Writer: Phindile Mngadi, Photographer: Gabriel McCreadie, Junior Creative Director: Modise Motaung, Production Coordinator: John-Otto Phike, Styling and Wardrobe: Kojo Africa , Makeup: Phumzile Mhlongo
As a child, in KwaZulu Natal, my mind was able to exist in different spaces at once through storytelling. I was able to watch a story set in Johannesburg and imagine the lives of people living there, we all did. Storytelling has opened up my world and allowed me to travel to places I have never been. I loved watching television and listening to educational stories delivered by Mam’ Nandi Nyembe. The stories she delivered on television were not only entertaining but they also taught me life values and the importance of embracing culture. They shaped my perception of the world and reminded me of who I am in life and what I can offer. They became my soundtrack to life.
Here I am, privileged to be interviewing this phenomenal woman who has graced our television screens and theatre stages for years, Mam’ Nandi Nyembe. On our way to her family home Emdeni, Soweto, I sat nervously and kept talking to calm myself down. It felt like one second of quietness was going to throw me into a hole of overthinking and anxiety.
We were dropped off by our transport in between two houses, the driver pointed at the house on the right, we called out her name and there was no response. For a second, we doubted that we were at the right place, but we kept on calling her name. She appeared at the door with her five month old puppy named Minnie.
Minnie ran to the gate and she followed behind her. My heart was beating so fast but my drive to tell this story kept me going. I needed to tell Mam’ Nandi Nyembe’s story and journal indaba yakhe. Mam’ Nandi came to us and opened the gate. She was smiling. She seemed so happy to see us. “Sanibonani bantwana bami, namukelekile kulelikhaya”, we entered and felt at home. We were a few minutes late and she reminded us of that. She thought we were not coming anymore. So, she took a nap with Minnie.
When you enter Mam’ Nandi’s family home, you see a dining room on your right and a living room on your left. We were unsure of where to go, she had to direct us. “Ningahlala e-living room”. Siyabonga. We all sat down. We first introduced ourselves, set up our snacks and cellphone to record the interview. Mam’ Nandi put Minnie on her lap. I took out my journal which had all of the questions and a pen. We started talking about different topics to connect, it was a great icebreaker because after this everyone was ready to start the interview. I was calm and ready to document Mam’ Nandi’s great and well-lived life.
Sanibonani bantwana and all those who will be reading the story of my life. I am Nandi Nyembe from Kliptown. I was born in 1950, on the 19th of August, to a mother who was an actress and a tap dancer. My father was a boxer. My biological parents traveled a lot because they were performers, so I was raised by uMamkhulu, who was a government school teacher. When I was a child, I moved places a lot because uMamkhulu was allocated to different schools around the country by the government. So, whenever she moved, I would move with her. We have moved to dynamic places, that is why I am exposed to all of these cultures and languages.
We have stayed at Klerksdorp, Carletonville and other places with uMamkhulu. I can speak different languages, I can speak seTswana, seSotho and other languages. I grew up with different diverse people. UMamkhulu was strict. My childhood was full of chores and responsibilities. When we arrived in Klerksdorp, we built a six-bedroom house. I learned how to make bricks from mud at the age of six. We made them ourselves by mixing mud and putting it in the brick-making machine.
We would dry them and fire them to make them strong. Out of that, we built our house. SIX BEDROOM-HOUSE. Even cooking, I learnt it at the age of six…Phindile you look shocked. “I am shocked Mam’ Nandi, you were cooking and building houses at the age of six?” Yebo mntanami. UMamkhulu had a husband who was a school principal and a child named Sparky. I attended the schools where they were working for bantwana bami. Finding a school was not difficult. I would wake up in the morning before everyone and boil water for the entire family to bathe and make tea every day before they leave for school.
After they have all taken a bath and had breakfast, I would bathe and go to school. I was not allowed to be late for school. I felt like I was in charge of the household at the age of six. I was not even the oldest child. UMamkhulu had a daughter who was older than me, but she stayed at school. So, I was the only girl. I would go to school, where uMamkhulu was working as a teacher, and watch her teach poetry. I would demonstrate her style of performing a poem and do it for her students. I was an expressive and confident child and that made it easy for me to grasp the concept of performing art.
“Mam’ Nandi, I would like to know where your mother and siblings were during this time?” During this time, I was the only child of my parents. Tumko and my two brothers; Mandla and Mkhuseli, were not born yet. I was a little bit older when I stayed with my mother. I must have been thirteen years old. She was no longer an actress; she was working as a domestic worker. Even then, most of the time she was absent, so I relied on relatives. We stayed at Mzimhlophe, in Soweto. I attended Ematsheni School, a school that was shut down. I had to move from there to Botswana and stay with my father’s family. I stayed with his parents; he was not there.
He was still in Johannesburg. We stayed in Tsamaya, which was a rural area. The school I went to is Francistown School. I stayed with my aunt who worked in town then I moved back to Kliptown to live with my parents and sister, Tumko. My parents rented a one-room house that looked like a spaza shop. Kliptown had a lot of those one-room houses that were like spaza-shops. In 1970, we moved to our new family house in Soweto. Mandla and Mkhuseli were born in Soweto. My biological father had many friends who were in the performing arts industry. He knew Bra Sol Rachilo, who was an author and theatre director.
Bra Sol directed his theatre plays and there was a play he wanted to stage. He came to ask my mother to perform in the play and she referred Bra Sol to me as my siblings were keeping her busy. I was twenty-one years old when I worked on that production with Bra Sol and this was in 1971. After this show, I was introduced to The Market Theatre. I did a lot of things there. I started working as an usher, I used to usher the theatre audience to their seats. Then, I went to work at the bar and jumped straight to marketing. I even did front-of-house.
I was everywhere at The Market Theatre. One day, Benjy Francis, who was a theatre director, recognised me and gave me a character to act in his play. We did that play, it was called My Africa My something…I have forgotten what it was called. After this production, all the directors knew who I was. I worked on plays like Sophiatown, Curl up and Dye and other big theatre productions. “Mam’ Nandi, how was it like to tell your story during the apartheid time?” The importance of showing our lives as black people in South Africa was great.
Telling our stories in theatre during the apartheid era felt like we were embracing our inner ancestral power in that we became in charge of the story and the characters we were playing had to be portrayed perfectly for the story not to lose its meaning. “Minnie slept on Mam’ Nandi’s lap, now the family house is quiet. The conversation is getting deeper. Mam’ Nandi, what is the difference between theatre and television acting?” In theatre, acting has to be consistent. Sometimes, if you mess up, the audience picks it up and criticizes the show on the spot.
Everything is fast and theatre performance is different every day. There are good and bad performances. As for me, most of the acting is driven by my spiritual powers. When I am acting in theatre it feels like the story is new every day, as the delivery of it can be different and I embrace that because I believe that is the power of theatre. The audience is new, you must give them a new show. It is new all the time. Whereas, in television, acting can be inconsistent because of all the cuts and reshooting. Actors can only see their work after some time. My family taught me so much about the performing arts industry.
My parents were so in love. They used to approach their issues maturely. They never fought. They had a good relationship with each other and with us as their children. In the morning, our father would kiss our mother and us before leaving for work. We were all raised with love, all of us. There was love and unity in our family. That is why I do not like to hurt other people; I like to treat people with kindness. Even with my children, I have raised them like that.
“Mam’ Nandi, what role did theatre play in South Africa during the apartheid time?” The theatre played a major role in shaping our political and social environment during the apartheid era. The problem is that our government overlooked our work. We have travelled overseas with our political plays. We did protest theatre plays to show people how we were living our lives in South Africa. We have played a major role even though our work is uncelebrated by the government. At The Market Theatre, actors who were involved in a protest theatre or any other political play would run out of the theatre when the apartheid police were chasing them.
Plays like Woza Albert were not allowed. Uma uzwa kuthiwa kunamaphoyisa, ama actors sasiwakhipha ngama back doors and tell them to hide. The apartheid police would enter the space and question the audience members, and everyone would act clueless. There used to be one person left on the stage, pretending to be telling a story about something else to confuse them. It was hard for us to tell our stories, but we persevered and kept going because we loved what we were doing and we did it for our country to be where it is today. We wanted it to be free. We were motivated by that most of the time, FREEDOM. Remember we were not even earning that much back then which is different from now. I used to earn R12 at The Market Theatre as an usher. Even though our salaries were small, we did everything out of love and the urge to help our country.
“Everyone was listening intensively when Mam’ Nandi sneezed hard and woke Minnie up who was napping on her lap. Minnie got a fright and barked. We all laughed so hard. I have a question, Mam’ Nandi” Ungabuza Phindile. “During the apartheid era, actors of different race groups were not allowed to share the stage. How did you work with artists from different race groups, at The Market Theatre, to tell stories of our country?”
Being an artist at The Market Theatre meant we were confronted by different versions of racism. Even though our country was segregated, and actors of different race groups were not allowed to share the stage, at The Market Theatre that racism did not exist. The Market Theatre was raw. We were wild. The apartheid police used to go crazy and inspect the theatre. There was a time when the police entered The Market Theatre while John Kani and Joanne, who was a white woman, were kissing in Othello. As artists, their race groups did not matter. We did not care. We were only interested in the story. When the police came to our space, we would run. Everyone, regardless of their race group. Working with white people for us as Market Theatre artists was easy. After a performance, we would chill at The Market Theatre bar and drink. We would talk about how the performance went. The Market Theatre was a space where people of different race groups would meet and talk. I can say we did not allow our skin colour to divide us at The Market Theatre. “It is lovely to hear that, Mam’ Nandi. I just want to know what you have learned from that experience”
This experience taught me LOVE. It taught me that we are all human beings. It does not matter which race group you come from; we are all the same in this world. It was disturbing to listen to other people’s narratives of our continent when we were travelling to Europe with a production. In those times, people outside of Africa had strange perceptions about us as Africans. On one occasion, a white woman from overseas curiously asked me how we make love as African women, specifically how we reach our climax since we are so strong in appearance and fight all the time and this was a very painful question for me. The white woman went on to describe this climatic moment as she visualized it. “Mam’ Nandi went on to demonstrate how the white woman imitated an African woman making love. She threw her hands up and began to motion her body back and forth, yelling out “Amandla!” at the climatic moment and we all had to hold onto something as we laughed our lungs out”.
This is when I thought we should teach people about our continent because they have false perceptions. They looked at us as strong African women which was not the only personality trait we possessed. There was so much to us than that. Life has taught me a lot of things. We had to live like that. We loved each other, there was no other way.
I moved from theatre to television when we were told to attend auditions for television. We have been doing this for years. Television was still in black and white. I started television acting in 1979. I do not remember my first television show. During that time, you were only acting as a maid. Black actors were not acting as the lead characters. You were only a maid with no proper storyline. There were many stories like that, even Afrikaans stories. We were treated as extras because only white people were playing the lead characters. You were just there to act that small part. “A man knocks at the gate, and Mam’ Nandi attends to him. The man is looking for Mam’ Nandi’s brother who left with the gate keys. They spoke for a while, and he said great things about Mam’ Nandi’s work”
“I enquired about black actors playing the lead characters. I wanted to know when did they start to play them or when did it get better for black actors.” Phindile, mntanami, it all started to get better when black storytellers were now uplifted and able to tell their own stories. We got stories such as Lesilo where black actors were now playing the lead characters. In most white productions, we were extras. We had no voices. White directors could fire you on the spot. It does not matter what was stated on the contract. We had to do what we had to do. ACT YOUR PART AND LEAVE! Do your job and go! If you see or hear something, keep your mouth shut. Otherwise, you will not get a job again. It did not matter to them that we were contributing to their story but it mattered to me. It meant a lot to me that I was contributing to it. Whatever happens behind that, don’t mention it. Just do your job. “Mam’ Nandi imitated the white directors to show us what they went through. Why did you move from where you were? I told you to go and stand over there…” We had to overlook everything, otherwise, we wouldn’t get a job.
“I questioned Mam’ Nandi about the importance of educational storytelling in South Africa” Storytelling can be about animals or any other thing. Stories teach a lot. My children grew up with such stories. They would all come and sleep next to me on the floor for stories. I would tell them all the stories I know. I have told them folktales I know. The stories have morals that shape their perceptions in life and they use animals as characters. Children start to analyze the characters and learn from them. These stories teach them about culture. Storytelling taught us all about culture in South Africa. When I go to Durban, White and Indian people can relate to me because they are the ones who used to watch my stories more since most black people did not have televisions back then. My stories taught them life values. To this day, some people still come and tell me how my stories on television shaped them. Indians would say their children come back from school and sit in front of the television and watch my stories. They listen to you. My kids grew up listening to your stories and today they are successful.
These stories nurtured them. They have learnt from them. Ngibuhlungu nje manje because i-television yethu has nothing. Nothing to teach younger children. They are not learning anything. They are only learning the American lifestyle, there is nothing to nurture them. Stories that groom them. That is why children have no respect now, even at school. They disrespect their teachers because they are unruly. The parents are not educating their children. They let social media and technology take over and raise their children. Parents have no relationships with their children. They do not communicate with them and reflect. They let them figure their lives out. Children have to know what their parents go through. As parents, we go out there to work, and a white woman you work for calls you a GIRL, but you are a mother at home. A dad is called a BOY but at home, he is a father. Parents don’t talk about those things and teach their children. They need to tell them that life is not easy. Work hard not to have that lifestyle. Children need to be taught.
These stories were inspired by my parents…NOGOGO WAMI, UMAMA KABABA, KAKHULU! Izitori wayenazo. Sasihlala emlilweni kanje. Hhay’ phela ngikhule emakhaya. Saselusa. We would sit by the fireplace and talk about everything, she used to tell us stories like how they ended up in Botswana. She told us such stories. Storytelling was original to me as they were told at home. Umama kababa ubeyilidlozi eliphilayo. There were times when she had to send messages to the family. She would collapse while in the house. They would take her to umsamu (a place in a house where ancestral spirits reside) and cover her with indwangu yamabhubesi. If she is sleeping and connecting with the ancestors, we would not leave the house because it would be surrounded by lions. “We all paused. The house is silent. Everyone in the living room is shocked to hear this. Mam’ Nandi are you talking about real lions or something else and were you able to see them?” Lions that we could all see with our eyes. They would come from nowhere. Amabhubesi bhubesi, nawe ulibona. “Mam’ Nandi roared to show us that she was talking about real-life lions” Uma ungezwa udadewethu lo, umntwana kamamkhulu, bafika ebusuku eBotswana. Bahamba, behla e-station. Bakhatshwa ibhubesi emahlathini baze bafika endlini kwayima ebatshela ukuthi kade behamba nebhubesi. Wamutshela sebefika endlini and she collapsed. When they arrived at the house, the lion turned and walked back.
She had strong ancestral spirits. My father got hurt in Johannesburg. He was working for an engineering company. The forklift engine fell on top of him. They took him to Baragwanath hospital, only to find that there was no single bone that was broken. The ancestors were sending him a message to go back home and see his family because he was gone for too long. When the engine fell, my grandmother collapsed, which sent a message that something wrong might be happening. He hasn’t done anything good for his parents in a long time. My father arrived home, in Botswana, only to find my grandmother still down and talking to the ancestors. My grandmother told him that she saved his life.
“Mam’ Nandi, does your religion influence how you tell your stories and act?” Before I leave my house for anything, I first communicate with my ancestors by telling them where I am going. I ask for protection and guidance. If I am going to do my job, I ask them to stay with me and help me with my lines. Yesterday, I had an audition for the Shaka film and I asked my ancestors to help me deliver. I delivered my audition so well. I nailed it, all in one take. There is a relationship between my art and spirituality. It is so great. What we do is not just acting, it comes from within. It is not about acting and being on television, it is a CALLING. You become an educator as a storyteller. “Mam’ Nandi puts Minnie down to play with the birds outside” Acting is something within us. When you are acting other characters, you feel some of them within… “I jumped in with a question, how did you achieve that connection between you and the characters you have played?”
It is a pity that now everything is done quickly. Normally, if I am going to play a character, I research it. I know most of the characters I play are mothers but certain characters are different and they require you to dig deeper. There is a character I did of a woman with Alzheimer’s disease in a series called THE ROAD. It took me a long time to internalize the character so when someone disturbed me, I would cry because I knew that it would take a long time for me to be that character again. It was hard to get the character off my system.
It takes time for a character to leave you spiritually. It takes time, that is why you see other people taking drugs and going wild. It is not just drugs, it is the character you have played taking over your life. What I do is I sometimes tell it to leave now. When you are acting as a character, it feels like you are walking in someone else’s shoes and sometimes it is hard to go back to yourself and be the person you were before the character. People sometimes lose who they are after playing a certain character. It is funny how actors now always complain about how their characters look on television, forgetting that this is not about them or how they look. It is about the story. Uyabona abamanje, umuntu makuthiwa akafake ama sleepers athi hha ngibukeke kanjani e-tv? You are telling someone else’s story. This is not about you. Actors want to look good on television, it is all about fame. I communicate with my characters and ask them to leave my body so I can become myself again. There is always a spiritual connection between me and the character I am playing. I embrace the character until I finish shooting the show. I communicate with my ancestors and ask for their assistance. Even with other emotional characters, I have played, I dig deep into all the things I have been through, I go there and bring them up. They help me. All those things help with emotions and it becomes difficult to leave that because you now have tapped into a dangerous space.
“I would like to know why it was important for you to allow yourself to be that vulnerable” It helped me to play the roles the way they are. What’s funny is that I don’t care about the awards. Unfortunately, ever since I have been here I haven’t been nominated. My awards are the people I have touched when they relate to the characters I have played and articulate how they have helped them. So, those are my awards.
I have used my personal story to develop a character or a show. Zone 14 is my personal story, most of it. I grew up as isangoma and in Zone 14 I was playing a character of isangoma. I got raped when I was young and everything that character went through was about me. “I jumped in with a question, I wanted to know if she was paid more for that” Hhay uhola le mali oyiholayo. You don’t get anything extra for giving them your story but I wanted to tell the story. I wanted people to know…do you know sometimes people see you from far and think that your life is glorious and that everything is okay? They don’t know the pain you are going through because you are always smiling and laughing with people, and they’ll never see the pain I feel. I mean, I went to fetch my son who was dead from the hospital and his body was right in front of me as I was waiting for the hearse to come and collect him. People came to me and asked for a photo while his body was in front of me. Hhay guys ngiyacela niyabona ukuthi isimo sinjani. Bacela ukuthi sisuke sisithathe eceleni and because I am a nice person, I did that. People wanted a photo, it didn’t matter what I was going through. Bafuna isithombe. It doesn’t matter ukuthi ngiyakhala umntana wami ushonile, abantu bafuna isithombe.
When I am acting in an emotional scene, I do not fool around or chit-chat. I become that character and everyone has to leave me alone. If they are going to take a close-up shot, I stay in character until we are done shooting that scene from all angles. We do all the takes while in that state, when the director says CUT, we are done with the scene, I become myself. I relax. Now I can talk.
If I was still young, I think I would have done so many things. I would have participated in different things. There were characters I wish I could’ve played but I did not. The painful thing is that we think it is just acting. As an actor, you need to know each and everything in the entertainment industry. Singing, dancing, ANYTHING! If they ask you to ride a horse, you should go and ride it. That is why international actors are exploring their options. We are limiting ourselves. We need to learn everything in the entertainment industry to be equipped and access more opportunities.
“Mam’ Nandi, what are your favourite roles?” The roles that made me feel like I am acting were mostly in theatre. I loved the early productions we did; CURL UP AND DYE by Fatima Dike because we created that play. It was a workshop theatre. We created those characters. We gave them a home, children, origin and the storyline. It was all out of passion and the importance of teaching people our South African culture through these characters. We used small details to create these characters.
Before television and film, I started acting in theatre. Theatre is my passion, I love it with everything in me. I believe that theatre is powerful. You must stay in character to keep the show going. There are no CUTS OR RESHOOTING. Rehearsals are important in theatre for actors to master their characters.
In Isithunzi, I played a character of a woman who spent most of her time with men. I needed her to be different from any other woman, obephila elokishini. I sat with the director and asked if the character could cut her hair and wear men’s clothes because I felt like that is the only life she knew. When I came to set, I would change my voice to sound like a man. When my voice was not there and I was not feeling the character, I would ask for more time to characterize. The good thing about working with Amanda Lane as a director is that she would let you go and find that character, and bring it to life. She would not compromise. I was given time and freedom to work and explore the character. As an actress, I feel like I have a voice to express my opinions but it’s different. Other directors listen. Others don’t, especially the young ones. They will tell you that they are in charge of the story and I have to do as they say. They don’t care about who you are. In other productions, you just do what you have to do. Even though you have worked hard for that character.
“I would like to know, Mam’ Nandi, what is the future of storytelling in Africa?” I think…you know it is painful…you know there are things you shouldn’t talk about. “Mam’ Nandi paused and we all laughed” Kuncono uvele ufele ngaphakathi. Okubuhlungu ukuthi azisekho izitori ezikhuluma ngothando. We only get stories about violence, right through. All the channels are playing stories with violence, this is why we are shooting each other like this. In real life, we are killing each other because that is what we see. There is nothing educational anymore. Stories from Northern Africa project witchcraft, no stories are teaching the importance of love. Violence is everywhere. When is it going to change? I want to make a story about my mother. If I can make that story, I will not have an audience because it is not about violence. The story I want to tell is…yoh! The story of what my mother went through, I will not have an audience for this story but I am going to do it because it has something to teach, it is educational. Ugogo uhamba esistrandini akazazi negama, sithi uyahlanya. Akasazazi. That’s dementia and we are not talking about it. We are not talking about those things anymore, we are not teaching each other. My mother went through that. My mother was hallucinating. Those are the kind of things that people should know about, that they exist. People should know that such conditions exist and be educated. I know my audience will not be big but I will do this film about my mother and educate people. Kwakudala, kwakudala abantu behlanya. Kuthiwe Hhayi! Hhayi! Uyahlanya siyamazi kodwa awutholi ukuthi aze abe njena yini. Kuthiwe muyekeni ihlanya lalayikhaya lelo.
“The entertainment industry is inconsistent, Mam’ Nandi. How do you keep going?” I pay cash for everything and live a life I could afford. I live for myself not other people. You find people in the entertainment industry harming themselves because they cannot afford a lifestyle they have set for themselves. I save and invest in important things. I lived for a long time without a car. People like a luxurious life they cannot afford. Be authentic and live a life you can afford.
“In what ways do you keep yourself well-balanced and not stressed about the auditions?” When I go to an audition, I do it and forget about it because it might not be mine. Thinking about it all the time might stress you up which might lead to depression and committing suicide. So, now you go through all of this for a production that was not even going to take you. Do it and forget about it. If they want you for that part, they will call you.
My first acting agent was Lauren Jeffet and she died in the late 90s or early 2000s. After that, I was on my own. Production companies used to call me for acting roles. Production companies negotiated with me. MLA signed me recently for HOW TO RUIN CHRISTMAS. I was my agent and manager for a long time. Everything was manageable so I did not see the point of getting an agent.
“What is that one thing you would like to achieve or a wish you have for yourself or your community?” My wish was something very big. I wanted to build a community centre that will teach people, not just acting, but different skills like sewing, carpentry and everything. I wanted people to learn these skills and be shown how they can utilize them for income. Not to wait for white people to give us jobs. It is great now that black people are starting their businesses. I wanted to start this project at Hammarskral because there was a school that was shut down so I wanted to use that school building. People leave their homes for Johannesburg to seek employment and opportunities but there is none of that here. Even the mines have been shut down. There are no opportunities here, that is why people end up as prostitutes. Johannesburg is not easy. I also wanted to start a centre for people who just came out of prison and are seeking employment. It is very painful when these people are rejected by their families and communities and have nothing to do and nowhere to go. Yes, they have done bad things but sometimes people want to start all over again and this centre was going to help them with that. They were going to learn how to make their own money. It is not easy to find a job when you are fresh from prison. I proposed it to our government when Thabo Mbeki was still the president of our country. I was not assisted since I was not in exile during the apartheid time. I told them that I fought for our country in South Africa by creating protest theatre plays. That did not count. Instead, they stole my project and gave it to a woman who had just come back from exile. They wanted her to run the project. The woman approached me, and she wanted to work with me and lead my project. I did not attend her and this project did not start.
“How do you stay consistent in acting?” I respected every character I have played. No matter how big or small it was. I have played characters where they have paid me R3000 and I gave it my all in those characters. I take my craft seriously and I like to help people grow. I don’t only act for money, I do it out of love and passion, no matter how small the amount is. Love and respect for my craft kept me consistent.
Respect your craft, love it and do it. Give it your all. Stop complaining about small things for attention. Respect your acting space, do your job so well and leave people in great amazement. Remember that every minute counts. Show up on time and respect your job.
Indaba ka Mam’ Nandi Nyembe, a story of resilience and triumph.