Images by: Mlungisi Mlungwana | Creative Director Ayanda Sithebe | Make-up by Phumzile Mhlongo | Dressed by Andile Jila | Location | The Potato Shed Newtown
Article by: Mandisa Vundla
We peer into the industry through the eyes of a black woman who’s spent over 30 years of her life deeply immersed in its soil, pruning her craft, nurturing its growth and tending to the holistic art of acting. Pamela Nompumelelo Nomvete is dressed for the winter chills and Is trying her best to keep her flu at bay, sipping on lemon and ginger tea at our offices: downtown Jo’burg, at the Westgate Precinct. The intimate boardroom is furnished with a round veneer table and just enough room to steer intimate conversations. I am seated next to Sibongile Fisher, who has recently joined our writing team and together we indulge in Pamela’s extraordinary life experiences.
Pamela Nomvete opens up about her years in the industry and every word spilling from her mouth commands our attention. Her sarcasm is laced with hard-hitting facts always followed by a good laugh transcending the gut. She was born in Ethiopia to exiled South African Parents. Her father’s roots stem from the Transkei while her Mother’s stretch towards Lady Smith whereas hers, are spread across three continents: a brief encounter with The States (during her kindergarten years); Europe (college years) and lastly South Africa– her motherland.
It’s hard to believe that Pamela Nomvete, the infamous ‘Ntsiki Lukhele’, had no penchant for acting whatsoever. Pam was coerced into the art of acting by a school friend back at Cheltenham College in England. Her friend, who was partaking in the traditional Cheltenham festival, made it very clear to Pam that she had no intention of performing her two-hander with anyone else. Pam was reluctant, “I was like no! you’re the one going to these acting classes, I don’t go to them.” but her friend persisted. “I thought that would be fun…” Pam’s sarcasm takes off.
It was her loyalty to her friend that introduced her to the dramatic arts. “You’re going to have to come to my acting classes” her friend explained. Pam was unwilling at first but warmed up to the idea. Their friendship scored them a bronze medal at the Cheltenham festival.
Miss Asser: a drama teacher Pam notes she will never forget, encouraged Nomvete to take drama as an extra subject. “Talk to your parents, you can do it as an extra subject, we also write exams. I want to enter you into the drama festival next year.” Miss Asser persuaded.
Pam took heed and excelled in the art. Miss Asser’s foresight, swayed Pam to consider acting as a career: “you’ve got what it takes!” But first Nomvete had to convince her parents who didn’t fully understand what a career in drama entailed: “if you do it, what does that mean? Do you get a certificate? It’s got to be a degree.” they enquired. We break into laughter as Pam narrates their advice: “If you get the certificate, it means you can teach –should you fail” But contrary to their fears, Pam excelled beyond measure and became one of the first few black actors to penetrate The National Theatre of Great Britain in the 90s.
In drama school, Pam wrote to John Matshikiza, “who worked at the ‘Royal Shakespeare Company around ’82;’83.”
John was a Playwright, dramatist, and political activist who worked extensively in the arts and helped form the ANC’s cultural arm. Pam pauses for a moment to speak about the huge impact John has made in the industry and how unfortunate it is that young South Africans aren’t aware of his contributions.
It was easy for Pam to reach out to John because her family was familiar with the Matshikiza’s. They had crossed paths before, in Zambia, during the exile years. Pam exploited that familiarity in her letter to John. She wrote: “I’m following in your footsteps… And I know you’re at the Royal Shakespeare Company.” Nomvete only received a response from John three years later. In their conversation, John confirmed that he received her letter “all those three years ago” but he had no work for her then, now the time had come and he was doing a play.
John was working on a play about Winnie Mandela and Zinzi Mandela. He wanted Pam to play the role of Zinzi, but to his misfortune, South Africa didn’t grant him permission to do the play. ‘The Bristol Express Theatre’ still wanted to work with him so luckily John had written another piece, a two-hander he had intended for men. but he thought:
“might as well make it for two women.” so John asked Pam to audition.
Before Pam could work as a professional actor in theatre she needed an equity card. Nomvete recalls how back then, you couldn’t get a job in the industry without one. “It’s sort of like a union card and you couldn’t get a union card without working” I’m a little puzzled here, this all sounds foreign to me but Pam does the deed of elaborating further. “What would happen is that the kids would graduate from drama school and you had to do 28 weeks of cabaret but you couldn’t be in a professional theatre. You had to get a job just anywhere so you could clock in your hours then present that card to Equity and then they’ll give you a card and you could start functioning as a professional actor, and you could start auditioning for theatre.”
To her advantage, Pam skipped the equity card process because John Matshikiza advised her that the theatre he was working with had one equity card for each branch and if Pam was lucky; if they liked her, they would give it to her, which they did. That marked the beginning of Pam’s journey as a professional actor in the U.K. “I mean that was it, I was constantly working… then broke into British Theatre, then broke into the British Establishment.”
If there is one thing that Pam praises the Brits for, it has to be the ‘Establishment’. The word enthuses her, she puts it into context to allow all of us to be on the same page.
“Basically what you do is that you graduate, then you go into a theatre and work your butt off! When you’re doing your theatre years… At that time, we had fringe, basically there the journey is really clear. you’d work in Fringe because Fringe is where you’re polishing your craft, you’re learning, you’re moving sets. All of that! The next level up from Fringe theatre is ‘The Establishment Theatre ’ and that, she says is where you start breaking into the National, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Royal Court.
From a very early stage Pam was aware that art had a purpose, she knew it was sacred and that it had a way of communicating with society, what she didn’t know was that being amongst the first black actors to break into ‘Establishment theatre’ would come at a price. And hers was a struggle for her black voice to be heard in a space that was predominantly white.
Although the culture of the arts was more pronounced in the U.K,
“What inspired your move to South Africa?” My curiosity leads to the question. “Prejudice.” She says. The mood changes as we sink into to the disheartening matter. “I was fighting to be visible and even though I made it to the national, I was sort of going: I’m exhausted by this. I would look around me and my peers were getting lead roles.”
Before making a decision to relocate to South Africa, Pam approached her artistic director to query why she wasn’t getting the leads: “Are you not casting me because you think I’m incompetent or is it because of something else?”
and it was to Pam’s dismay that he answered by saying: “In terms of your ability… No question. To be honest, if we lived in a fair world, you should be playing Juliet, but you’re black and directors are just not there yet.”
His answer made Pam realize that she can’t wait around for white directors to ‘eventually get there’, so she tried for South Africa. It was in 1994 when for the first time, her feet touched South African soil. She recalls how the country was in “a state of euphoria” and exiled citizens were encouraged to return home. Her parents had already relocated to South Africa 1993 and she was anxious to see them cast their vote for the very first time in ‘94. “I also wanted to vote.” She says.
Pam was thrilled to finally exist in a place where she was counted as the majority; that alone energized her. The possibility of not finding work was no weight on her shoulders: “I’m an actor, I can work anywhere!” With no legitimate plan on how to break into the South African Industry, Pam rolled up her sleeves and like a Jimmy on his first day in Jo’burg, she went knocking door to door with her C.V in hand and the confidence of a British trained actor ready to take S.A by storm. She was here to claim her rightful place as a black South African actor. “I used to walk in theatre and go hi, my name is Pamela Nomvete, this is my C.V, now I’ve come to South Africa and I want work!” The boardroom trembles from our rampant laughter and Pam knocks her knuckles relentlessly against the table to indicate how unashamedly she went knocking on doors for work, knowing very well that her resume’ was on par.
“The best part about coming into the industry is that there’s so many people that looked like me. And then I thought that’s why white people can relax in any space they go into because they are everywhere! You turn on the T.V, they are there! You go into the theatre, they are there! You go to the shops, they are there! So I thought this is it. This is freaken bliss. There I had to fight, here I am the majority!” – Pam speaks with the full use of her body, gestures floating in the air to emphasize this important yet hilarious and exhilarating experience.
Though Pam was glad to be home in the majority seat, reality soon sunk in and she learned that every house has its cracks.
Finding the right agent in South Africa was a roller coaster ride, that spat Pam out from the high and mighty British sky and plunged her to the same level as the rest of the South African actors. Pam realized that when she was still ‘Pam from the UK’; represented by her British agent, her rate was satisfactory, but as soon as got herself a local agent, she began to assimilate and her rate plummeted. “I was stunned and I was able to say to people yea, I see how this country views its artists, it completely devalues them and it happened to me in one body.”
It was in that same body that Pam realized how industry struggles run parallel to each other when she had to console a fellow colleague who was sexually harassed by a prominent director of a popular Soapie. This took us back to Pam’s first and only encounter with sexual harassment in the U.K.
Pam was in her early 20s when she received a call from her agent for an audition she was ecstatic about because she revered the director. But there was something peculiar about the audition. It wasn’t held in a studio, the address she received from her agent led her to a house where there were no cameras, no crew, and no script. Just Pam and a highly respected African director.
“it was weird, because he was by himself, and he led me into the living room, it was sort of dark and I was like where’s the cameraman? Where’s everybody?”
The director manipulated his position of power to get Pamela to undress. “He was going yah and the lead… But I’ve got to tell you, you’re gonna be required to be nude. And the other thing is my actress has to feel comfortable and she’s got to trust me, that’s why also there’s nobody here because I wanted us to get to know each other.
Though Pam felt uncomfortable and at that moment her inner voice was nagging no! “Don’t do it” but the actor in her kept saying well “this is what I do if it’s part of the story then what do I do?” Pam followed the director’s instruction. “he said take off your top, and then he said ok relax walk around, walk around, remember that it’s nude so I need to know that you can feel comfortable with me. There’s no camera here because I didn’t want you to feel self-conscious. It’s ok it’s ok, take off your bra…” and I remember thinking “maybe I shouldn’t do this, is this right, I don’t know but it’s so and so!”
Pam followed the instructions until she was left in her knickers, “and then he said I’ll pretend that I’m the guy, then he came across and then he pretended to say something, then he started to hold me, then he tried to kiss me.” This alarmed Pam, she backed away and found the strength to say “you know what, no I can’t do this!” As rattled as she was, she gathered all her clothes and rushed out of there. Pam was sharing a flat with her sister at the time, she was so distraught when she got home, she just rang the door-bell, her sister opened the door and took one look at her face and said: “oh my God, did he rape you?” And Pam responded, “well he may as well have done, it felt like rape.”
Her agent in the UK was shocked about the matter, he couldn’t do much about the incident and so the esteemed director wasn’t held accountable for his violence. It becomes clear to us that although this happened all those years ago not much has changed. Women in the industry are still not safe. Nomvete has endured many challenges throughout her career, but somehow she has managed to rise above the waters. Today, she is well aware of her power and channels it into her craft. Over the years she has had different relationships with her craft: I did go through a period where I just hated it because I thought it was rubbish and then I even told myself that I hate acting.” At this point, she had no choice because “this is what I do!” she exclaims. She explored other avenues but it was her niece- who is also an actor in the UK- who made her realize that she loves acting: “How funny to be really good at something that you hate.” This conversation stayed in the back of her mind and she thought: “I don’t hate acting, I hate how the industry can continuously exploit actors. That’s what I hate.” This epiphany changed her relationship with her craft and she continued loving and enjoying acting. Out of curiosity, we ask her to name a character that has challenged her the most and without any hesitation, she says: “every single one.” From Ntsiki Lukhele (Generations) to Joy Abeche (Kingmakers); Robyn (Meet me at Dawn); Deborah Banda (Lock Down); Martine (Sometimes in April). “I have a relationship with all the characters that I play and they push me in one way or another.”
30 plus years in the industry should definitely come with countless memorable experiences. Pam notes one significant moment that affirmed what she has always believed acting to be.
She attended a workshop in London facilitated by a Brazilian director named Marcio Meirelles: “This guy, he barely spoke English because he was from Brazil. He said, in Brazil, acting is two things: possession and play. I said got it! I’ve actually started to use what he gave us, I do it particularly here, to get black African actors; to say to them, don’t go into that weird place of making acting this theoretical inaccessible fame. There’s no mystery around it, this is our culture. We know all about possession.”
We can’t let pam slip out of our hands without asking her to share the one ultimate goal she wants to achieve:
“My ultimate goal,” she says in conclusion, “is to build a school, somewhere in Umtata where I can give African artists the world.” And there is no better way to end a conversation than this.