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If Themba Malaza (a.k.a. the Joburg street artist known as Dreda), could paint any surface in the city he would choose the wall of a non-descript building on the edge of town. Starting with the first wall he ever tagged with sisonke (Zulu for unity), Themba’s body of work speaks to South Africans’ shared humanity, respect for all men and women, optimism and love. So his message of peace and acceptance on the outskirts of town would be the very first thing visitors would see when entering Johannesburg – the perfect welcome to this city.
Growing up in Soweto in the 1980s, Themba was first exposed to street art as a form of activism and freedom of expression under the oppression and brutality of apartheid. As a high school student in 1993 he came across The Source, an American magazine covering hip-hop and politics, and was captivated by the words of its global graffiti culture editor, David Villorente (a.k.a. CHINO). Soon Themba started going into his local CNA every day after school, grabbing the latest copy of The Source, and sketching what he saw between its pages and from his own imagination.
At 19, a year after apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela was elected president, Themba tagged that first message of unity on a wall in Soweto and from then on saw graffiti as an extension of his voice and passion for spreading positivity and respect in South Africa.
Themba claims influences from African hieroglyphics and rock art, to global hip-hop culture and cartoons, but most of all looks up to American graffiti artists who are involved in their local communities and use their art for education and empowerment. He aims to do the same in South Africa, by teaching graffiti to local youth and making his message of unity and peace accessible in Joburg’s free and public galleries, its streets.
Today, you’ll find Themba tagging the streets of Soweto or downtown Joburg alongside familiar local names in the industry who he’s grown up with both as an artist and activist. His reach is also global – Themba is part of two international street art crews, the MzantsiStreetExhibitz in South Africa and XMEN Worldwide in New York City, and he was one of only two artists from South Africa to be featured in an anthology of international street art illustrations, World Piecebook: Global Graffiti Drawings (which, in a full circle moment, is edited by Themba’s original creative inspiration, David Villorente).
It’s not lost on Themba that while his street alias Dreda was playfully conceived to instil dread among his professional rivals, his given name means hope in Zulu. He sees himself embodying that identity even more these days, by advocating for the legitimacy of the art-form in South Africa and by mentoring the next generation. 10 years from now Themba says he’d like to see the mainstream press in South Africa welcome a graffiti art critic, maybe even on the pages of the Sunday Times, with him behind the pen.