Face to face with Gabriel

Amanda Ngudle

Amanda Ngudle

On the morning of the anticipated meeting with Gabriel "Chief Azwindini" Temudzani I was all thumbs, wondering if I'd flunk royal protocol.

I had to remind myself many times that I was not meeting a real chief but the bloke who plays the character.

Still, as he made his appearance at the venue, waitrons piled on the nerves for me as they all virtually knelt at his feet.

Who could blame them? I mean, the guy towers over everyone as if he is truly a blue blood. He has what my grandmother called presence.

Dressed in designer jeans and trendy leather jacket, a far cry from the rural, brightly coloured wardrobe he wears on screen, he came towards our table, beaming, before extending a warm handshake.

Without wasting any time, Gabriel launched into the interview and I knew my day was made.

There are few things more awful than interviewing an unmelting man who doesn't gel as you get into the interview.

The first thing he speaks about is the so-called exodus from the soapie since he joined it in 2000.

"I look at Muvhango not as a place of employment but a brand and the reason I'm still there, despite the departure of many good and bad actors, is that I believe wholly in the brand," he says.

Sitting face to face with this ultra-composed man, it's hard to tell whether he is a staunch black man or metrosexual.

He talks about his trepidation over the crumbling institution of marriage and the degeneration of cultural values.

"The thing is, I seem to belong on both sides of this wall," he says. "One minute I'm answering to traditionalists who feel the need to correct ritual procedures as they see them on Muvhango - and the next I see Africans whose views are so far removed from our traditional realities that I'm baffled."

Clearly, for someone who took on the Chief Azwindini character at the age of 19, there must have been a board of advisers on set.

He agrees that a lot of research was done. He even had to spend time in the royal household.

But he also says that walking in a real chief's shoes has come naturally because, like every young man in rural Venda, he has always observed how royalty and their subjects conduct themselves.

He did so much research that these days when directors suggest a scene and protocol stands to be breached, he feels free to object.

"I feel as if it's my duty to not only portray the truth on the screen but to also conserve the respect that Venda people now enjoy because of our cultural dignity."

But there's more to life than holding the candle for the people. He is an insomniac but chooses to play his cards close to his chest about such subjects.

"The thing with you reporters is that one is never really safe," he says. "You try and have fun and the next you learn in the papers that you've been up to no good. You don't seem to realise just how much power your pens possess.

"People take the things you write as gospel. Do you know how many lives are devastated because of the lies spread about innocent people?

"I don't believe you guys do enough to uplift the standard of journalism in this country."

I hate taking the knives for other people, so, after standing up for myself, we speak about what qualifies him to say such things.

"I did media studies at Boston College so I think I know what I'm talking about," he says.

Okay, brother.

Once we start eating, he having ordered hot wings and juice and me with my Amstel, we start delving into the continental demarcation issues, the new refugee camps and African solutions.

Like our President, Temudzani believes in the United States of Africa dream.

Like an actor who's been playing his character too long, he says: "It's the only way this continent will prevail over its image, food crises and the raging traditional wars."

Spoken like a true chief.

But what's going to happen to him when he loses his chieftaincy? He tells me to keep my eyes on the soapie.