Can music unite our nation?


Bongani Tembe was born with a talent that refused to be constrained. The apartheid regime prevented many children from dreaming, blocking opportunity through stifling discrimination. But Tembe had a voice that needed to be heard, ultimately leaving his home country to grow into an opera singer in demand all over the world. His escape from the suffocating oppression of apartheid gave life to a genius that would break the boundaries standing in the way of South African musicians.

Music first invaded his soul as a young boy, when the needle of his old record player scratched carefully-woven notes from willing vinyl and etched themselves into the fibres of his body. Tembe lived and breathed music. His lungs longed to belt out the opera that his ears absorbed. But the art requires training along with talent, and as he grew closer to adulthood in the 80s Tembe realised that he wouldn’t get the education he needed in his home country. Determined to realise his potential, he sought alternate avenues of learning, benefitting from mentorship offered by the Playhouse Company. Until the opportunity to move abroad and study at the world-renowned Julliard School in New York presented itself.

Tembe proved a fine student and talented tenor singer, eventually graduating with both a Bachelors and Masters in Music. By the time he returned home South Africa was a democratic country, ready to embrace the powerful voice of a black man. What Tembe has gone on to accomplish since then is well documented – his name is a historic landmark, most recently raised among the likes of Elton John when he was awarded the insignia of the Officier des Arts et des Lettres by France at the country’s National Bastille Day celebrations in 2016. Now Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the KwaZulu-Natal and Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestras, Tembe is dedicated to giving young musicians every opportunity to succeed. Having overcome unimaginable odds to express himself to the world, he understands better than anyone the value of investing in our youth.