Todd Twala & Thembi Nyandeni (Dancers/Singers ) Creators of Umoja

Susan notes: this story is a slightly modified version of that which can be found on the Umoja website. Click here for my review, international media raves, and videos of the show .

In 1950, the apartheid government of South Africa passed a law, The Group Areas Act. The Act allowed the government to determine who would live where. Forced removals and the relocation of Black people who occupied valuable land, or land considered too close to White settlements were the order of the day. This was to ensure that Blacks remained in “reserves” and only came to the White areas when needed for work.

Over the years, tens of thousands of Black people were forcibly removed without compensation and dumped, often in the middle of nowhere. Lack of food, improper housing and little sanitation resulted in incredible poverty, malnutrition and suffering by Blacks living in the most prosperous country in Africa!

thembi__todd.jpgTodd Twala’s (right) and Thembi Nyandeni’s (left) ambitions for a better life took shape against this background of poverty and hardship.

Twala grew up in a township outside Johannesburg, called George Goch. In 1968, she and her family woke up to a bulldozer at their front door. They were forced to leave.

They settled in Soweto (an acronym for SOuth WEstern TOwnship) on the outskirts of Johannesburg, or Egoli (City of Gold). Like their neighbours, they lived in a box-like hut with no electricity or running water. There was limited access in and out of the township, which was surrounded by barbed wire.

School Friends

Twala and Nyandeni met at the Vuka Îbambe Higher Primary School in Soweto.

“We just clicked!” Twala says. “She knew that I was an outsider coming from another town. Later I moved to another school, losing contact with Thembi.”

Although the two friends lost physical contact with each other, their lives ran in parallel, as they both chose a career in the entertainment world.

Initially, South African law prevented Black artistes performing in shows for White audiences. In the early 1970s restrictions were relaxed so that Black artistes could now perform to White and sometimes mixed audiences.

A number of Black “tribal” musicals were produced that became hugely successful both at home and abroad, and Twala’s and Nyandeni’s paths crossed again when got roles in shows that took them overseas.

Twala began her theatre career in 1976 with Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke’s production of MEROPA. It toured locally and then internationally. In the meantime, Nyandeni was involved with IPI NTOMBI, which she had joined in 1976.

Twala and Nyandeni met up again in 1978 while working for these South African productions performing in London’s West End. MEROPA closed its doors in 1978 after a long and successful run, leaving Twala without work.

Twala auditioned successfully for Ipi Ntombi, and from that day Twala and Nyandeni’s careers and future visions merged.

For years they toured the world with Ipi Ntombi — from London’s West End to New York’s Broadway, across the United States, then back throughout Europe and Scandinavia, and even as far as Australia and New Zealand.

Striking Out On Their Own

During the time Twala and Nyandeni were performing in Ipi Ntombi in America, they were given a few months’ break. They used the time to choreograph their own dance pieces, which they performed in front of small audiences. These first pieces were the building blocks of Umoja.

After a long and successful run with Ipi Ntombi, Twala and Nyandeni returned to South Africa in 1982 and formed Pals of Africa, a two-woman group that took South Africa and neighbouring Swaziland by storm. Twala and Nyandeni used to perform to backtracks of the South African band, Juluka.

They poured the money they made when performing with Pals of Africa into costumes and recruiting more members. When there was no work, they “moonlighted” elsewhere. Twala entered the music industry and formed part of a band that called itself Chess, a hit in South Africa in the 1980s.

Nyandeni went into television, becoming a South African television soap opera star.

Planting The Seed

Twala later went to work as a back-up singer for Hotstix Mabusa and Nyandeni went on to win awards for her work in television. They were still involved in their dance company, ploughing money into it whenever they could and doing performances for companies and events.

Gradually, Pals of Africa grew and began to perform internationally. They changed the name to Baobab, after inspiration from longtime friend and fellow artiste, Hugh Masekela who said “Every time I see you, you are stronger than before! Like the tree, the baobab, always growing and getting stronger even though it grows in the toughest soil.”

Baobab did well. Nevertheless, Twala and Nyandeni decided to rename the show. They wanted to give it a name that represented what they were all about. The word ‘umoja’ meaning ‘the spirit of togetherness’, came quickly to mind.

They wanted to unite and empower as many underprivileged kids as they could, giving the kids the opportunities they had had. Today they are doing just that. Umoja is not the last page of the story of Twala and Nyandeni’s journey together. It’s the beginning of a success— a long, hard-earned one that will carry on around the world for years to come

There is a wonderful collaboration between Twala and Nyandeni — a partnership of complete harmony and trust, raucous laughter, shared cups of tea, commiseration and commitment. It’s the true spirit of togetherness.