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Sthandiwe is no stranger to the pomp and ceremony of being a celebrity. She has been in the public eye for nearly two decades‚ but she still treats it like a foreign land that she has no desire to visit. Instead‚ she greets everyone like a lifelong friend‚ warming their hearts with her ability to remember names and faces.
“I’m just reflecting the love I get from others‚” she explains. “People still refer to me by my old character’s names. Even as I was walking into the building today I was greeted with ‘oh‚ Zoleka‚ welcome.’ It’s humbling to know that I still have a part in some people’s lives.”
Her warmth comes naturally. Like acting‚ it is something that has always been in her heart and the very fibre of her soul.
“I always knew that I wanted to be an actress. Perhaps there was a plan bbb: and that would be that I would be an English lecturer — as a kid I would say I wanted to be an ‘English lecture’ - or a social worker. But I think I’ve always known that I wanted to be an actress.
“Growing up‚ my parents travelled between Africa and North America and I remember being in Canada and always putting my hand up to star in the plays at school. I was the kid that would be reading a book and ask if I could act it out for the class‚” she remembers with a smile.
Her eyes glitter as she looks up to reflect on this memory. In that moment‚ and draped in a traditional print throw‚ Sthandiwe looks like an African queen that legends are written about. We’re crushing hard!
As a young woman fresh out of varsity Sthandiwe got to work alongside a legend.
“My first job‚ straight from varsity was on SAFM with Omar Essack‚ doing radio dramas with Ma Busi Mhlongo. Not many people know that when she came back from exile in Holland‚ her first jobs were doing radio dramas. I would often sit and just stare at her in awe. The days would just fly by. I would ask to see her hair because I would get glimpses of these beautiful‚ thick‚ long locks. But she would never show it to me‚” Sthandiwe remembers
She describes Busi as a woman that would “give you the world“. And that same spirit is held by Sthandiwe.
In fact‚ it is this very attitude that saw her life turn upside-down as she walked into the world of TV.
“I had just started at SAFM and my friend asked me to take her to an audition for Generations. I was there and acting like a cool person when Mfundi Vundla came out and just started chatting. He asked me what I was doing there and he eventually convinced me to just audition. I went in with no preparation‚ and really no fear‚ and I got the job! I was so surprised!
“I believe that if you are meant for a job‚ it will find you. Even if you are sitting in a parking lot thinking you are too cool‚” laughs Sthandiwe.
What followed was a decade-long TV journey that saw her play several roles on both Generations and popular SABC 3 soapie Isidingo.
She’s seen a lot of change in the industry since then‚ and she is impressed by how it has grown. But she does not fully understand the calls to open the entertainment industry to more individuals.
“There are only so many platforms available for actors. What are they supposed to do when that is their only job? Acting is their daily bread. How are they supposed to support themselves and their families? People who criticise are the ones who have a solid paycheck and medical aid‚ but as actors we grab what we can get to make ends meet.
Why do you think that this is one of the only industries where‚ when someone dies‚ everyone regroups and pools resources to support the family? Because for many this is literally all they have‚” Sthandiwe says firmly.
There’s a fire in her eyes. A fire that roars as she tells us that she does not blame the 16 Generation actors who were fired from the show over contract disputes.
“Of course‚ I would have followed them. Some of those were my colleagues at one point. Those (contract) discussions were just part of a hectic‚ but necessary‚ conversation that blew up. But that is the reality of the industry‚” she adds.
Sthandiwe says that she supported them from the sidelines as she embarked on her own journey.
You see‚ Sthandiwe is a “creator” by nature. And so when her urge became too loud to ignore‚ she decided to take a break from the acting world to start several projects behind the scenes and in the fashion world.
“I took a break but you never break away from the industry completely. Even when I was on Generations‚ I made my own costume. As a creative you are never done. One day you are in front of the camera and the next day you are painting and the following day you are producing something or opening a shop. You can’t be put into a box because your mind is always creating‚” she says.
She ebbed and flowed between projects and responsibilities until she felt the time was right to return. This time to take up the role of Xolile Masondo on Mzansi Magic’s The Road.
Unfortunately‚ her journey on the show was short-lived. The show was canned less than seven-months after its debut.
“I think maybe the audience didn’t understand the concept of the constant flashbacks‚ with two different stories. Perhaps it wasn’t played for long enough for the audience to adapt. I was sad about it ending but I really have no regrets‚” she says.
Some people might have been discouraged by the short stint‚ but Sthandiwe says her serenity comes from something far removed from the blinding lights of stardom and the TV screen.
“My peace comes from my children. The one thing they have taught me is that I am great... and that I am hilarious. They think I’m so cool. Even when I drop them off at school they want me to come and greet their friends. And‚ oh my‚ all of my children have acting ambitions. I’m like ‘pilot‚ scientist‚ mathematician. Can you please something other than an actor?’
But I love being a mom! My children make me so happy and every day that I spend with them is a good day.”
No wonder she can’t stop grinning. And neither can we.
I’m walking her out our building and I can almost feel the envy when she gives me a hug. Everyone is looking at Sthandiwe and I’m again reminded that I’ve just chatted to acting royalty. A queen who doesn’t recognise her own crown.