The story of Nozuko Ntshangase

Nozuko
Images by: Henry Hansen | Creative Director Thembi Zikalala | Make-up Phumzile Mhlongo | Styled by Lehasa Molloyi | Production Siyanda Buthelezi |
Article by : John-Otto Phike edited by : Felicia Sithebe

It is a crispy morning in Lorentzville, Johannesburg, the location is the multi-purpose arts centre Victory Yards. It’s 7am and we are setting up for Nozuko Ntshangase’s shoot, in walks Nozuko an hour before call-time, very impressive for an actor who practically lives on the set of DiepCity, with her she carries an aura of warmth, discipline and openness, something quite uncommon but beautiful to witness.

The order of the day was clearly set, from makeup, costume and location spot changes, in between stealing moments to get to know Nozuko and unpack The story of Nozuko Ntshangase.

“Ntshangase, Msuthu, Nomathebe, Ndala WeLanga, Kwetshe, Makhala Endlovu, Ntamonde, Mbokodo Embomvu, NgeneTyeni, PhumaTyeni, Biyela, Umalandelwa Yinkazinyana ithi ndizeke noba awunankomo”, you should see the pride on Nozuko as she recites her true clan names. A true spiritual child, understanding the importance of calling on her ancestors and giving them their space in everything that she does, to solidify this she has taken on the process of reclaiming her real surname “Ntshangase” from “Ncayiyane”. This tale tracks back from when her grandmother had to leave Bizana, Eastern Cape, to seek greener pastures in Port Shepstone, Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN), “She went to KZN looking for a job. When she got to KZN, she had to take my mom because my mom was the last born.” She had to change her surname from Ntshangase to Ncayiyane in order to appear Zulu because it was illegal for Black South Africans, during apartheid, to migrate outside of their tribal homelands, “That is how my family relocated to KZN, south coast, where she found a home in a place called Emagogogweni, Gamalake.”

Born to a teenage mom at the age of 17, on the 12th of October 1992 in Port Shepstone, KwaZulu Natal, Nozuko is the first of 2 children, “I was raised by a young mom. My mom had my little sister when she was 24. She was a single mom. She was going through her own things during that time. Can you imagine being a single mom, having to raise your kids, having to pay for school and having to go find a job? She speaks of her mum with such grace and understanding of all she sacrificed for them.

Nozuko describes her hometown of Emagogogweni, as somewhat like Alex (Gomora), “It’s like the young version of Alex, but not as fast paced, it’s a township dominated by poverty and it was a difficult place to be and grow up in because of that poverty. Like many townships, growing up you experience abuse, alcohol and crime”, this is a backdrop that most of us are familiar with but we rise above.

Image: Henry Hansen for Actor Spaces

Introduced to community theatre at the age of 13, she says, “I am not formally trained, I am informally trained through community theatre. I just told a friend of mine that I want to do this thing that we do in Arts and Culture class. Then she told me about a group that I can join. It taught me discipline. It taught me the beauty of creating and it taught me to create honestly and be myself.” She continues, “The Staple theatre was the first theatre I ever saw in my life. That was 2 years into my community theatre career of just rehearsing in a hall. This thing was able to sustain me in a space where, financially, I wouldn’t have qualified to receive such information, I shouldn’t have known who Stanislavky was. As a kid from Emagogogweni, I learnt those things through community theatre. I learnt realism through community theatre. I was taught how to act through community theatre. It is an informal set up but it needs to be recognised because there is so much training and it has produced stars. I literally went from community theatre to doing shows with Edmund Mhlongo and Jerry Pooe”.

The conversation around community theatre sparked positive sentiments around the topic in the dressing room, we all reminisced on the church of theatre, this is something that many other actors in the South African entertainment industry would relate to. Community theatre is the core of many actor’s identities.

Nozuko takes it a step deeper, “I learnt the importance of discipline from Edmund Mhlongo and he used to call it the capital letter D. He based it on the idea of understanding what you are doing as an art first and that the artform needs to have a discipline itself. The fact that it’s an artform, will teach you discipline. He also taught us to understand the idea of nurturing, because what you are doing needs to be nurtured and for you to nurture it, means there are certain protocols and certain things that need to be followed. When we speak about the art itself without creating, it means the scale needs to be followed, you have to be disciplined enough to follow the scale itself, you have to be disciplined enough to follow the discipline of acting which is the structure of acting, understanding how the body moves, understanding breath and understanding speech, all of that. That is the discipline of what you are doing on stage. Having the discipline of the art means you carry the performance through it all. So understanding that, teaches you the bigger discipline of your own life and nurturing it. Understanding how to nurture life helps you understand how to nurture character because character is life”.

We ask her about discipline in her life, “through valuing my family, God and my dreams, it matters how far I am willing to go for the things I want. When I get out of this industry, which route am I going to follow? Am I going to stay and be disciplined, know what my family taught me, who I am, what I stand for, what my ancestors want from me or follow the things of the world that are not going to serve me? Discipline comes in helping you to be grounded. That is why it is so important because it helps you build character, whether in the craft or the real world. Discipline is having the understanding of what you are doing, why you are doing it and also placing value on it. Placing value on it will determine how much you are willing to sacrifice for it”, her words strike home, like we were attending a masterclass of sorts.

Image: Henry Hansen for Actor Spaces

Fast track to years later, Nozuko’s mom loses her job at a clothing factory and life becomes a bit tougher but they persevere with her mother continuing to instill values of striving for a better life and winning. Nozuko laughs as she remembers her mums words, “Nozuko, I messed up but YOU ARE GOING TO WIN, YOU ARE GOING TO DO THIS THING.” with this Nozuko knew and felt supported. “My mom was very supportive. I did not need to explain to her what it meant to be an artist and she was there through it all holding my hand. There were times where she was tired of it and she just wanted to see the results.”

In a fear that this Acting thing wouldn’t work out, her mum got her to study Education, “I think I was 23. I finished matric around 2010 and I only went to the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal (UKZN) around 2014, this meant I was 4 years out of school, performing around, working with the playhouse and doing shows around Durban. I was away from home at that time”. And then as fate would have it, “when I auditioned for Skeem Saam in November 2013, I auditioned for the role of Enhle, which my friend got. In the new year, I went to UKZN then Skeem Saam called me after 7 months and I had to answer my true call”. At this time, things were financially challenging for Nozuko’s family, “my mom couldn’t afford residence, she couldn’t afford varsity fees. I was studying but I owed everything. I think I was even squatting at res at the time. I knew that the following year, I was not going to be able to study because UKZN was not going to allow me in and I didn’t have NSFAS”. Moving to Johannesburg at 23 without any guardian and getting a flat was exciting for Nozuko, “I thought I was sorted for life and I have won the lotto. Even my mom said I should leave because in Joburg I will get a salary and be able to support them.”

As Nozuko recalls her journey to Johannesburg, she also draws parallels between hers and her grandmother’s journey. She expresses, “I take pride in the fact that I come from Port Shepstone and I came to Johannesburg and I am living my dream. That is what my grandmother did when she left Bizana and went to Port Shepstone. That was a step forward for me. If my grandmother never went to Port Shepstone, I would have never met the arts the way that I did.”

Life in Joburg, “when I came here I took most of my salary and I sent it home. It was not a good idea. Financially, I did not understand a lot of things. Intellectually, there were still a lot of things I needed to learn around that. I messed up a lot financially, I made really bad decisions. I felt like everything that I learnt in high school was not a part of this”. The demands of city life creeped in and Nozuko fell into depression and struggled a lot with anxiety, something that she’s working through, “right now I have learnt that it is a part of me and I cannot fight it anymore. At that time, I found Johannesburg to be very fast and I was acting and I didn’t understand what to do in the industry and it was about what the industry expects you to do and I felt like I did not fit into this industry. I did not want to do what everyone was doing in the industry. I did not want to attend those events. My friend would try to drag me out of the room to attend those events but it just pushed me into a dark whole of depression. I felt like I was not doing enough and I felt like I did not have direction or know what I was doing. So emotionally I got messed up and tried suicide a couple of times, I was not ready for Johannesburg, I didn’t know what Johannesburg was going to give me but I wanted to come here. It was worth it though.”

Nozuko opens us up to different sides of Showbiz, “One other thing I learnt when I got to Joburg is the issue of contracts and how to place yourself in the industry. It keeps us very unstable as artists. You never find a point of stability and that can be very mentally and emotionally challenging. You go out your whole life not feeling safe. That is not right for a human being. Not feeling safe for a human being activates your instinct of always wanting to fight, to always be in a defensive mode and that is very dangerous, it abuses us. I think I have been experiencing it throughout the industry, even today. It’s still such a problem. That is one of the things I have been learning”.

Image: Henry Hansen for Actor Spaces

In her detailing of her lessons and experiences in Johannesburg, the biggest thing that stands out is the importance of mental health within the entertainment industry, “mental illness is a real thing and we really struggle as artists. I have learnt that the work doesn’t end. Everyday I have to do something that moves me forward with healing, whether it is writing down how I am feeling and seeing my emotions and seeing what is going on in my head. Everyday I have to meditate, whether for 10 mins or an hour or 2 hours, but I have to meditate, I have to find a still point. I have learnt to make sure that I do something that I love everyday, something that is going to help me feel good about myself. I have learnt to structure my thoughts. To reprimand yourself when you have negative thoughts, to be your own discipliner, be your own teacher. I have learnt to be that. It’s not a thing you can do and finish, I never finish. I am at a point where I am not in depression but anxiety is still a part of me. I have learnt to make it my friend.” This truth has allowed her to be open to how she views herself as an actor and human being.

She concludes, “I am a spiritual being and I understand that there is something in me that drives me, as uNozuko, I am not alone. As I am right now in this specific world, there is another me in this world that needs to hear my story. As I am, there is a character and when it is built and done, I ask the Holy Spirit that works on me to also allow this character’s spirit, this story to be told authentically. I always try to spiritually connect to every character’s soul with the intention of positively telling that character’s story honestly, with whatever they’re going through. Learning and understanding God and the depth of my ancestors has helped me to be physically fluid. As a spiritual performer, I have an understanding of how fluid I can be in taking on different characters, whether physically or emotionally. I have that gift and that is the spiritual gift that I embody. Whenever I take on a character, I connect to that. That is how I started understanding the artist in me, but this was something that was very recent, it started 4 years back. Playing Noxi now on DiepCity, there is more fire in me and there is more understanding of who the artist is. I can say that the relationship is deeper, with understanding my identity and how to create.”

It was a real joy tapping into this kind of understanding and view of the person and the craft, the space was still as we listened and reimagined what Nozuko unfolded before us, there were lessons, even though it felt brief but worth the keep… The story of Nozuko Ntshangase.

PORTRIATS | NOZUKO NTSHANGASE

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