Writer: John-Otto Phike, Creative Director: Ayanda Sithebe, Junior Creative Director: Modise Motaung ,Photographer: Lesedi Mothoagae, Makeup: Phumzile Mhlongo, Styling: Ifuku, Production Team: Karabo Mokoena, Rainy Nthangeni and Tshepo Marema,
Nostalgic lokshin flavor was the order of the day as the team blasts tunes from the Tsotsi soundtrack to prep us for a conversation with the giant that is Kenneth Mngcedisi Nkosi in his Golden Jubilee.
We lined up like soldiers ready to get into the creative mind map of Mr Nkosi, true to the task at hand we did our base affirmative checks, location check, taxi driver support of area check, security on location check, craft, wardrobe and makeup all check! In true Kenneth fashion, as he arrives at the Actor Spaces studios, the music goes louder and the dancing erupts from everyone while action is underway, we could go on untimed. Eventually, we settle to get Kenneth ready with the kwaito led ambience, little did we know that Kenneth is a fan of Afropop and Gospel, which changed the trajectory of the playlist. As Mafikizolo’s ‘Emlanjeni’ pierces the speaker, we all seamlessly adjust and sing along like hopeless romantics.
We convoy to our location, conversations getting juicier as we get closer to our destination, Newtown, JHB CBD. Kenneth spots a row of taxis and chicken dust stations down the street, he whispers in my ear, “I want a photo in the middle of the street, let’s make it happen buddy,” then laughs. Our location was an open space with an abandoned old factory in the foreground on a buzzing taxi parking street, such shoot moments reinforce our mantra of being “proudly South African”, we had the support of abo’malume who had their taxi’s lined up there, we all know that you can’t mess around with these gents so we were secured in.
This shoot plays out like a building soundtrack, each moment taking us back to famous hits. Our Nkalakatha makes his entrance, greets everyone warmly with hugs and the taxi drivers make way. Inside the location we are greeted by a burst of Malaika’s “2 bob” and a group of people that seem to reside in the abandoned old factory, we brief them about the order of the day and they quickly mobilize to make sure that we are protected during the duration of the shoot. The shoot commences with a great sense of community spirit from the team, talent and locals, this speaks to the kind of man that we are honoring.
The snaps run seamlessly with Kenneth strutting the best of himself, we are all blown away at how he genuinely connects with the camera, something that’s naturally tough to achieve… “All eyes on me” we are all fixed on Kenneth… Pro-style, the shoot ends on a high with many “it” pics! We head back to our studio feeling chuffed that it was a good day, we arrive ready to feast together in a communal setting.
Writing the story of Kenneth Nkosi, we sit at a restaurant to get to know him more intimately, beginning with the formalities of consent and how he would like to be addressed. “I know for a fact that when I was born I was named Kenneth Mngcedisi Nkosi, there was no Bab’ or Bhut’, just Kenneth,” he simply answers.
Kenneth is an infectious ball of life and love, a testament to the values that he was taught by his dear grandmother, “a gorgeous paragon of human perfection” he boasts. At the birth of Kenneth Nkosi in 1973, Rockville, Soweto, the Nkosi household was matriarchal in nature and led by Kenneth’s grandmother. She was a vegetable vendor and helper (domestic worker), a mother of 6 children whom then went on to further the lineage with many grandchildren. Kenneth, his grandmother, mother, aunts, uncles, cousins and sometimes strangers all lived together in the 4-bedroom home; where often 10 or 11 people resided in the house at a time. As he reminisces about sitting next to his grandmother’s coal stove and taking in the warmth of the coal, he describes the household environment, “There was a lot of singing and noise, but the noise was joyful. There would be so many of us in the house but you would not feel like anybody is invading your space because it felt like one shared space, we were in touch like that.”
The birth of Kenneth came at a time when the family was grieving his grandfather, Aaron Nkosi, in the same breath the family was excited to accept a new Nkosi into the household, who they would later discover is as feisty as his grandfather, “I could see with the holes in the doors that he was throwing isagila sakhe (His knobkerrie ) everywhere.” The story of Kenneth’s naming is one that would put a smile on anyone’s face, it is pure comedy gold, “I remember my mom telling us the story that she was trying to say I was born at 11 o’clock but she did not know the difference between am and pm, so she said “emini” and my grandmother thought she was saying my name is mini and immediately did not like that, then said his name is “Mncedisi.” Later in the years, we realized that Mncedisi is a isiXhosa name and not a siSwati name, my grandmother is Swati and my grandfather was also Swati, so we did not understand where the name came from.” Considering that Kenneth’s grandfather was already late, the family would gossip that Mncedisi was the grandmother’s boyfriend at the time. This made sense to the family because, “My second name was given to me by my aunt who was especially close to me, she was the youngest of her siblings, she got me more than anybody else. She named me Kenneth and it was a fact that she was dating a Kenneth at the time,” we laugh. The Nkosi family shared many moments of laughter, love and camaraderie, “The most fascinating time in my family was on Fridays. Usually Fridays were, ‘end of the month’ and my grandmother would always come back with all these sandwiches from abelungu, leftover after their ‘lunching or afternoon tea’ and of course she would also bring Kentucky (at the time) and it would be fun.” As we all have it when the glue of the family passes, family dynamics change and Kenneth’s mother had to step in as matriarch of the family.
In this new period of Kenneth’s life, he was getting to know himself, his temperament, irks, desires and goals, the same goes for the rest of the family. He recalls his mother becoming a positively different person after his grandmother’s passing. His mother was known for enjoying her youth with her sisters as she was young and under gogo’s roof. They would often take weekend trips after work to Eswatini (Formerly Swaziland) to go party, as the country was free and South Africa was not. There they would meet different people from different backgrounds, make international friends, have a ball and ride back home to sunny South Africa. As Kenneth’s mother realized the new found responsibility in front of her, she took a decision to mature and take the family into her own hands, “My mother was a smoker, drinker and had fun, but when my grandmother passed the switch was amazing because she now realized that she was the oldest and she was not just taking care of her 5 kids but other children as well. Most of my cousins will tell you that they were raised by my mother because she took over.” This change created a closer bond between Kenneth and his mother, bonding over a cup of tea. Turning 21 and spending time with his mother on this day was iconic for Kenneth, “in 1994 with our little tv, watching Mandela being inaugurated, that was my 21st, that I will never forget”. Growing up, he also started contributing to household funds by doing extra work to gain more money. This also set him up to get his own place in Hillbrow by the age of 20, sponsored by his mother’s cutlery and crockery, and by all means he was going to make it work.
This journey marked an unlocking of greatness for Kenneth but he still had to learn life lessons that would bring him closer to understanding himself. Growing up, Kenneth was loved and cherished at home, where he could show his true bright colours but outside the comfort of his home, it was a different story, “Outside I had low self-esteem.” A reality he would have to battle throughout his life. Though he attributes his friends as people that helped him in this journey, “My friends and the guys I met in the township introduced me to myself and my confidence.” Additionally he met many community peers/leaders that further enhanced his confidence. In his teen/early 20s he met Bongani Nhlapho, an employee at the National Institute for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of Offenders (NICRO), who introduced him to the NICRO Youth Club, which had the goal to introduce teens to the arts as a form of crime prevention at a primary level. The club would expose Kenneth to different arts forms and industry professionals such as Arthur Malepo, Ramulau Mkgene and Dali Motsepe, who would often teach at the club. This encouraged Kenneth to gather the courage to ask Bongani Nhlapho to become his mentor and friend, “I was very aware of the things I needed, to get to where I wanted to be.” At school he had an innocent crush, Lorraine Sithole from his class. On this Friday they had a school trip, post the trip, Kenneth searches the school in hopes of finding his Lorraine as they usually walk home together but to his surprise he sees her with Bongani cozied up by the bus stop. To the contrary, this excites Kenneth as he marches up to them then introduces himself and Lorraine has his girlfriend in order to gain brownie points with Bongani. They both laugh and Lorraine rejects him, but this does not deter Kenneth instead it motivates him. As he sees Bongani drop off Lorraine in the taxi, Kenneth approaches him and asks him to be his mentor, “Authi yaka, all I ask, if you could teach me English.” This is a friendship that still thrives today, a friendship that negotiated two lobolas, consoled two divorces and celebrated 4 births. This friendship shaped the way Kenneth understood friendship, he sought friends that added value, those he could learn from while also teaching.
Another crucial friend at the beginning and currently in Kenneth’s career is Rapulana Seiphemo. These two met at Kenneth’s first tv gig, Isidingo. Rapulana was fresh from Texas, overseas and had all of the buzz, “…and I was just a chubby boy who hung out at the Market Theatre”. The more Kenneth started seeing Rapulana around the Market Theatre, the more interested he became in wanting to know what he was all about, “I was hired at Isidingo before him and then he came on the show. I remember chilling with him on set and freaking out. The more we started hanging out, the more talks we had also including Tony Kgoroge and Akin Omotoso. That green room was amazing, a friendship formed between the four of us, we would talk about dreams, ideas, everything.” When Kenneth was laid off Isidingo, him and Rapulana started bonding over their shared love of traveling, an interest that would soon change the course of their friendship and careers. During their escapades, they met a Director named Jane Turner, the three of them bonded over their love for films, but Kenneth admits to have not liked her at first, “I thought she was a spoiled brat,” he jokingly laughs. Even though they bonded over films, they just genuinely had a human connection, “We were a trio.” On one Christmas morning, the three of them were bored and decided to go to Cape Town. To make this trip extra fun and special, Jane offers her Land cruiser and they decide to take a road trip through small towns and explore the landscape of South Africa. This was the birth of “White Wedding.”
Many of Kenneth’s biggest career moments happened by him being at the right time, at the right place and that is a testament to the vision and strategy he had for his career, “I always say that there is nothing that I have achieved in my life that I have not seen before, I saw every step of the way. I started at a youth club, then established a drama class at school, then I went on to perform at a huge hall eMolapo, then the Market Theatre, Civic (Joburg) Theatre and eventually TV ”. For the first 5 years of Kenneth’s career, he did not audition for a single role, he simply was given the role. “I was not auditioned for my first role, I was hired by Robert Coleman, in a play called Afrodisia at the Civic Theatre, now Joburg theatre. For the next 5 years I did theatre and I never auditioned, he liked me so much he just kept hiring me.” His commitment to theatre for all those years was a result of Kenneth’s desire to focus on one thing at a time but also expand his craft within the entertainment industry. He is a man that believes that one can be a jack of all trades but they need to be a master of one instead of none. “I focus on what I focus on, that is what becomes my main focal point. I do not want to be distracted. When I did TV, it was about that and I forgot a little about the stage. When I went to film to produce and write, I focused on that. I knew that I had to take all those steps but Kenneth Nkosi was good and known for one thing, which is acting. The only thing I have not done but want to do at the moment is directing.” Throughout all these professional and life experiences, the biggest lesson Kenneth learnt was his worth. In 2004, Kenneth performed in his first film and that was the only film he ever did for that year. He was not meant to be in the film initially but his agent worked him into the film, this was the film that exposed him to his value. For the following year, his wife had to become the sole breadwinner as Kenneth was rejecting jobs, “When they say I am worth a R1000, I would say no, I am actually worth R1500.” Then I got Tsotsi and in 2005 the calls that matched my worth started coming and people started respecting my worth. “On a brief, you cannot say that you want a Kenneth-like character”, you want Kenneth Nkosi, so you have to pay for Kenneth Nkosi. It is as simple as that.” Overall he had to learn that he is in the show-BUSINESS and he has to make money out of the craft to support himself and his family at the end of the day.
Kenneth went on to be involved in various series and films, in the capacity of Actor, Writer and Producer. These projects involve highlights such as Max and Mona, Greed and Desire, Gangsters Paradise: Jerusalema, White Wedding, District 9, Otelo Burning, Skeem, Mad Buddies, Nothing for Mahala, Blessers, Freedom, Five Fingers For Marseilles, Piet’s Sake, Paradise Stop, Reyka and most recently Nikiwe. Beyond exposing Kenneth to different forms of acting and writing, it also exposed him to the world of content ownership as a producer. Ownership is an important part of a career in the entertainment industry, “We still get paid from the films that we did.” In the late 2000s, Rapulana and Kenneth changed the landscape of filmmaking, writing and cinema in South Africa. They produced various films that created a cinema going culture for South Africans and in turn inspired younger filmmakers to start creating South African narratives for the silver screen. This was his high time career-wise where his face and name were everywhere in South Africa, billboards, adverts and campaigns. It was during this time when he also had to learn about the infamous ‘disappearing act,’ “I had to learn about knowing when to disappear. I had to know that, right now I may be the hottest thing but it will not last forever. I was in three channels at a time but someone alerted me of ‘over-exposure.’ This leads people to start looking at you, being overly critical and then want to bring you down. Not being over-exposed could mean that as an actor you take time to go to community theatre or personal work, but the trick is knowing when to come back.” A skill well practiced by Kenneth as he has managed to stay fresh and interesting in our minds through his iconic performances even when he might not be on our screens.
In an effort to expand his creative horizon, at 45, Kenneth promised himself that he will direct his first film at 50 years old. This is the age of 50 and we excited about Kenneth’s next elevation. “I am in a truly beautiful space in my life. I am meeting young creatives who are interested in knowing about me, like Actor Spaces. In the shoot I felt nervous holding the box because I just kept seeing a group of young people who are doing so well holding this box. I just wanted to be a part of that and now I am. I am doing me now. If I make mistakes, let it be.” The 50th year marks a life of independence for Kenneth, a life that is dictated by what he wants and needs. He is embarking on a journey of further self-discovery, being intentionally self-fish about his wants and satisfying his inner child. This journey would have not been possible without his grandmother, mother, aunts, uncles, 2 brothers, 3 sisters, plethora of cousins, friends, ex-wives and most importantly his 4 daughters. It took a village to get him here and it will take a village to continue.