Article by: John-Otto Phike and Ntokozo Mabuza, Photographer: Mlungisi Mlungwana, Junior Creative Director: Thembi Zikalala, Production Coordinator: Siyanda Buthelezi, Wardrobe: Kojo Africa, Styling: Kai Mavuso, Makeup: Phumzile Mhlongo
Upon arrival at the Actor Spaces Studio1 44 Stanley Johannesburg, one immediately experiences the buzz in the air. Anticipation and excitement encompassed the mood as the interview day had arrived. The studios were beautifully prepared with tables lined with colourful trays of assorted fruits whose aroma added a sweeter scent to this very sweet occasion. As the creative team was catching up, in came Mduduzi and Fatima Mabaso. Arriving from the gym, Mduduzi represented “The Artist” with his laid back dark-coloured outfit and Fatima represented “The Boss Lady,” wearing a brown long coat and dark shades. The couple’s powerful aura made it clear that it was time to get to work. In Actor Spaces style, the focus was on none-other than award winning actor Mduduzi Mabaso.
Born in 1976, in eMsinga, Emachuwini, Mabaso walks us down memory lane, “I moved to Transkei and stayed about 6 ½ years and then moved to Johannesburg. My upbringing was good, as I came from a sweet family. I had two sisters, first born Veyanda, and second born Mpolinga. My mother was kind of sweet and my father was strict. I was always the same child, at home and on the streets. I was pushed towards being a doctor, or teacher, something that would make them happy. I was never the type of child to make fun of other children. When you grow up in a strict family, one mistake you make is followed by a hiding. Once you step outside, you’ll end up carrying yourself the exact same way because you’re avoiding that punishment. You end up learning from a young age to not participate in picking a fight with someone outside or someone outside picking a fight with you because when you get back home you’ll end up getting another beating either way.”
He continues, “I grew up ‘old’, I was even shocked when my wife once told me that she used to have fun growing up, playing on bikes and falling. I don’t have any record of playing with my sisters but we were cool. We had a cool relationship, we were close. My older sister was the provider of knowledge because she is the oldest. Sometimes, I would play with my friends – more like people I grew up with – we’d play soccer. If we wanted to have proper fun, we’d include the girls and play iBathi or umgusha, or make jokes with each other.”
Mabaso credits his inspirational figure and grandmother for his demeanour growing up, “My grandmother uNomapoly, Regina Nomapoly was something else, very strong. We (my sisters and I) spent most of our time growing up around her. She was very open minded and never compromised herself. She would always say to us “when you enter a space, enter and be confident. Don’t go out of your way to physically show it, show it with presence and people will pay attention and listen.”
As much as Mabaso was “old” or “calm” at home, his active life and confidence in the streets led him to his destiny. “It all started at school. At the time I didn’t even know that I was going to be an actor. There was a problem with the main character in the school play – we called it ‘sketches’ – for a competition at Funda centre, Soweto, against different schools. The main character fell sick and they called me to fill in for the sketch, a Xhosa sketch, called Big Danny Komiki. About a witch who unfortunately chose the wrong person to bewitch – me! We performed the show, won the first place trophy and from there I never looked back. I felt like it was a good and enjoyable thing that one can use to express themselves.”
Mabaso took this moment to learn more about being a performer, in hopes that he can grow with acting beyond his childhood. “When you enter the acting world you find a language among the people who understand it. They taught me when to respond to cues and showed me how to respond. It was something that I wasn’t used to, ukuthetisana nomuntu on cue, chuckling when there was swearing, it was something interesting! I became good within that space and felt a sense of relief. It’s moments like these that make me say that acting is a calling because there’s this weight off your shoulders and heart when doing it, you become relieved as if you were part of a big powerful prayer, the spirit becomes relieved. It was from that moment I decided that I needed to explore this thing because it’s very interesting.”
His explorations led him in different directions, “I started looking for places ‘ezoku acta eLokshini’ and found that there were none there. Around 2001 I found a place where I could act, it was at eThusong center. It was always surrounded by artists. I actually went there because I was forced to do iKarate. Martial arts eserious – bengishaya ikarate, neShuko Kai at that dojo. There was Shuko Kai and JKA (karate) in the same vicinity. I also did pottery, upstairs I attended a library which was boring because you need to read books, then I attended computer classes. The only thing that bored me about computer classes was isIngamla (English). It was not because I didn’t understand it but I did not want to listen to boring theories. I ended up asking to go to the bathroom to stall time, when they gave me permission I left and never came back. I changed my class, ngahamba ngajoina ipiano because I loved the piano. There was only one instrument I wanted to play, and that was ipiano, and when I got there I found ‘Javas’ (Meshack Mavuso) playing the piano.” This was his date with destiny.
“While I’m looking at him I see this large A4 page of paper close to the piano. As he’s busy playing, I’m reading and I see that it’s written in isiZulu. I began to ponder if I should ask what it is or not and my pride didn’t allow me to. I then decided to leave and go back to the dojo, then decided to just leave the centre. As I left we bumped into each other outside and I asked about the paper, he told me they’re doing a drama.” This was a crucial moment for Mabaso as he had been longing to act. “The same space that they used to rehearse for the show was the same place that I attended karate lessons. When karate finished at 7:00, we would come in for rehearsal. On the first day of rehearsal, I see that these guys are dancing, singing and doing the things that are close to my heart. Mavuso introduced me to everyone, and we all started singing. I sang iSoprano and they loved my voice, but I didn’t have an ear for tuning and harmonising so I couldn’t enter and blend my voice. They taught me how to use my voice, and I never looked back!”
This was the beginning of a lifelong brotherhood and independence, “We met when we were really young, maybe about 13/14 years. At 15, we ended up living together, we slept on the same bed, and we would visit our girlfriends in the same space. When we’d go visit we would sit at a corner and sing. We used to sing our hearts out. Singing was our ‘whistle’ to let the girls know that we are here. Bear in mind that we were in the suburbs, bes’nama levels. We went overseas and that’s when I realised that this is life! I was living oorkant (overseas) and there was nothing else I wanted to do, that is what I wanted for myself. That build up to acting grew in me, enough for me to start directing in theatre. 18 I bought my first house, 20/22 I got married.”
What seemed to be such a wealth of lifetime experience was only the tip of the iceberg for Mabaso, “Divide and Rule was my first professional show I got without auditioning. I was part of a company called Victory Sonqoba Theatre Company which I joined slightly after meeting Mavuso, which was the company that was doing the show. It was deep for us in terms of the language, but then wena ongasazi isilungu ukudlula thina, besizokulimaza kabuhlungu because lento esiyenzayo besiyenza ngokuthanda ngokujabula and siyidlisisisa-nourish- lento esiyiyenzayo. We were all hungry and wanted to do this. Bongani Linda came with some discipline from Wits, so he knew what he’s doing. He found us raw from the townships and we could do anything from ballet, to singing opera music, even though we didn’t even know the term ‘Opera music.’ When he arrived he polished and sharpened us and removed the rust. We never even thought of money. We would rehearse for the whole year without getting paid. We loved the growth, even though we were in one place, we loved growing in terms of work. We never pictured ourselves one day being in an international film, even local tv was something we never thought about. Theatre was our water, bread and butter, and a dream. The only thing we were lacking was having that bit of confidence to properly present ourselves to people. We would enter a space where people are speaking English and we would get annoyed, then the self-confidence drops, because we were forcing ourselves in those spaces. We ended up being in spaces with the likes of Kenneth Nkosi, whom we ended up befriending, because they liked the roughness that we had. The reason why we didnt like to be on TV was because we worked well performing without the cameras and when you perform you perform and finish, that’s what excited us. TV was something we didn’t want, we didn’t like it. We thought TV was for ‘fake actors’. At around 19 years, we were studying trauma videos at a centre in Braamfontein called the Centre for the Study of Violence that was dealing with the cancellation of industrial shows. That was the first big TV appearance I made, along with Meshack Mavuso, Mncedisi Shabangu, and Zakhele Mabaso.”
Breaking the boundary from theatre to tv brought about new opportunities for Mabaso, the biggest being a role on 90s hit series, Yizo Yizo. At the time, Mabaso saw his career starting to take shape, with him being signed to Moonyeenn Lee Agency (MLA) and being recognized nationally. “I was a part of MLA (my first agency) and in the A-books, by the grace of God. I waited for a brief from MLA until nothing came, and this was after Yizo Yizo. We all thought that we had hit the big time, that we were famous, that we’re going to get work and auditions will be easier. Kanti no, it was the beginning of the initiation. God was still cooking and preparing us. I sat for 7 years without any work. I became a self taught artist, I would paint pictures and sell them. After that I decided that I need to go to MLA.
This was the beginning of Mabaso Unleashed! “That day I had no money, I was wearing isweater lakagogo elamafinyela and had a healthy head of hair lined up in rows. I gathered R20 and went straight to MLA, and met the late Moonyeenn Lee’s PA at the reception.
Mabaso requests: “Can I see Moonyeenn.”
The PA would not let Mabaso through: “No you didn’t make an appointment, you need to make an appointment.”
He thinks to himself: “heeee this lady doesn’t know me.”
He narrates, “By then bekuliwa elokishini and I’ve got my baby (gun) in my figure.”
He tells her: “I’ve been sitting at home not working, I need to see her.”
PA responds: “You don’t visit the agency and we don’t know you.”
Mabaso responds: “Look at my picture in the collection on the wall!”
Mabaso thinks to himself, “Eish i’m different now I have a few pimples…. she ends up deciding that I’m not going in. Then i feel myself growing closer to satisfying the urge of doing something stupid like reaching for my gun, because I can feel my tears rising and the hunger grumbling.”
Luckily, Mabaso was not one to take no for an answer, “Moonyeenn’s office has a glass exterior so when you leave the building and turn the corner you can see her from the outside. I could see her inside, smoking her cigar and she didn’t notice me.” He proceeded to make monkey dance gestures using his hands to wave about and his body to further emphasise the “dance monkey, dance” trope. When she notices, he gestures a shrug, to which he physically responds by gesturing “talk to you” to which she signals “come in”.
He continues, “I walked back inside and walked straight towards her office. The PA yelled behind me, I looked at her and entered the office. Moonyeenn was sitting on a high chair behind her office desk looking down at my direction, holding a stick in her hand which she would use to talk. This couch that I was sitting on was a long based couch, this couch would collect and place you in one position, because of the space it had.”
Mabaso: “Hi, hi Moonyeen how are you,” lowering his voice to intimidate Moonyeenn with a lower vocal range,
He continues: “I am tired of eating blood money.”
Moonyeenn: “What do you mean blood money?”
Mabaso: “I’ve been with you for 7 years and never got anything from you, and you call yourself my agent. Do you know what’s happening now in the townships?”
He narrates: “As I was sitting, I could feel my little gun pal was making me feel uncomfortable, so I stood up, took it out, placed it on the table and sat on the edge of the couch to be on the same level as Moonyeenn. In an apprehensive voice he imitates”
Moonyeenn: “What’s wrong, w-what’s the gun for?”
In the same breath, he responds: “I told you about what’s happening in the townships, remember? So I need something”.
This was a breaking point for Mabaso, “I could feel my tears building up for a cry, but ngiyazibamba (I hold myself back) ngithi uzong’delela if she sees them.”
He repeated: “I need something.”
In a subtle quaver he imitates Mauleen’s response: “O-kay, o-kay”.
Moonyeenn frantically typed away on her Pentium 3 or 4 computer keyboard and printed documents.
Moonyeenn: “Take this and go to Marlboro, it’s in Alex”
Narrating, “I took a taxi, holding my script, which was about 4 pages, and I was reading it in the taxi. When hunger and anger are put together, it’s very easy to read isiNgamla nomakanjani. I read the script once, twice, folded the paper into eighths and put it in my pocket. I got out of the taxi and began to look for ‘Malbro.’ To no avail, angiyitholi ‘leMalbro’. Then I meet this young boy, a rapper kind of boy”
Mabaso asks: “Do you know ‘Malbro’?”
In a state of confusion and in an effort to understand,
He exclaims in a grumble: “Marlboro? You said ‘Malbro’, but it’s Marlboro.
Turns out the venue was a 5 minute walk away from his residence, “It’s next to Kwa-Bhekilanga Secondary School. I made my way to Eastbank High, after Eastbank there’s a stadium iAltrek Stadium. I get there and see this guy at the gate. I tell him ukuthi I’m here for Hotel Rwanda base camp, he confirms that this is it and he’s going to call someone to come fetch me. Abiza ke Ingamla.”
Ingamla: “Oh Lieutenant?”
Mduduzi, utterly befuddled: “Mduduzi!”
Ingamla: “Yeah yeah, Mdu, our Lieutenant!”
Mduduzi, slightly less confused: “I don’t know, I’m here for an audition…”
Ingamla: “No come in!”
Ingamla continues: “This is your person”
Gesturing to the assistant lady standing next to a white Toyota Corolla with a white towel wrapped over her arm.
Ingamla gesturing to the driver: “and that guy over there is your driver.”
Ingamla proceeds to take Mabaso to hair and make up where they undo his cornrows and shave his head.
Mabaso has an internal thought: “Haibo! I came to an audition. Now I’m in hair and make-up and being taken towards the wardrobe department to get dressed in military uniform.”
Ingamla: “Okay let’s go on set”
Mabaso: “On set? If we’re going on set then that means we’re shooting.”
As Mabaso and ‘ingamla’ head to set, he starts to get his groove back, “I can feel my energy’s different. I feel it in my walk, I’m not walking I’m gliding. My chauffeur drives us to a clinic on 2nd Avenue, in Alexandra. As we’re driving in I see some ladies, dirty, naked and encaged ladies. I avert my direction and see a camera and behind it the director, Terry George. As I latch onto the door handle to open the door, almost impulsively the lady that I’m with slams it shut. I thought it’s because they’re still shooting on the set. Kanti no, they’re not shooting, she was stopping me from opening my own door. She then proceeds to open my door and opens the umbrella sheltering me from the rain.”
“Lieutenant”, says Ingamla,
I remembered that I’m the lieutenant, I responded, “Yes”.
Ingamla then proceeded to take Mabaso to meet the “big guy” on set. “I was never someone who got starstruck. We entered a room where we found a guy with his feet on the table.”
Ingamla: “Paul Rusesabagina”
Ingamla: “Paul Rusesabagina!”
As ‘Paul Rusesabagina’ lifts his head, it’s Don Cheadle!
The director then introduces Mabaso as the lieutenant, and asks if he knew his lines.
Mabaso: “My lines? Yes I know my lines.”
Mabaso proceeded to take out the script folded in eighths out of my pocket, looked the director dead in the eye and recited his lines:
Mabaso: “Are there no cockroaches in there?”
The director responds, “No”.
Mabaso’s passion overtakes as he starts manhandling the director, “he was wearing a white shirt, I held him by the shirt, and pulled him closer to me”
“You’re lying to me!” Mabaso says with a stern grumble.
Don responds: “He got the role”.
That was a testimonial moment for Mabaso.
He continues his recollection of the day, “We proceeded to leave the set and drove to Limbro Park where they placed me. Everything was incredibly fast paced, the environment outside, the movement from one place to another. Everything was happening so fast yet so slow, I kept asking myself what was happening because everything was changing by the second! When we entered the set, my assistant placed me under a sheltered area and asked me to not move. She crossed to the otherside, disappeared, then came back with a bowl of fruit. Holding the umbrella in one hand and the bowl of fruit in the other, we proceed to walk as she says she’s taking me to my room.”
Mabaso thinks: “My room?”
“Wonders shall never end! As we walk towards the rooms I see names on each door, Leleti Khumalo, Mduduzi Mabso “Lieutenant”, further down I see the room named “Paul Rusesabagina.”
“Amaroom wani la?” Mabaso asks.
Assistant responds: “This is where you’re going to be staying for two months.”
In exhilaration and glee Mabaso gets excited at the thought of being away from the township for two months, even if home is a walk away. They walk into the room.
“Are you okay with the painting on the wall?” Assistant asks.
Befuddled, Mabaso responds: “It’s okay, there’s nothing wrong.”
Assistant: “Would you like to hang anything on there that would inspire you, like pictures?”
Mabaso: “It’s fine.”
The assistant continues to show Mabaso around his room, “She then shows me the playstation that’s set up, with FIFA games stocked up, because most men like playing FIFA. DVD’s piled up on the side, a fridge fully stocked, next to it a bottle of Jameson Whiskey, to which I gesture “and then?”. Every Friday that’s what happens on set, they place a bottle so that the talent can unwind during the weekend. As I’m in my room I’m pondering, agreeing and disagreeing with myself because when God’s grace works like this you forget to even pray. Tears start riding down my face and I’m wiping them away.”
Assistant: “Are you impressed with your room? Is there anything you would like me to change, bedding, curtains or the paint on the walls?”
Mabaso: “No, everything is perfect, even the scent is perfect?”
As the assistant continued reiterating that Mabaso will be staying there for two months, he mentally exclaimed, “finally I am out of that hell hole.”
This was a learning curve in Mabaso’s career, “Ukubekezela was the most important thing for me. Where I’m from it wasn’t easy getting a role. I believed in divine timing, I had to endure what I had to endure so that I become strong enough to endure the journey I need to take. During that time God was preparing me, I didn’t realise he was preparing me because a lot of the time we expect to be thrown into this crucible and subjected to hell and drowning in waves of hot water, when that’s not the literal case. It’s up to you to decide how to protect yourself and use your situation to your advantage, because these are the types of learnings that can either lead you to making regrettable decisions, to make fast money or to cut your lifespan.”
Mabaso’s tenacity saw him exploring many different roles on our screens in shows such as Zone 14, Soul City and his telenovela debut role, as Suffocate on Rhythm City. He describes his early days on the Rhythm City set, “When we started shooting Rhythm City, there was this character “Mandla’, Suffocate’s friend played by Sphiwe Msimango, who shared the same demeanour as Suffocate. Between the two of us, we didn’t know who exactly was going to be playing the character Suffocate. There was a time during the shooting of episode 17 where Mandla (director) said that my depiction of Suffocate was boring. We had 5 directors at that time and every director had their own depiction of Suffocate. As Mdu, I had my own Suffocates from the hood whose characteristics I can choose, to help me become the Suffocate that I want to become. Whenever the directors would tell me about their Suffocate, I’d listen, because at the end of the day it’s the directors word because that’s the way they see the character. Even though they might not have even met the character. I would listen to the way they described him but I told myself that I would portray him the way I see fit from my Suffocates. There is no gangster that stays the same, they’re ever evolving, every changing, they have levels to gangsterism. It can start by stealing skopas, to chocolates, to bikes, to muggings, to breaking into homes, to upgrading to strategizing and stealing cars and seeing the money roll in. That is what I had planned for Suffocate. To have such layers and to portray him in a way that makes you understand why and how he is the way he is. I had cultivated 3.4% of being gangster in him then from there the directors added onto that creation. I had even created a language that makes sense to Suffocate and urged the audience to want to understand the way he speaks so they further understand him. A Suffocate dictionary was something that people wanted to be created because people wanted to understand him.”
Mabaso posits the success of Suffocate to the efforts he put into the character, “as actors we steal characteristics of the characters we’re playing, from ourselves. There are a few characteristics of uMduduzi that I stole and used in portraying Suffocate. In order to make your character believable you have to make it about something that people can relate to. At the end of the day it shouldn’t be a matter of uSuffocate from Soweto or uSuffocate from Alex, it has to be a national Suffocate. Rhythm City was playing over 72 countries, so if I had specified the demographics of Suffocate, it wouldn’t be relatable to the viewers in Ghana, or the UK.”
When Rhythm City was announced to end, Mabaso had to say goodbye to a role he played for 10+ years. The process of debriefing was not an easy journey, “It was a difficult process because I always try to leave my character on set. To shake Suffocate off, I worked with the aura of Suffocate and you have to allow that aura to ease out of you, so that when you’re done with it you can pack it and throw it away so that your original aura moves forward with life. You need to remember that if you don’t want green grass to grow on one side of the garden, don’t water it. Walk all over it, damage it, so that you can gather your compost and tools and go plant new grass on the other side. And that process itself is also difficult because you are killing the beauty that you know and have cultivated, to create new grass. That on its own is a process, a tough process, but you have to make it work for yourself. For me, I’ll keep reverting to the calling, I constantly bicker with my spirit and speak with it to direct it towards what I need to do and how I do it. I believe that God has given me an angel (Fatima) to be beside me, protect me, and remove what’s wrong and add what’s right. This system has worked out well for me because she’s everything from an acting coach, to my brother, my friend, my sister, my mother. That’s why I call her 10 women in 1.”
Immediately after the end of Rhythm City, Mabaso graced our screen on new primetime telenovela Diep City as Mgedeza. He details how he got the role, “Mandla N has always wanted to work with me, but because of my dress code he thought that he’d have to run me a huge check to match up the lifestyle he saw. One day we had attended an awards event where I came back with the award for Best Actor in a Movie. Mandla and I bumped into each other and he professed that he wants me, we should work together but eish you’re expensive.”
Expensive how? says Mabaso
Mandla responds: “You’re one of the expensive actors in SA plus you have a manager.”
“He speaks to my manager and he tells me about this telenovela he’s starting and how he has a lead role he’d like me to play. Next thing I find myself on set, no character bible, costumes on and I’m already acting. The problem cames in not having a character bible and not knowing who I’m playing. All I knew is that his name uMgedeza, he’s disrespectful and is taking protection fees from the township citizens, he works for someone but he still owns the city of Diepsloot. He’s feared by others and loved by a few, and he uses girls to do his criminal activities. I had to tell myself to not bring back Suffocate because he’s his own character. I had to cultivate something tangible for uMgedeza. I started writing my own character bible for him using the guidelines that Mandla provided, and he’s well received by the audience but I feel like i’ve only done 0.1% of work for this character. He hasn’t done anything yet, and once he has it will shock people.”
In the present day, Mabaso is on Diep City and has found his way back to theatre. “I played uMshongweni in Shaka, and it was a good experience. I was preaching and healing myself everyday! I would get excited to perform. Ukuthi kuz’abantu abayi 2- none of my business. Mina, I’m going to church to pray. It goes back to it being a calling. People were crying at every show. Sometimes I feel that by not telling the characters we‘ve played that we’re done, they become angry and disturb you. Because one goes very deep to find all these characteristics for a new character. You end up going to places that you’ve never known before, and you ask yourself how you ended up here. So some things you need to ask permission to use and return.”
After this wealth of life and career experience, Mabaso is still not ready for his curtain call, “I still want to see things happening here in Africa. I want to see myself continuing with my acting journey like mad and I’m waiting for my calling to direct. I’m waiting for a gut feel, for it to grow as a third layer on my skin so that when I feel it, I go and do it. I still see myself in the next 30-40 years being alive and kicking, while looking like I’m 30, with my wife in our unity and partnership. Maybe even travelling to Brazil, Nigeria and collecting beautiful art that I keep in my gallery. God knows my life, he has planned it.”