Vuyo Dabula: The kiss of life

Vuyo Dabula
Image: Steve Tanchel

“There was a time when I wouldn’t kiss on camera as an actor,” reveals Vuyo Dabula, casually. The actor oozes effortless cool with his movie-star looks and his off-duty style — a pair of simple ripped jeans, fitted grey T-shirt, and fedora. “It was both a spiritual and religious thing for me. When I took that stance I truly believed that I was doing the right thing.”

As he walks into our offices, he tries hard to go unnoticed with his head buried in his cellphone. But soon he is spotted and so it begins — the whispers, pointing of fingers and whipping out mobile devices. One onlooker mutters, “It’s Gadaffi.”

The 40-year-old has amassed quite a following since his acting breakthrough on Generations: The Legacy where he plays the cunning, yet sensitive and emotionally troubled, gangster Kumkani “Gadaffi” Phakade.  Every night, Dabula is beamed across to the millions of South Africans who religiously gather around their TV sets to watch the popular soapie.

Dabula hails from Mahikeng, the capital of North West, and has learnt how to survive on the “streets”. Reflecting on his tough rise to stardom, Dabula says he had to hold a couple of odd jobs, including working on a construction site. “I remember driving for a food company, waiting on tables, and driving little kids to crèche. I did a lot of things to survive, but I didn’t strip,” he jokingly says.

With his ripped abs, chiselled chest, and big guns, it comes as no surprise that in 2015 throngs of fans voted him Sowetan LIVE Mzansi’s Sexiest man. To get his washboard abs, Dabula puts in five gym sessions a week at two-and-a-half hours each.

“I think I was a gladiator in my past life. Gym is like a temple for me. I think God resides there. When I’m running on the treadmill, I think Jesus is by my side cheering me on. I really work hard,” Dabula says.

Vuyo Dabula
Image: Steve Tanchel

Although he has always been athletic, the actor says that he follows a strict diet. “A high percentage of your success belongs to the diet. You can’t outrun a bad diet.” The actor is so dedicated that he plans all his meals. “I will cook for the day a day before, but with my hectic schedule I have come up with quick meals.”

Dabula first tasted fame in 2003 when he starred alongside the late singer Lebo Mathosa in the film Soldiers of the Rock. “It is amazing how I had been in this industry for a very long time before people took notice,” Dabula says. 

He admits that his no-kissing stance affected his career somehow. “I remember Angus Gibson looking at me perplexed when he gave me my big break to star in Yizo Yizo III. Here I was being given my first TV role in the biggest show on TV at that time and he couldn’t understand it.” 

The same production company did, however, go on to cast him in another role in TV series, Zone 14, alongside actress Terry Pheto.  But the same luck didn’t follow him to the set of SABC 3 soapie Isidingo. In 2011 he portrayed the villainous Cherel de Villiers’ (Michelle Botas) defence lawyer Titus Lesenya, but the show eventually had to let him go because it proved impossible to not write a love interest into his storyline.

The actor says he has come a long way since the “no-kissing” clause in his contracts. “My whole stance on kissing changed after a long period of being validated by producers, directors, and just how people kept wanting to work with me, even though I kept pushing them away.” After dropping the clause, he landed the role on Generations two years ago — a “huge turn” in his career. “One day I just called my agent and I said, ‘Listen, let’s drop that thing — it’s time’. That final straw was when my son was born. I knew what the street had done to me and I did not want him to go through that.”

It took three months for his agent to find him the role of Gadaffi. “The Generations people showed some faith and confirmed me. The feeling was something else, just amazing. The money that was being discussed was unbelievable,” he says.

With growing popularity, the actor’s personal life has also fallen under the spotlight, but when it comes to the limelight, his family is off limits. Talking about his wife and two-year-old son, Dabula immediately lights up. “They are the reasons that I do this. I’m doing all of this so my son and his mommy live a good life.” Dabula is firm however, that their privacy is protected. “They did not choose this life. I’m the one that wanted it, not them. I want them to have the privacy they deserve. Let them be in peace: crucify me, hit me — I’m the one that is in the public eye,” he says.

Another family member who was integral in Dabula’s life was his father, whom he recently lost. “My father passed away about four months ago,” he says. Dabula, a boxing fanatic, says it was his father who introduced him to the sport. “He would wake me up really early in the morning local time to catch them live from the States,” Dabula says.

Vuyo Dabula
Image: Steve Tanchel

As a special tribute to his father, in January he took to the ring during an exhibition match at the South African Boxing Awards in Durban, where he faced off against Muvhango actor Gabriel Temudzani. In preparing for the face-off, Dabula trained with one of his boxing heroes and former WBU Welterweight Champion Jan Bergman. “I grew up with boxing. We would watch the Fabulous Four — Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvelous Marvin Hagler — the guys that dominated the heavyweights.  For me to be part of something that is meant to revive boxing, something that (my father) loved just gave me goose bumps.”

Dabula is now gearing up for the next chapter in his career: being a leading man on the big screen. He is starring in local Western, Five Fingers for Marseilles, which will hit cinemas across the country later in 2017. Dabula shot the film on location last winter in the rural village of Lady Grey in the Eastern Cape. The film features an all-star cast, including Kenneth Nkosi, Mduduzi Mabaso, Jerry Mofokeng, and Warren Masemola.

“Recently we just did postproduction on the movie. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that in South Africa. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing — I think it’s going to be something else.

“Shooting this film was quite intense because I fought against the elements and a lot of things, both emotionally and physically. It was shot in sub-zero degrees: it was so cold and snowing. But it all worked out beautifully.”

Dabula teases that we can expect more film work from him. He is linked to a future film project helmed by revered director Akin Omotoso, although he says it’s in development stage.

In 2016 he scored big when GQ South Africa named him best-dressed man, although he still believes he is clueless when it comes to fashion. “I get inspiration from the movie stars and the street. A lot of the time I’m just a copycat. I’d look at a rock star and just recreate the look for myself,” Dabula says. “Lenny Kravitz is one of my style influences, except that I’m not bold enough to wear leather pants. I like to keep it nice and simple. I love a good tailored suit.”

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