Creative Director: Ayanda Sithebe, Creative Direction & Styling: Modise Motaung, Producer: Felicia Sithebe, Writer: Karabo Mokoena, Photographer: MluArt, Art/Set: Kcool_keith, Makeup: Phumzile Mhlongo, Production Team: Tshepo Marema, John-Otto Phike, Glen Nkuna, Bonolo Maswanganye, Tumelo Mochochoko, Wardrobe Accents: IFUKU, Social Media: Tumelo Mogoane
Our footprints leave a mark because of the ones who laid the sand out for us. The ones named and the ones unnamed.
Our stories can be echoed today because there are people who came before us, figures who were so sure of their assignment to impart lessons and effect change using the Arts to liberate its people. We live amongst legends, figures such as Ntate Owen Lebakeng Sejake.
Our story is set, hurry in and take your seat… The curtains roll open and there you are, in the auditorium, face to face with a potent man, carrying all of the roots of his identity, ready and willing to unfold in front of you. He stands behind the spotlight which has firmly positioned itself in the middle of the stage. He takes small strides towards this spotlight whenever he feels compelled to. And with each stride, you want to know and understand him.
Here’s a front row seat to a folktale treat, “I think I was a few months old when I was in prison. So I knew the prison from that age”, he says, reaching deep within to share this memory, he would soon briefly tell us what had happened.
Our set ambience was filled with echoes of musical greats such as Bra Hugh Masekela, Caiphus Semenya & Letta Mbuli, to name a few, each song taking him back to history books as he recites memories of his childhood. His gentle voice and persona capture you and you fall on each word. He’s very animated, dipping into characters as he narrates his stories.
In the lead up to this shoot, I told my mother that I am going to be writing an article for a Feature of the legendary actor, Owen Sejake. My mum immediately squeezed her face in confusion and asked “Who is that?” (Forgive her, she is generally not too good with names of Actors) I, of course, held my chest in despair before I took my phone and showed her a picture. As soon as she saw the picture she immediately erupted into a recall as she said “Ooooh! Ntate Sawasawane!” followed by a chorus of laughter… This moment reminded me that indeed it is our works that remain in people’s hearts.
Owen Lebakeng Sejake was born in 1950- the year that saw the official passing of Apartheid as a Law in South Africa. And At only a few months old, he was already feeding off of his mother’s breast in a jail cell. When the story of how his mother took his grandmother’s place in prison, when she was arrested for selling home-made brewery, was relayed to him, he began to understand the roots of his upbringing through the courageous women in his life and also understood the positioning of his identity in a world that deemed him unworthy of his own humanity.
There you are now, eye to eye with a powerful figure. His glare is constant- challenging you to look away. Your attentive eyes are the least of his worries. It is your mind and soul that he wishes to infiltrate. You wonder how it is that you and him can see each other through the parts that are shy of the spotlight. He wonders how he can make you see more of yourself through him.
We are at his mercy, waiting to be dished out with plates of lessons and to have our curiosity quenched. A true father, he looks at us a little conflicted, proud and worried. Do we know what the liberated artists of his time had fought for, are we conscious of the power we possess to take back what’s ours and keep it? He poses this to us and continues to recreate the layers of his story, then and now. It’s clear to see that this is a man of high stature, a gentleman who charmed his nurse wife with soulful tunes during her lunch breaks, a father of three, his youngest being twin girls who keep him young, patient and considerate.
“Sejake was one of the smart ones in class, let’s qualify him to secondary School” Ntate Owen tells us that he was fortunate to be sent to Secondary School after they were forcibly removed from Etwatwa to Daveyton, when the teachers agreed to have him condoned so he could continue with his schooling journey. When they moved, they had to adapt and start a new life for themselves. The transition was hard but making it a home was not.
He carries on with his narrative rhythm- the kind that soaks you up into the bits and pieces of the story. There is a sense of excitement that exudes through him whenever he has to tap into his memories. “My grandmother liked to boast. She had 5 stands and she bought her first stand with 7 shillings” he says this with the utmost pride. A black woman owning her own stands during that time was almost impossible but she did it. He laughs quietly as he relays how they had electricity when no one else in the neighborhood had this luxury, his grandmother had her ways. However, all that his grandmother owned was lost at the snap of a finger when they were removed. He speaks of how his mother and grandmother shaped his values of family and building a home. They fought for what they believed in which is a trait that was effortlessly passed down to him and one which he carries to this day.
A gentleman holds their own, Ntate Owen made a decision to keep his head clean shaven as a way to stand out from everyone. “The Chiskop made me prone to being perceived as a thief and a very cheeky man”. If you think about it, this speaks volumes to the characters that uprooted his TV career. His energy was consistently inviting- you know when your uncle is sitting on the couch telling you all sorts of stories with his trouser pulled up to his knees gawking at you as if asking “where were you?” with every exciting revelation? Yes, that kind of setting. It was Ken Gambu who inspired him to keep his head clean shaven. “Ken said everyone looked the same and so he kept his head clean shaven because he wanted to stand out. Then he advised me to do the same and I did!”
In his dominant stature, the man makes a small stride towards the spotlight. His first utterance is a choral note- one he holds for long. His chorus transcends the auditorium as it asks: “Do you see how you and I share a light?”
As a young boy in Etwatwa, Ntate Owen was drawn to the guitar as an instrument. You can almost see him light up as he sways his finger in string motion, playing his invisible guitar while he talks about the influence of the guitar on him. By the looks of it, the guitar was a very famous instrument then, with many using gallon tins to make them. He was eager to learn it and eventually have his own one day which he did. “Back in Etwatwa, there was this guy named Makhalane. He actually had the real guitar which he got from his father and we used to hang out at the corner watching him and a couple of guys playing”. He describes this as his first main experience of musical artistry. He used to watch the guys play and, out of great eagerness and ambition, volunteered to play.
As you listen to his story, you learn that he was always very curious- with a great love for learning and experimenting. Ntate Owen describes his journey as an actor as one that started by accident. “A friend of mine, Max, came to me with a newspaper, it was called ‘The World’ at the time but now it’s known as ‘Sowetan’. The newspaper had a spread of models which he kept pointing at saying that there is an audition happening in Eloff street for models so he is going to try it out” Ntate Owen dips into a moment of laughter as he recalls this memory. “I did not know what it was but I told him to count me in. We had to be there at 07:00 sharp so we both agreed to meet at the train station at 04:00 sharp because the journey from Daveyton to Joburg was long. At 04:00, I was already there. I waited and waited for Max but he did not show up. Finally, I got on the train and off I went. I made it there just before 07:00.”
As he waited in the line, there were all sorts of men who fit the profile of the models,”very funky and fresh” according to him. It was just him and the guy beside him that were the odd ones out, dressed in normal chino pants and shirts. Suddenly a tall, fancy man, who looked like he came straight from the Soul Train TV Show, walked in. By this time, young Owen Sejake was first in line, with a friend beside him who was second in line, about to go in and audition. “His name was Charles Mchunu. He walked in and looked at me and the new friend beside me that I had made then he asked us what we were doing there. We told him that we were there for an audition. Almost instantly, he said ‘No, I have something better for you’, we were both baffled as we looked at each other. Charles told us to follow him so we walked all the way to the commissioner side of town and entered another building”
This is where they were signed in as extras for a film, where he would take on his first ever role as a cameraman. When he explains it, you begin to understand that they were meant to emulate the paparazzi, flashing their cameras at the lead character, played by the extraordinaire himself, Ken Gambu. “I had only seen Ken Gambu on TV so it felt so surreal to be so up, close and personal with him.” His description of this moment gives it a slow-motion effect- which really immerses you into how he was perceiving this encounter in that moment. “As we waited, I looked up and saw this very tall man and dark man walking past me and I just knew that I was part of a very important project. Ken Gambu was a real star with international films under his belt and a household name at the time”
The spotlight has half of the man’s face lit up now. His eyes have left your embrace. He is looking up at a plane that he has managed to create through his own imagined reality. You can’t help but follow his lead and look up as well. You want so badly to see what he sees. “I am going to fly like that someday” he says as he slowly folds his head, finding his way to your eyes. “And because I flew, sowill you” he adds.
This role as a cameraman saw him earning a good R60 (± R2,600 today). “I had never had that amount of money before. And I was told to come back the next day and I obviously went back. On the second day, I played a soldier in the same film. And this warranted another R60.” It is almost as if he is reliving the moment again- his eyes bulged to reiterate the shock of young Owen’s life to being offered R60 for a job he just stumbled upon. “We had no reason to believe Charles Machunu when he told us to come with him but we did because he looked very put together”.
It was on the second day of filming that he met Ridgeway Mangcu, who was a budding playwright at the time and also played a soldier like him in the film. Ridgeway invited Ntate Owen to come and watch one of his plays. He was in his early twenties at this time. He then landed himself a role in Mr Mangcu’s play, a two-hander- which he explains as a two-man play. Ntate Owen describes Theatre as a medium that “takes you through the journey of performance. A journey that forces you to imagine things. All of the attention is on you and people have paid to come and see you”
He tears up as he recalls some key artists that he had the honor of knowing and the deep sadness he feels about their passing, legends that are now forgotten, a real pity as their contribution to the arts is enjoyed but their credit lost.
His grandmother had no qualms with him becoming a performer although they didn’t quite understand it. Word had gotten out about a young man named Owen Lebakeng Sejake. His journey saw him working with the likes of Ian Hughes in a play called “Heavens Weep for Thina Sonke”, the opening night of which was held at one of the Wits Theatres called “The Nunnery”. He fondly diverts into a memory as he tells us that this is the first play that he invited his grandmother to come and see. His grandmother had lots of questions afterwards, one of them being about him working alongside a White man in this two-hander, which she could not believe.
You are leaning forward on your comfortable chair in the auditorium. The spotlight has made its mark on the potent figure’s anatomy. His posture and eyes locked in your direction. His voice and bulged out eyes scream at you as he interrogates you: “What will you say about me when I’m gone?”
Ntate Sawasawane was one of the early TV characters that Ntate Owen played- an up-to-no-good man who had many in stitches of laughter and in shock because of all the unnecessary commotion he would cause in a show called Masakeng. Ntate Owen’s use of Tsotsitaal has made him one of the most relatable actors and saw him playing a range of characters that represented the authenticity of the township and its people. There was a few years of a waiting period for him, in his transition from Theatre to Film/TV. He recounts it as a hard time for him because he didn’t know if he’d be back doing what he loved again but he was fortunate to have the bug bite again when he was still fueled by his love for performance.
The transition saw him starring in internationally and Locally acclaimed shows that had him working with the likes of Sydney Portier and in TV shows and Films such as Tsotsi, Zone 14, Country of my Skull, Yizo Yizo & Beat the Drum to name a few. He talks about the international recognition that he has received with a sense of pride. He, along with the cast and creators of a play called “Captains Tiger” by Athol Fugard were bestowed by the King of England in Princeton. In 2003, he was also awarded Best Supporting Actor at the Monaco International Film Festival for his role as Nobe on Beat the Drum.
With accolades after accolades and memorable roles after memorable roles, what sets Ntate Owen’s journey apart is his commitment to truth and originality. And this is not just in the nitty gritties of how we approach storytelling but also in how we perceive the world and the contributions of our humanity. We should be envious of the Artists of this era because of the sense of community that they shared. Musicians, Actors and Artists in all walks of creativity had the same goal- one that spoke quite openly to the nuances of liberation. “We, as Artists, played a huge role in the liberation of our country. It was a war that we had to win and the Arts was our weapon”
The tall male figure has his eyes locked on you, throwing questions at you that demand your attention. Your mind is racing to find the best possible answers to justify your points. He, on the other hand, is not looking for answers. “Interrogate the world!” he says, shouting at the top of his lungs and sternly pointing at you.
“My grandmother used to say: ‘In order to reach your destination, you’ve got to negotiate your way through the bush’” He says these words as if they were said to him about a week ago or just yesterday instead of years ago. It is clear that the words have stuck with him to this day. Now, we could nitpick at Ntate Owen’s reputable catalog of work, all the characters that had us on the edge of our seats – the likes of Bra Tiger, Bra Links, Reverend Moli, Gumboot Dlamini, Mambane, the list of big characters on notable titles is endless – but instead, let’s be invited to recognize his journey as an analogy to the Power we hold through the voices we have.
As a young man in his early twenties, sitting in that line waiting for his turn to audition to become a model, he probably never imagined that his journey would lead him into an arena that called him to action- an arena that made him pay attention to the impact of words and performance in rallying for liberation. His presence on those stages, as well as many artists of his time, interrogated the world and its unjustness and probably even went as far as changing minds. Owen Lebakeng Sejake is one of the ones who walked so we could run.
He holds an expansive career, Ntate Owen still stands strong, on standby to spotlight the next big story. As a father and husband he has committed himself to his family. The conversation never falls short of a mention of his wife and his children- what they said, their little reactions to the things he says and the memories they continue to create. They have probably heard all his life stories countless times. In his quiet time, away from our screens, he runs the “Kamohelo Community Center” with his wife- who is the founder. “We do the bit we can to give back by feeding the children and incorporating recreational activities here and there”. He mentions how he comes across various young men through the center and laughs as he imitates how they speak, walk and their overall demeanors most of the time. He is clearly very fond of them but also expects more from them.
After the last picture is taken and I start folding my pages, true to holding a title of an amazing performer, made for the stage, Ntate Owen gives us a closing act. This is one of the poems he performed on stage back in the day, that saw them exiting through backdoors because of the political arena they were placed in during that time- they were deemed as Politicians hiding behind the Arts. In its gist the poem read: “We are the ones who share the light with the moon. We are the people who own darkness with the stars. We are the people shuttering White myth and Black passivity, riding on the white crest in sheer copulative ecstasy, spitting sweet venom in some cosmic dome of big despair…” He was up on his feet, chanting out in a flow and cadence that made you wish you were there. Each inflection was deliberate and strong- the words not falling short of their meaning at any point. What a privilege for us, an exclusive top rated performance and goosebumps were flowing through each and every one of us present in that room.
The statuesque figure still has his finger pointed at you. You are still at the edge of your seat but slowly beginning to get uncomfortable, wondering if you should get up from your seat and walk out because you don’t have the answers. It is almost as if he can read your mind as he lowers his finger and says: “Don’t run away from me. Run towards me.”