FEATURE | CLEMENTINE MOSIMANE

CLEMENTINE MOSIMANE
Producer & Editor: John-Otto Phike, Writer: Blacky Komani, Photographer: Gabriel McCreadie, Junior Creative Director: Thembi Zikalala, Production Coordinator: Siyanda Buthelezi, Styling and Wardrobe: Ernest Motsi, Makeup: Phumzile Mhlongo

Monday 24th January marked Clementine Mosimane’s birthday, we were the ones up for the treat when she came through on her special day to have a chat with us. Mosimane’s reciprocated our excitement around the interview and arrived with all smiles, true to birthday celebrations we had a table decked with champagne, snacks and a bouquet of flowers while we sang for her, a moment that she recorded.

We led into the conversation with laughter, from the onset it was established that this would not be a conventional interview, the tone was set, we had a front row seat to the “story of Clementine Mosimane” perfectly positioned for our conceptual shoot directive “House of Clementine”.

Clementine Mosimane, legendary South African actress, where does one begin to take stock in reflecting upon such a rich life dedicated to performance? Born and bred in Orlando East, Soweto in 1965, a decade defined by growing political strife and racial violence in South Africa. Her parents were a voice during this rife era, her mother, Sophie Mosimane, was a journalist and her father, Moroe Mosimane, was a photographer, they both worked for the historic publication The World newspaper originally known as The Bantu World – the publication made a statement for publishing Sam Nzima’s iconic picture of Hector Peterson, sadly, the newspaper was banned in 1977. Clementine was born from strong individuals, something you can clearly trace from the aura that she exudes.

While her parents were at work, Mosimane and her two younger brothers were looked after by their grandmother, Sally Tema. Despite the demanding jobs of her mother and father, a routine was always maintained in the household. “My mother and grandmother were very strict and proper, we were not even allowed to play in the streets, bath time was at 16:30 every afternoon and dinner at 18:00”, they kept to this like clockwork throughout summer and winter with little room for negotiation. Raised by powerful and passionate women, Mosimane proudly espouses an ethos of commitment and responsibility as she recounts some of the things for which her foremothers had an affinity: her mother’s garden, which she still tends to today, her grandmother’s love for cooking – Mosimane paints a vividly delectable picture of the food she was treated to during a typical week at home, “She had a menu from Monday to Sunday. On Sunday’s we would have roast chicken, leg of lamb, rice…” and there were set days for specific foods such as samp, rice and pap. Cakes were prepared on Thursdays.

Given her principled upbringing, it is not surprising to learn that Mosimane wanted to be a doctor when growing up, a noble profession, particularly at a time when discrimination was prevalent and violence was openly sanctioned by the state. It may surprise readers that Mosimane cites television as playing a significant role in her youthful days as a moral and ethical compass of sorts. It seems that television abided more strictly to a code of dignified and educational content, much different to today’s landscape in which entertainment value reigns as the most crucial indicator of a production’s potential profitability and viability. Television and its educational didactic leanings shaped one of silver screen’s beloved treasures into a self-assured figure of principle. Perhaps this relationship began to come full circle when, at the age of fifteen, Mosimane was approached to audition for a youth magazine program entitled Tsa Ba Tsha (aptly described as a sort of precursor to YoTV on SABC 1) and landed the role as an anchor of the series, she came into the show as a culturally aware and curious individual, thriving in linguistics, emphasizing on the broadcasters mandate to take great pride in programming in African languages. Balancing school and work, when she wasn’t keeping up to date with her academic duties, Mosimane was on set interviewing doctors, pastors, teachers, entrepreneurs, fashion designers, engaging with professionals who played important roles in the community. The show also functioned as a “career guidance” program for the youth. It can be said with certainty that this show not only wielded impact for its audience at the time but was more than likely a blueprint for shows of its ilk which aired on TV in subsequent years. It would be great to have reruns of historical and seminal productions this country has had to offer, so that modern audiences can not only look back and gain insight into where some of our legends of the stage and screen began their careers but also to gain a contextual knowledge of this industry and how far it’s come and developed in certain aspects.

Mosimane’s grandmother was an Afrikaans speaker hailing from the Cape and so Mosimane would speak Afrikaans at home as well as SeTswana and SeSotho. At school, the prevalent language spoken was isiZulu, it was this kind of exposure to language that not only helped Mosimane carve out a rich professional experience in a multilingual nation but helped her appreciate different people and their culture as a curious and humble observer. Mosimane admits that she is not a practitioner of culture and tradition but understands it well enough and deeply enough that she is able to convey it with an informed approach in whichever role she inhabits.

At some point, we are interrupted briefly for her lunch order to be taken, she politely declines the offer to get food from the common fast food joints, instead she opts for some of the more authentic “home cooked” style options readily available at the venue (mogodu and dombolo or a low GI wrap) and goes on to share something she learned from her grandmother: “When you get to a place and they’ve only got what they have to eat, don’t say you don’t eat it. Eat.”. It is entirely conceivable that Clementine Mosimane could not describe to you what the inside of a McDonalds looks like.

We continue to unpack our industry with Mosimane, she debunks the myth that substance abuse can supplement an artistic career, not because of her own convictions but because the screen “shows it as it is” in your face, your lips, your skin and your colour. Mosimane grew under the guidance of strict but fair, loving and supportive elders – and it seems that this approach of taking the concept of discipline, combining it with education and enacting both simultaneously and compassionately as a harmonious practice has rubbed off on her. Punitive measures do not work in addressing one’s mistakes and blunders. The most important outcome is learning and it is clear that Mosimane has great sympathy towards younger, less experienced actors who are affected by substance abuse.

Chief among the qualities that are most valuable to her as an actress is passion. The industry has changed a lot since Mosimane and her peers were up and comers and when she cites passion as the main motivators for getting into the industry it almost sounds as if she is talking about another planet. Fame and fortune was not a big motivator then as it is now.

We veer the conversation into Mosimane’s early days in the industry against the backdrop of an apartheid regime; how she, as a black woman, navigated an industry where many of the more prosperous practitioners were white and work featuring black actors was routinely banned and sequestered by a virulently racist ruling party. One thinks of Joe Bullet, a South African action film which screened at the Eyethu Theatre in Soweto in the year 1973, sometime before Mosimane first appeared on television that was only exhibited publicly again in the year 2017 and was the first South African film production to feature an all-black cast including Ken Gampu and Abigail Kubeka. Thankfully, by her own account, Mosimane’s early career was prosperous not just due to her diligence and perseverance but also due to the acceptance of black talent in a white dominated industry, “…most of the directors were white. We didn’t have black directors at the time. We had white directors, and they were working with us. Our wardrobe HODs were white; makeup was white; sound HOD was white. Everything was white around us.” Mosimane goes on to declare these years as the “best in television” for her and naturally the first instinct would be to question why this would be the case. According to Mosimane, what made these years so distinctly great was that actors were paid a living wage and then some, “…some of us bought cars, some of us bought houses” and this is difficult to fathom in an era where corruption and exploitation run rampant in a local entertainment industry that thrives at the mercy of gatekeepers and capitalists who possess no desire to invest in genuine talent and develop skills among young industry hopefuls in order to ensure that the industry will be in good hands for years to come. The tragedy at the heart of this, as Mosimane highlights, is that “we’ve got people owning companies [now and] they don’t want to pay us.”

The dire state of things goes beyond wage exploitation. There seems to be an absence of human decency which is meant to supplement a relationship amongst a film cast and crew. Two examples Mosimane highlights: the first being receiving lifts to and from sets. This is a rare experience for actors in this day and age and it is surprising to learn that this was a norm once upon a time – a norm which mitigated strain on actors and subsequently lessened the risk of car accidents, which Mosimane herself has experienced. The second example of common decency highlighted is the seemingly long gone tradition of celebrating birthdays, with the accompaniment of cake on set. Anyone who works in the film industry, particularly in the production side of things, knows that day to day work is much different to that which takes place in an office where walls, doors and cubicles separate everyone’s work space. The hours are not only longer and less conventional but interpersonal interaction is much more frequent and for however much time you spend on set, the crew and cast become your family in a sense (also interesting to note that Mosimane touches on the camaraderie and solidarity amongst actors in particular, this is a relic of the past, the culture has moved more towards individualism) and she highlights celebratory gestures such as this not only as an acknowledgment of hard work but also as a signpost of basic human decency rightfully so; and when one considers the sheer amount of characters into whom she’s imbued palpable life it comes as no surprise that her sense of humanity is not only intact but shines as a central guiding force in work and in life.

Thankfully it seems Mosimane’s recent work with Netflix (How to Ruin Christmas) is a refreshing change to the current norm, she mentions Netflix sending her a gift for her birthday. The guiding note here is that as the industry grows and launches more competitive platforms, may we remember and value the artists that are the driving factor keeping audiences glued to their screens.

We look back on her most fond roles, tracking from her 20s. She cites a role in a production entitled Hlakansuki, in the 1980s, which told the story of a woman whose husband engages in an affair then abandons her while she is pregnant with their third child, later the man dies leaving the family in distress. This was a heavy piece with intense emotions to work through, Mosimane did not attend drama school so she had a big task of ensuring she does justice to this character, thankfully the director, Lawrence Lawrie, was openly apologetic about the emotional turmoil that the actress had to convey, time was given to do this right. Mosimane credits God for her iconic artistic output over the decades, her craft keeps refining over the years.

Mosimane has a bit of trouble settling on her most iconic role from her 30’s and 40’s but eventually she settles on her role as Thandi Mazwai in the television and radio production, Soul City. Premiering in 1994, the year in which South Africa transitioned into a democracy, the show explored various social topics which remain relevant even today, perhaps even more so. Soul City is a renowned television true classic – the production and her performance speak for themselves. In her 40s she did an educational program for five years, initially she was up for the presenting role but was asked to change to a role which would require her to do puppeteering to which she said yes and began puppetry school in order to prepare, this speaks to her versatility. The preparation entailed modulating her performance sensibilities, particularly in how she used her voice and handling the puppet whilst reading the script: “The script is there. The monitor is there. I only use my hand to control the puppet’s mouth and its actions”.

“That was a whole new skill,” exclaims the actress, and it was for that reason that she took it on in the first place and is one of many notable testaments in this conversation alone to her peerless dedication, discipline and respect are the only real constants an actor could take with them from one role to the next. According to Mosimane, an actor once had to wear many hats – another norm that seems obsolete now, much to the disadvantage of the young actors of today. She mentions dubbing, using the 1967 American film, In The Heat of the Night starring the late Sidney Poitier as an example. It was dubbed in SeSotho, a process more meticulous than some may be willing to give it credit for. An actor has to be prepared to recite lines in alignment with the actors on screen. This requires the actor to voice over a movie they are watching, while reading the script simultaneously.

In the year 1978, Elsa Joubert’s novel The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena was published. It would be this stage adaptation of one of South Africa’s most critically acclaimed novels that would compel Mosimane to say, “I want to play this role,” and sure enough, auditions were held for the role of Poppie for a film adaptation to be helmed by director Christiaan Olwagen. Mosimane was unable to attend auditions due to a scheduling conflict but made a plan through her agent and was allowed to audition on a subsequent date in the languages of Afrikaans and IsiXhosa. In her mind, the audition was a successful one and this would be confirmed some time after a breakfast date with Olwagen and a scene run through/chemistry test with Chris Gxalaba. Two weeks later, Mosimane received the call from Olwagen, “Jy is my Poppie!”. She approached this role with dedication and seriousness but she does attribute a lot of credit to Olwagen, who also directed “Johnny is nie dood nie” (2016) and “Kanarie” (2018), for being a brilliant director and one needs to look no further than the plaudit and accolades many of the people who worked on this film received in order to confirm the caliber of talent we were dealing with, including numerous Silwerskerm Festival prizes and a SAFTA win for Mosimane (Best Actress – Feature Film).

Was it by divine coincidence that Mosimane grew up in the only home in her area with a television? Putting aside the fact that the screen would go on to form such a huge part of her life, Mosimane recalls fondly an essential value passed onto her by her grandmother: A guest must never leave your home without taking a piece of it with them, even if it is a glass of water. The act of sharing seems to be the vital line that separates actors who are just okay from great actors. Mosimane’s generosity is beyond doubt but the deep inclination to share herself in the roles she plays is of such an incredible magnitude, conversing with her strikes me as disarming. The tragedy of legendary television makers in this country is that much of their great work is not archived. Listening to Mosimane reflect on her career is not just a matter of gaining a much needed perspective, the words in these interview recordings carry a new history, previously unspoken.

Like any great artist, Mosimane is well aware that the love and dedication that one puts into their everyday routine cannot begin and end at “work” and so she mentions the foundation that she is planning on starting, yet to be named. The Foundation will be focused on Gender Based Violence, with a particular focus on male children and assessing how society at large embeds behaviors and beliefs which lead them to enact the inhumane acts on women as older men. Mosimane addresses something crucial which should not at all be misconstrued with any sort of blame shifting. In order to mend society and rid it of this gross violence against women, more care and attention must be paid to how we nurture and groom young men because, ultimately, they do learn this behavior from somewhere. Re-contextualise social dynamics so that they may understand women’s autonomy in a more holistic way – do not bemoan them for wearing outfits deemed as flirtatious or revealing, it is not incumbent on the women you encounter to compose themselves modestly so as not to pose a threat to your (lack of) self- control, it is rather a man’s responsibility to gain self-control and respect for themselves and this can be aided by guidance of the community.

Mosimane does not shy away from admitting her limits as a performer. As an actor, a lot can be asked of you and so many employ their own shrewdness to discern what they will and will not act out on screen, because as tempting as it may be to see them as blank monolithic figures on which any sort of persona or character can be projected, they have their own set of morals and ethics, just like we do. Mosimane’s very much a corollary of her faith in God. There is a certain kind of evil she would not be willing to portray on screen, “playing in the kingdom of darkness,” as she expresses it. Beyond the four walls of the screen, it is this worship of a transcendent God which informs Mosimane’s resolute desire to lead an aspirational lifestyle on and off screen. Throughout the interview, she makes reference to peers and younger actors who fall into unfortunate habits, namely substance abuse. It is not impossible that the crucial difference here, and one that is worth noting for all artists, is the choice of what is worth worshiping and what isn’t. If you worship money, you will never feel rich enough; if you worship looks and appearances, you will always feel ugly; if you worship charm and intellect, you will always feel like a fraud to your peers; but to a true believer, there is no antithesis of God’s love and so there can be no lack to run from. This does not of course mean that she would shy away from material that does have darkness in it. This is not an endorsement for every artist to become a devout Christian but Mosimane subtly highlights the danger of putting too much stock in the material, superficial things which ultimately have a finite lifespan. It is crucial that every artist finds what really tethers them to this Universe and their existence and aspire to that, it does not have to be God but it must be transcendent. I interpret her statements regarding her disinterest in playing evil characters simply as a desire to find aspirational qualities in every character that comes in her direction, which is admirable. It resonates as a bold protest against the entitled, perhaps even sadistic, expectations that people tend to have on actors. Another bold (and sadly true) statement is one Mosimane makes of Winnie Mandela, and the failure to past attempts to portray her meaningfully in film. She expresses a desire to be able to play her and the importance of a South African director helming the project should it ever come to fruition.

Being on screen since the age of 15, there is no doubt that Mosimane has been through the fire – a statement she assigns to Winnie Mandela. And as a woman whose parents captured so much of the tides and turnings of the fight against oppression of their communities through journalism, the gravity of what Winnie went through, particularly after her husband was sent to Robben Island, would not be lost on her.

There is no shortage of wisdom Mosimane has to offer but one piece of advice and encouragement that is most striking here is something her parents (fully supportive of her television career) told her once she got her start: “You must be good! You must know what you’re doing!,” her tone here is humorous but that is what it really takes to make it, after all.

The time spent with living legends is invaluable, in between our chats she makes a clear statement that “I haven’t made it yet” true to how humble she is and also ambitious to keep aiming higher, a lesson that we take in. We look forward to more award winning moments performed by Mosimane and know that her contribution to the social space with her foundation will surely allow for a different conversation around GBV.

This Legend has her own order… We had a great visit in “The House of Clementine”.

PORTRAITS | CLEMENTINE MOSIMANE

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