Thandiswa was born in 1976 (the year of the Soweto Uprising). She grew up almost entirely in Soweto, Johannesburg, amidst the heavy apartheid township violence of the 1980s. Both her parents were journalists and anti-apartheid political activists, and she recollects that her home was filled with books, articles and thick with political discussions. It was this environment that nurtured her perspective as an artist. She went on to attend Wits University where she studied English literature and International Relations. Her work has always been inspired by her mother (who died early in Thandiswa's life) and the writings of people like Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon, Chinua Achebe and Kwame Nkrumah.
Thandiswa's first attempt to get noticed occurred at the Shell Road to Fame talent show but Thandiswa did not even make it to the semi-finals round. She did, however, catch the eye of musician and producer Don Laka, who arranged to include her in a project he was working on. And so she began her career in 1998 with Bongo Maffin, one of the pioneering bands of Kwaito. She became widely recognized as the voice of South Africa’s conscious youth, their compositions consistently combining dance floor favourites with thought-provoking lyrics. They were invited to perform all over the world, and shared the stage with musical icons Stevie Wonder, the Marley clan, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Chaka Khan, Sean Paul, Steel Pulse and Skunk Anansie, among others. Their contribution to the South African musical cannon earned Bongo Maffin numerous awards, among them South African Music Awards, the Kora All Africa Music Awards, and the Metro FM Music Awards.
After five albums with Bongo Maffin she ventured onto a solo career. Her first project, Zabalaza (2004), reached double platinum status and won numerous awards, including a Kora award for Best African Female and four South African Music Awards, including Best Album. It was also nominated for the BBC Radio 3 Planet awards. Her second album, Ibokwe (2009), reached gold status in the first few weeks of its release and her live DVD, Dance of the Forgotten Free (2010), won Best Female Artist and Best Live DVD in 2011. The Guardian has called her “South Africa's finest female contemporary singer.”
Her music is often deeply political and her compositions include traditional Xhosa rhythms, Mbaqanga, reggae, kwaito and funk and jazz sounds.
Thandiswa has performed all over the world at venues, including at the 2010 FIFA World Cup Opening Ceremony, The Apollo in New York, WOMEX, the Cannes Film Festival, Midem, theHackney Empire, Africa Brazil Festival, FESPACO Film Festival, BBC World Music Awards and many Mandela 46664 concerts. She has several noteworthy collaborations. For instance, she collaborated on two songs with US musician Meshell Ndegeocello on her album The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams, which was nominated for a Grammy in 2007. At home in South Africa, Thandiswa has collaborated with illustrious musicians including Hugh Masekela, Stimela, the late Busi Mhlongo, and BLK JKS.
In July 2012 she duetted with Paul Simon in Hyde Park, London, in his Graceland album's 25th anniversary concert. She sang the female vocals on Under African Skies, which was originally sung by Linda Ronstadt on the Graceland album.
She is an ambassador for 46664 and an ambassador for the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa.