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An audience with Connie Ferguson

Image: Steve Tanchel

Long before the fight for representation of black people in media became a movement, there was Karabo Moroka. Beautiful and statuesque, she was a part of the Moroka dynasty founded from an advertising empire aptly called New Horizons. Back in 1994, the popular soapie Generations, following the lives of the fictional Moroka family, offered hope and respite for a nation still grappling with the dark night of the horrific apartheid regime, and the dawn of a fledgeling democratic South Africa.

But for many little girls, like me at the time, Karabo was more than just a character. She was the visual representation of what was possible for a young black woman — wealth that meant you lived in a mansion, designer clothes complemented by cutting-edge hairstyles, and the ability to speak to men, even in higher power, with authority. So seeing the woman who embodied Karabo Moroka for close on two decades, in person, for the first time ever, is surreal. 

Connie Ferguson is tall. Even with no heels on, she’s a willowy 1.73m. Her hair is tied up in a neat pony with a tail that rhythmically follows her regal stride. She’s the guest speaker at the Sowetan Women’s Club Freedom Day event, and the crowd is visibly starstruck as she enters the venue to a flurry of gasps and frantic camera clicking. She is just like you imagine her to be: poised, eloquent, and powerful. Connie is no longer Karabo Moroka, although if you google the name, Connie’s life comes up as if they were one person.

These days, the Kimberley-born actress is better known as a successful producer of such shows as The Queen, The Throne, Rockville and Igazi. She has a bodycare range, eponymous eyewear, and an enviable six-pack at the age of 49. I don’t get to meet her on this particular day but fast-forward to four months later, after weeks of trying every possible avenue to get her to grace our Heritage edition, our paths cross again. This time, I am guaranteed an audience.

I promised myself I wouldn’t get so overwhelmed by the moment that I’d fluff it. Except she arrives just as I set my bag down, leaving little time to compose myself. She walks in, in all her ageless glory, and gives me a hug as she introduces herself. I overplay the coolness card and am sure I have just served the queen of South African television an unintentional cold shoulder. But there’s time to recover. She’s here for three hours of our cover shoot. She arrives five minutes late only because she struggled to find the studio.

Connie is all smiles as she greets our team individually, introducing herself. She’s dressed down in a printed casual top, jeans, and loafers. She’s not a fan of high heels, following an injury to her foot during a car accident in 1990. She shares this from her makeup chair, swivelling to display her scars as an explanation for why she might not be able to wear some of the higher shoes our team has sourced for her.

Connie is so affable that it’s easy to think you’ve known her for ages. She looks you in the eye when she speaks, and does not shy away from occasional physical contact. But that doesn’t leave one feeling any less awestruck. A friend of mine who recently met her told me she could not string a proper sentence together when faced with the doyenne. Our beauty editor flat out admitted that, given the opportunity, she would not be able to speak. The Connie Ferguson fan club is real. Her previous awards, including being voted one of the country’s most beautiful women, and a Glamour Woman of the Year are testament to the actress’s popularity and influence. But is she an icon? “I don’t like to label myself,” she says. “I’m just someone who loves what they do and does it with passion. I’m humbled that people regard me as an icon. I do not take for granted the love and support I have enjoyed throughout my career.” And, spanning close to 30 years, what a career it is. She has been a model, actress, businesswoman and, more recently, the co-founder of production house Ferguson Films.

“I am grateful and truly blessed.” But what does a typical day for the woman who wears many hats look like? “My days are never the same. On a typical day I would be up at 5am, on set for The Queen at 6am and film throughout the day till 6 to 6.30pm.” Apparently there are two types of typical days. Another involves a “split between The Queen, meetings during the day, and gym in the evening”. Ah yes, the body that recently sent social media into a frenzy when Connie posted a post-workout video showing off her ripped midriff. A large part of her training involves boxing.

“It has not only made me stronger physically, but mentally as well. My focus continues to improve, and my mood has elevated! I have also formed a lovely sisterhood with my gym partners, so I feel pretty well rounded now,” she says. For someone who has been in the public eye for this long, it’s somewhat strange that so little is known about her. Over the years, she has managed a carefully constructed narrative, revealing just enough to keep the adoring public wanting more. In person, it’s easy to see how one can feel they are getting more than they are. Connie declares that she can’t speak to someone without looking them in the eye, and she makes a point to engage attentively, even if for a moment. One person who does not need to seek out her attention is her four year-old grandson Ronewa. Connie is quite clearly besotted with the adorable toddler. Ro, as she affectionately calls him, is “VERY special. He gets away with a lot. And every time his mom is mad at him for something, he has to report to me. I’m sometimes caught between a rock and a hard place... diplomacy is a big thing when you’re a grandma!”

Image: Steve Tanchel

Joining the set after being picked up from school, Ronewa manages to eclipse his famous grandma. All attention turns to him as he shares his age, who his friends are, and which sweets he would like. “Shona was the only man in the house until he came along,” she says. As her life and business partner, it’s difficult for Shona Ferguson’s name not to come up in conversations with and about Connie. This doesn’t bother her. “Often I’ll actually be the one bringing his name up! My husband and I are very close and we do a lot of things together so it’s only natural that his name pops up a lot in conversations. Never intentional, it’s just the way it is.” They have been married for nearly 18 years. “Shona and I love each other unconditionally. Even more so over the years. We have learnt to communicate honestly but with care, to be objective in conflict resolution, and to know and understand that it’s not always about being right or wrong, but more about being on the same page, more often than not.”

So what are three basics she’d advise young women not to compromise on when looking for a life partner? “Unconditional love, respect, and honest and open communication.” She also prioritises communication with her daughters, Lesedi and Alicia. “I encourage open and honest communication with my girls. It’s important to me for them to know that, no matter what, I would never judge. My role is to guide and advise, and pray and hope that ultimately they make the best decisions for themselves.”

She says her daughter “Sedi” is her best friend. “I think I’m a cool mom, or at least my children think I am.” But she is “quite strict but fair”. Her children are part of the legacy she hopes to leave behind. “My name and Ferguson Films are my legacy. My love and compassion are my legacy. The way I lead from the front, side-by-side and sometimes a step behind, is my legacy. My passion is my legacy. And last but not least, my children are my legacy.” As Connie leaves to rush off to an afternoon meeting, she still takes time to say her goodbyes. As she squeezes my hand, I realise how it’s come to be that this small-town girl has built an empire in the hearts of millions.

This article first appeared in print in the Sowetan S Mag September 2019 edition.