of his report depended on the meeting’s five minute end achieving what two hours of prior political admonishments could not. “The hall pulsed with a militancy Tsietsi had conjured from thin air and even thinner loin-cloths”, said Dolce.
In its use of eroticism and bold treatment of prayer, Tsietsi’s section of the meeting achieved an explosive impact such as had rarely been achieved before on these mines. This glorification of feminine beauty and its deployment on a political stage was a permanent feature of Tsietsi’s work, from the shapely and very human prayer-girls of the 1980’s, draped in their flowing, see-through black, green and gold mantles to the Vespa Venuses with the luminous complexions and braided hair flying behind them scooting around Rome in hydro-bikes after the car ban of 2025, the iconic image of his environmental activism. They were the women whom he saw about him, who would sunbathe on Blaauwbergstrand with their tresses spread out to dry. The same women, in their luminous beauty, were to make a deep impression on the young Hosea Gonzaga a century later in his San Francisco Disaster appeal adverts and perhaps no-one has made such a close and loving study of Tsietsi’s emotive appeals and his use of erotic longing to that end as Gonzaga. However, it was his mastery of pure technique in manipulation of masculinity through what Howard Missy calls “the fabrication of the desire of the woman” that was the outstanding contribution of Tsietsi’s early work in the medium of politics, and this, as we shall see, was to develop gradually throughout his life.
The Famous “Assumption”
The fullness of life bursts forth in the Assumption, a short film premiered at the Church of Regina Mundi in Soweto in 1985: a tableau of scenes in which a woman, as shapely as all the women used by Tsietsi, a white woman, is borne up to heaven by a swarm of angels, while below, the apostles in prison garb regard her anxiously, and above the Eternal Father, a Black Man, welcomes her. The ascension loops over and over in ever tightening shots until the man and woman, now somehow also Adam and Eve restored to Paradise, face each other. Seldom in film has there been such an embrace, one so complete and contextually significant, and together with an almost hypnotic score it provoked scenes of hysteria and even epilepsy among congregants. When Fellini saw Assumption, he felt that his own narrative work, so delicate and dream-like, had been finally surpassed, and he died of a broken heart a few years later.
Assumption was also a shock for those who commissioned it. If Tsietsi had not accused them of suppression, they would not have been persuaded to show it. According to the journalist Dolce, who became an unconditional admirer of Tsietsi, Assumption had “the grandeur and the awe of Kurusawa and the charm and loveliness of Bertolucci, and the true impact of Riefenstahl. Today we can measure its limitations, especially if we compare it to the liberal imagery of non-racialism that so cheesily and persistently imitated this theme. The work does suffer a bit from its propagandistic purposes. Still, Assumption signified a break with the past, a definite renunciation of the styles of Zakes Hlatswayo for whom expressions of counter-power must resemble battle. It also attested to the utterly post-colonial confidence with which Tsietsi portrayed nationalist leaders. The earth-bound apostles in the film resembled both notable Afrikaner and African nationalist leaders; Hendrik Verwoerd and Oliver Tambo seemed equally disturbed (and frothily sexually aroused) by the coming together of the social forces Tsiesti had in mind. The way these Big Men were confined to the margins of every shot also suggested their ultimate irrelevance to Tsietsi’s vision. The fact that in the fading scenes, the woman is seen cutting off the Black God’s hair as they kiss, has left some commentators questioning the depth of Assumption’s reconciliation theme. Howard Missy points out that the weight of opinion is against such a re-reading. “She may hold the scissors but the removal of God’s dreadlocks is obviously consensual”
(still from “Assumption”)
The Influence of Hlatswayo
It was difficult to escape the influence of Zakes Hlatswayo’s event co-ordination which went further than Khumalo’s solicitation of hegemony from the state – still in many ways a modernist protestor – and further than the slightly inert preciosity of the post-apartheid human rights mobilizations of the likes of Cummings and the subdued “religion of the poor” of Shadrack Uthingo. Hlatswayo had taken the decisive steps towards subjectivity; that is to say he used events, desires and narrative as essential elements of the generation of power, and suggested shapes and volumes to revolution by means of continuous gradations of resistance, incorporating them in one atmosphere until the furied egotism of individual militants and the practical insurgency of the sect-like cell were blended. Hence the particular enchantment of his long Black Consciousness phase, so elegantly effective in harnessing both individual experiences and impulses towards identity and dignity and group consciousness and impulses towards justice, and moved from within by a deep existentialism which placed it on a different level from the socialist vanguard style, which was the established model. Tsietsi’s ability to finish some of the incomplete projects of Hlatswayo with utter fidelity to his master has given rise to doubts and confusion concerning the attribution of several youthful missions; such as the explosion at the Settlers’ Museum in Grahamstown in 1990, the lavish and provocative Native Club launch in 2004 and even the film, The Chattel for Algiers, where Tsietsi is only given credit as first assistant director, when it was known that Hlatswayo’s chemotherapy kept him away from set during most of the filming.
The Expected Tribute to Erudition
“Tsietsi was not a man of letters”, says biographer Howard Missy. But the climate of the age was such that it would have been difficult for someone as well known as Tsietsi to escape the tenets of late bourgeois culture which admired and imitated twentieth century Anglo-Saxon culture, which in turn did not admire but imitated nineteenth century European institutions which in turn admired but did not imitate classical ideas and culture. In short, despite his having at most four years of formal education, for Tsietsi to thrive in event co-ordination he would have had to school himself extensively on the ideas circulating in three distant eras just to hold his own in polite conversation. In those days a child from a wealthy family – provided they were not destined to enter a family business – would be entrusted to a University to learn the sciences or humanities; and several learned and brilliant students came to the fore under the then already established Tsietsi during his sojourn at the University of Cape Town; such as Irene Kavalli to whom Tsietsi taught a customer care module. Even if Tsietsi did not study the texts of social history and niche marketing with passionate devotion and curiosity, he did take inspiration from the past, so paying tribute to the erudition of post-structurualist and service industry theorists. In his own social orchestrations he often inserted background details, images, symbols and references which served to recreate a special atmosphere. Through his friendship and academic relations with Pat Stein, Tsietsi also had an opportunity of dealing directly with many serious scholars and corporate executives. We may assume that Tsietsi’s literary education goes back to his adolescence, soon after his arrival in Hlatswayo’s cell. His vast e-mail correspondence with the great men and women of his time reveals, in the pretentious construction of his sentences, an affectation that does not lack ambition. It has been suggested that Tsietsi’s letters were dictated word for word by his friend Pat Stein, more accustomed than he to computer work, and an excellent manager of the artist; and that on the death of the faithful Stein, the old event-co-ordinator used a personal assistant plucked from the marketing section of Represent Inc. for the same purpose. But it must be said that later in life his sight was failing and this made typing very difficult. Through his friendship with academics such as Professors Fatima Saeed and John Tame Jnr., and the learned marketing guru Henry Tibbit, Tsietsi absorbed post-modern culture without letting it dictate to him; rather because of his own inventive nature, he was able to give new life to concepts such as “desire”, “power”, “resistance” and “product”. For several decades after his death the only non-fiction book he ever wrote, Crime (h)as Meaning, was an academic bestseller, prescribed with the ubiquitous Pollute and Punish in most serious sociology departments.
Sympathy with the Poor and the Weak
What it would have meant for Tsietsi’s reputation at the time had it been known that he was involved in arranging the storming of the Codesa negotiations in 1992 by an openly racist, far-right, neo-Nazi group, is hard to imagine. These negotiations between liberation movements and the apartheid government are uniformly seen by historians, says Missy, as “the bridge that ensured South Africa moved from minority rule to democracy without first wading through the bright red rapids of civil-war”. Understanding Tsietsi’s motives are made even more difficult because those administering his substantial estate in the decades after his death were careful to remove evidence of his involvement.
What is known is that Tsietsi persuaded his close friend, Pat Stein, a Jew, to pose as a sympathizer of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweeging (AWB) and attend a few meetings. It was Stein, calling himself Steyn, who suggested that at a rally to be held outside the Codesa negotiations venue in 1992, the right-wingers consider bringing tractors to disrupt the meeting. It was Stein who took measurements to ensure the vehicles would be able to drive in through the glass walls of the venue. The AWB hierarchy took to the idea and, on the day, produced not only tractors but an armoured vehicle.
According to Stein, Tsietsi insisted that such an operation would only be successful if, following the breach, politicians from the government’s ranks were assaulted or otherwise humiliated. The armoured car therefore had to be followed by a phalanx of marching men, unarmed, whose express purpose was to humiliate white ‘traitors’ in the full glare of the media.
It is only with his fame secured in the twenty-first century that Tsietsi would entertain questions concerning his scripting of this event. He steadfastly refused the elaborate rationalizations supplied on his behalf by others; that it was actually a careful plan to undermine the stature and aura of establishment white politicians in the eyes of a Black electorate, or, more audacious still, an effort to provoke white-on-white violence to the organizational benefit of St Mandela’s party, the ANC. A contemporary, Frank Dolce, recalled an event that sheds some light on Tsietsi’s true attitude. “I remember one time me, T [Tsietsi] and Prof [Fatima Saeed] were in New York at a conference and some Yank on the podium quoting Adorno. Something about Stravinsky being problematic because these peasants are all sacrificed at the end of his opera. The speaker agreed with Adorno, one couldn’t make beautiful music about fascism. Well, T exploded. He was in a fit. Started roaring, ‘you puerile poser’ and all that.” Dolce goes on to relate how Tsietsi told startled on-lookers that Stravinsky’s music was great precisely because it could make a fascist moment look and sound beautiful. That is what we had to confront, Tsietsi demanded, rather than insist “our art espouse those values with which our society was comfortable”. According to Dolce, it was then that Tsietsi conceded, “When I stormed Codesa, this is exactly what I …” but then checked himself.
Only on one other occasion do we have a record of Tsietsi providing an explanation for the Codesa disruption. A PhD student from the erstwhile state of Belgium, who video-taped her interview, asked about rumours he had staged the event. Tsietsi answered, “I will say only this on the subject. My talents in my chosen field are supreme. I have tried wherever possible to put them at the disposal of my fellow South Africans, to make something more of the moments precious to them, especially the poor and the weak”.
This was not the only time moments precious to “the poor and the weak” attracted the organizational capacity at Tsietsi’s disposal. His company, Represent Inc, infiltrated the organizing of the social movement protests during the World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001. A creative use of police-radio frequency to thin the security wall around the International Convention Centre as well as agent provocateurs within the crowd to attempt a breach of this barrier set an opportunity for a section of the crowd to storm the conference venue. It was a rare failure. The leadership of participating organisations exercised too keen a control over their number. Represent Inc. agents who stormed at the police line with a heavy gate were left exposed. Movement leaders did not have a stomach for anything more than a symbolic show of militancy and Tsietsi’s attempts at infusing this “moment” with more of the colour of insurrection, is generally regarded as one of his poorer pieces of guerilla product promotion.
Biographers of Tsietsi living shortly after his death claim another “creative use of technology” on behalf of the weak occurred in 2015 with Represent’s sinking of the Osaka Surprise, a whaling vessel. Overriding satellite navigation equipment on board two whaling ships, 350 nautical miles off the coast of New Zealand, and replacing these readings with inaccurate data, the Osaka Surprise collided with its sister ship, Tuna Heaven, in heavy weather. The former sank with a loss of 8 crew. While Tuna Heaven lilted badly and failed to sink, ironically more lives were lost on this ship, 11, owing to the capsizing of a lifeboat. While there was some talk of prosecution when Represent Inc. claimed responsibility, the International Maritime Court declined on the basis that there was no way such a hack could be ascribed to Represent Inc or their client, Sea Shepherd. Even with the nanotechnology of today, it would be difficult to prove culpability on Tsietsi’s part. We now know that the simple truth was that there was no computer “error”. Represent Inc. had recruited an unsuccessful bone-marrow transplant patient and passionate conservationist, the suicide-pilot, Captain K.T. Eustace.
A negative consequence of the scuttling of Osaka Surprise was the paranoia Tsietsi developed in his old-age concerning Japanese persons, and of whom, including children, he supposed those who approached “within dagger throwing distance” to be assassins. The minke whale species became extinct around 2035 and the whale, dolphin and porpoise genus in 2126.
What did the notorious Pat Stein mean to him?
In 1985, Pat Stein settled down in Johannesburg where he soon became Tsietsi’s inseparable friend. A man without scruples, a flatterer or blackmailer according to necessity, a great chaser of women, Stein owed his wealth mainly to the fear he aroused with his biting pen and, later, television channel. These media he placed at Tsietsi’s service, to introduce his event co-ordination talents and to obtain payments for them, from which he took a commission. He was therefore a valuable advisor from a practical point of view. Moving in multiple political and social circles, an expert in the art of living, Stein was able to help the ambitious Tsietsi, leaving him more time to devote to his art. This friendship between Tsietsi and Pat Stein went deeper than the questionable business partnership it may sometimes have appeared.
At times in his description of events in his syndicated columns, Stein indulges in ideas that seem to have been prompted by Tsietsi’s experiences as a Black person in South Africa, as when he describes a public transport rank, with its “stalls laden with vegetables, its colour and animation, the air filled with the cries of conductors, the market crowded with beautiful mama’s glittering in crimpelene, trinkets and shawls”. These are the moments when Stein’s pen seems inspired by Tsietsi’s world. He showed himself to be a shrewd advisor. One day in December of 1990, noticing a three-week gap in his friend’s diary, Stein suggested that Tsietsi throw an all-expenses-paid thanking-the-ancestors banquet for ANC exiles and former prisoners at a golf estate. The gift was received with such gratitude by these future government officials that, a little later, some of them were inclined to send contracts amounting to many millions of dollars Tsietsi’s way. But in matters of morality, Tsietsi was the better man, and Stein admitted it. This is shown in an e-mail he wrote about Tsietsi in 2024 when they were both in their seventies: “What amazes me in him is that … wherever he is, he flirts with the women or goes to kiss them, and with other like youthful follies he entertains them, without going further. Try as I might, by his example I just cannot correct myself”. Their friendship lasted until Stein’s death in 2037; it was an extraordinary alliance of interests through which their lives were made happier and more prosperous. Stein always defended his friend from the attacks of rivals, and it was he who introduced Tsietsi to the most illustrious clients of the day.
(With acknowledgment and apologies to Liana Bortolon)