Image by Mlungisi Mlungwana | Make-up by Glenda Mhlongo
By Mandi ‘Poefficient’ Vundla |
In a lengthy in-depth conversation with Thabo Rametsi, while dining over plates of fries and soda at Spur, inside Monte Casino, we picked at the gaping wounds bleeding out black film-makers and actors across the South African film and television Industry; we took note of the gaps that need to be filled in order for the industry to progress; equitably.
June is a significant month for our country and as we commemorate the youth uprising and the blood spilled, we are in agreement with Rametsi, that the industry needs to begin its ‘long walk to freedom’ and transformation.
In honor of the fruits bred by defiance in a quest for a just and equitable society, we remember Kalushi and the youth of 1976. For Rametsi, the black paint captured on his body in each photograph is reminiscent of a time when Blackface was used by racist whites in the misrepresentation of black stories. He is reclaiming it as a reminder as to why it is important that we continue tell our own stories.
Rametsi played the leading role of Kalushi in the movie ‘Kalushi: The story of Solomon Mahlangu’: a 19 year old teenager who joined the ANC’s military wing ‘umkonto we sizwe’, was wrongfully accused of murder under the common purpose act and sentenced to death by hanging in March 1978, only two years after the 1976 Soweto uprising.
Rametsi had initially auditioned for the role of Mondy; but after he read the script he wanted to try out for Kalushi, so he pushed his luck and prepared for both characters. Even though he was notified that an actor was already casted for Kalushi’s character
He asked the casting director that if she was happy with his portrayal of Mondy then could he please try out for Kalushi. His performance left the crew in tears and later Rametsi was called in for a reading, as Kalushi.
“This is the easiest role I have ever played” he says, without flinching, that he was just at the right place at the right time. And you know what they say, the rest is history!
One would expect a movie of such significance to have burst through the charts but Rametsi no longer wants to spend his energy arguing about the accessibility of black films in South African cinemas.
He says “when people saw me fighting for Kalushi in cinemas, I was never getting a cent from that. I was fighting for South African films because I knew if Kalushi did well then other film-makers would be able to produce more films. If it made something like 20 000 000 then other films would be given a budget.
Rametsi believes that “We need our own cinemas” adding that “we need to stop utilizing European modules for film distribution in South Africa, when people who live ko kasi have to travel to the cinemas to watch movies. We’re in Africa, we should be using African systems like Nigeria.”
Beyond Kalushi fame, Thabo Rametsi’s acting journey has been like that of a boy chasing his own tail before it even grew. He has always known he wanted to pursue a career in acting, from his childhood days while watching Fana Mokoena in ‘The Line’. He was well aware that his parents wouldn’t pay for him to study drama, so he settled for a law degree instead.
Rametsi grew up in KZN in Umlazi and attended his lower primary there before his family moved to Bertha Village: a rural mining village located between the Vaal and the Free State; there, his father worked as an accountant at one of the mines. His family moved around a lot and eventually settled down in Kempton Park, east of Jo’burg, where he attended Norkam Park high.
He recalls how the school had minimal resources but ironically, it was home to some of the countries popular stars, from the likes of Pearl Modiaide to Andile Ncube, Anga and many more.
The only sport that received external funding at the school was soccer. Though Rametsi never played the sport in school, his love for soccer manifested with each game that he watched, but it was his frustration with all the avoidable mistakes he witnessed on the field that led him to start coaching the game.
He taught himself how to coach the sport by developing young kids on the field. He went back to his high school and asked if they would teach him further, and they gave him a shot.
He excelled and never lost a game and as a result, he was promoted to the first team where he maintained a winning streak.
He went on to coach the municipal checkers soccer team and some of the kids he has coached have gone on to play for professional soccer teams.
“Coaching soccer is the only field I’m arrogant in” he says, without a doubt. But between law, football and acting, the latter prevailed.
Rametsi recalled the little moments when life hinted that acting was definitely what he was cut out for. When the movie ‘Tsotsi’ won an Oscar his friend Linda Matsumbi whispered “I prayed for you to win an Oscar too one day.” He approached MLA in hopes that Moonyeen Lee would sign him to the agency, but that didn’t work out well. Five years later Linda Matsumbi called to inform him about ‘Class Act.’
He rolled his sleeves and dared to dream, without any previous acting experience or training, he auditioned for the first season of ‘Class Act’. He confesses without shame, that it was a horrible experience, probably the worst time of his life but the best thing to have happened to him.
He took me through the grueling audition experience. “I was standing in a line and there was about 4000 men who were there to audition. In the first phase there were tents and inside the tents there were acting coaches. You had to prepare a monologue and I wrote my own monologue”
When he performed his monologue, the acting coach scolded Rametsi for over-performing, “Stop it right now!” she yelled “you better respect the space, who shouts like that?”
Rametsi thought he blew his chances of making it into Class Act, but the acting coach polished his performance, tweaking this and toning that. She made him do it over and over until she felt that he was ready to go in for his final audition. Rametsi’s deepest regret is that he doesn’t remember her name but he will never forget what she did for him.
‘Class Act’ was a depressing experience for Rametsi, he was one of the youngest and most inexperienced actors learning how to act on national television while everyone was watching.
His votes were at a constant low and he was always in the bottom three but somehow he made it to the top 10 and shared a mansion with what he says are the greatest actors this country has seen.
They held his hand throughout the show and he learned from them.
He sings their praises one by one while nibbling on fries and gratitude, “Sdumo Mtshali and Clive taught me so much; the late Muzi would pull me to the side and tell me to stop believing that I don’t belong here, he wrote in my script file to remind me why I deserve to be here. These guys were a league above me: Steven; Vaughn; Danny and Ross, they are all great actors but there is nothing in this country that is written for them, if they were in a different country, they would blow up”
Rametsi gathers the names of his mentors and spills them out with the wisdom they have left him with
“Terry Pheto changed my life and how I perceive acting, she said ‘just let the words affect you’, Fana Mokoena said I’d be a great actor someday.”
When his journey on Class Act came to an end Thabo realized that his friends and former competitors were signed to MLA and so he asked Mooneen Lee to sign him as well. He was on the road when he received a call from her, followed by a big deep ‘yes’ and a downpour of tears at the traffic stop, but when he got his first gig was a presenter on ‘Hectic 99’, he turned it down because all he was interested in was acting.
His first acting job was in a British Movie called ‘Wild at Heart’. He recalls watching the international crew hard at work and he criticizes his performance on the movie.
Rametsi has turned down more work over time due to the ‘poor quality of story writing’. He says it as a dynamic problem in South African television, but also notes that it is influenced by the budget limit.
In order to combat this he encourages production companies to employ young writers who actually care about stories, he says the budget may be low but there are film-makers who have produced good films with ‘close to nothing’
“Production Companies are in a race to make money and to sustain themselves that they neglect the show. We shoot 14 min per day of usable footage while in America, they shoot 3 min of usable footage and that is critical for the quality of the show. More time is spent on camera work and establishing shots per scene and there is enough room for the actors to sit in silence and build moments. You barely see that on South African Shows, everything is about line delivery, this person says their line then that one responds and ‘hahaha’- this is done comically. If you pay attention to the writing, every scene is written the exact same way, big fight then dramatic look away.”
Rametsi has also turned down well-paying television work because it restricted him from doing international work. He is frustrated by television productions and how they behave like bullies, wanting to own your soul by binding you to a global contract which he states is not uncommon but in this country it is implemented incorrectly.
“You are on first call for the production but they don’t give you a production schedule with all the dates for the duration of your shoot because they haven’t planned it like they’re supposed to. That means you can’t take on any other work.
If they decide that you’re shooting next week Monday then so be it, you may only be shooting twice, but because you don’t know when, you can take on other projects. Because they own you at first instance you will wait and turn down jobs at their whim”
As a result Rametsi keeps a safe distance from television work, he takes on directing, producing and presenting work because surviving on movies as a staple for bread isn’t enough.
He references ‘Yizo Yizo’ as the ultimate standard for producing local quality shows, he says the drama is a sign that we can do amazing work on T.V.
Rametsi salutes ‘Bomb Productions’ for creating relatable stories but remains wary of how long they can continue creating authentic South African dramas without losing steam, because they don’t own their work.
The industry may be filled with giant pot holes but Thabo Rametsi remains head strong, and his untainted love for acting keeps him sturdy and well-grounded.
“I am who I am because I stood on the shoulders of giants, they plucked me from obscurity because I was willing to learn.”