Sipho Ndebele, a charcoal specialist, was born in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. His family were forced to resettle in what was later called Soweto, a sprawling black township in the West of Johannesburg.

Ndebele’s natural and artistic talent was realized at a tender age of five. He grew up under the strict and watchful eye of his grandmother, a no-nonsense lady and a staunch Methodist, who ensured Ndebele soon learned to be disciplined, running the household chores to his grandmother’s requirements and standards.

As a student he often would read poems, form mental images and then produce artistic work. He recalls that, At school I used to do my own drawings. We had a poetry book and we were required to find pictures and cut them out to illustrate the poems. But even then I had this inborn thing about art and I used to draw my own pictures to relate to the poem.” Also, his grandmother used to embroider doilies and he would draw flowers, or whatever she asked, on a cloth and then she would use different types of coloured cottons to decorate the drawings.” As children growing up in township in South Africa during the apartheid era, it was never easy. He remembers not having any canvasses or sketch books or supplies, so they just drew on the dirt floor.

He was an intelligent, clever kid and was often promoted from one class to another and did two grades simultaneously - grades 9 and 10 at the same time by convincing school authorities at his new Nigel high school that he had completed his grade 9 when in fact he had hardly put his foot in that class. To catch up with the grade 9 school syllabus, he would borrow textbooks from the learners in that grade and go through this literature during his spare time, usually at night. During the day, he would attend grade 9 classes and write tests. He did well at the end of the year and obtained his Junior Certificate (J.C.) which in South Africa at the time, especially for a black person to have J.C was considered a remarkable achievement. But there were pressing family needs at home, and Ndebele was forced to leave school in search of work.

Ndebele never received any formal training in art, but he was friendly with many artists from Polly Street, a school of art for blacks in the centre of Johannesburg. His peers from the Polly Street included Ephraim Matane, Ezrom Legae, Sydney Khumalo, and Duran Sihlali. Ndebele knew and respected this group of artists but he singles out Ephraim Matane as his mentor because he had been to art school and could inform Ndebele about perspective and other techniques so he could catch up quickly Ndebele’s artwork portrayed the township life of black people under apartheid, including his painting about Dimbaza, a township just outside King Williamstown in which black people affected by forced removals were dumped.

As an artist Ndebele feels he has to be emotionally charged and at times driven by instincts before he can work. “Sometimes in art is not just [about] getting up and drawing; something moves you to do something. After the June 16, 1976 Uprising, I couldn’t sleep for three days and the fourth day I dreamed that the white man that I saw being skinned was Dr Idlestone. Ja, he was a doctor, he was a good man, but then he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Ndebele’s paintings include; The Zangomas (1976), a painting showing witchdoctors in a dance; Dimbaza, a painting about forced removals in the Eastern Cape; a painting on the township stabbings; another on township tsotsis gambling (rolling dice) in the middle of the night; the June 16 Soweto uprising; and a painting on Mpanza (1971), the founder of Soweto.

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