Counting blessings with Terry Pheto

Image: Steve Tanchel

In South Africa, there is only a handful of people we can call “stars” and mean it — Terry Pheto is one of them. But she’s not just a star — she’s a superstar.

Fourteen years after starring in the Oscar-winning film Tsotsi, Terry has managed to remain in the limelight, while simultaneously staying out of it entirely. She’s almost unicorn-like — except she’s actually real. When she does make the rare public appearance —be it on the red carpet or, as I once spotted her, at a hair salon — there’s an air of grace and mystery about her which is not entirely of her own making. It’s as though we’ve built her up so much in our minds that when we do get to encounter her, it really does feel like meeting a celebrity.

2019 has been a particularly big year for the actress: she’s teamed up with legendary Swiss luxury-timepiece brand Longines for a partnership that’s the first of its kind in Africa. The key to longevity in a fickle industry, she says, is “not stopping”, even when she has felt like giving up and walking away from it all. But the fame and success haven’t gone to her head — she’s down-to-earth and exercises humility when it comes to her place in the world: “Realising that the world is so big and that we are a tiny grain of sand in the ocean is important,” she says. And in this big world, Terry has had a big year.

2019 was a year of growth and revelation. It was challenging, but it was also an incredible year. The year was elegantly put together. When it comes to my career, I always focus on the long term. It’s important to be clear from the outset what kind of career you want. It’s either you want a hit song or you want a career. You can have both, if you’re lucky. And you can have a long career with a couple of hits. I’ve always wanted to have a career more than just a hit.

My approach to social media is to tread carefully because I’m engaging people whom I don’t necessarily know, so I try to protect my feelings. I treat social media as a broadcasting channel and I carefully curate the content that I share. We can’t ignore the power of social media, but we also can’t be ignorant of how damaging and scary it can be.

I make sure I keep my private life separate from my public persona. My work is my work, and I also want to protect the people I love and care about. I’ve never needed my personal life to boost my career. I’ve always relied on the work that I do.

I agreed to the Longines partnership because I’m at a point in my career where I can say a lot of “nos”, but when I’m excited about something I say “yes”. This was one of the yeses. I’d always been a fan of the brand and its ambassadors, because most are people I’ve looked up to. I had worked with them before, but this year they approached me and said they wanted a serious, long-term partnership. It’s been a great partnership and I look forward to more years with them.

My idea of happiness is to travel the world and tell stories. My greatest extravagance is travel — there’s no greater teacher.

Realising that the world is so big and that we are a tiny grain of sand in the ocean is important. It gives me stillness and calm. Knowing that God is real and that God is alive, and what He can do for you, humbles me. I sleep better knowing that there’s a force bigger than me that protects and provides. That gives me peace.

What gives me energy is good ideas. When I have a good idea, I can wake up at 4am and work on it. I can work for 14 hours without being tired. I am inspired by my desire to want to be more, to work on myself, and to challenge myself. I like to look forward to the person that I will be in the next five years, and to try make choices that she’ll be proud of.

What I most value in the team I work with is that they have my back. Even when I’m not that excited to wake up, they’re there to make sure I hear that the alarm just went off. Working with a good team is important, because you need people who have your back and who can help you decide which projects to pick. A good team has dreams for you and your growth and is not just there because they’re getting paid.

When I think of the festive season I think of cinnamon and vanilla, and of the kids in the family running around the house. It’s a time to count the blessings, not the calories. I cook a lot during the festive season and make up new recipes. I get everyone in the family involved in the preparations.

In 2020, I hope to make more movies and travel around Africa. I will also trust my intuition more. If something doesn’t feel right, then it’s not right. You must know when to say no and when to walk away from things that are not meant for you.

If I were to die and come back as a person or thing, it would be an elephant. They’re so majestic and have great memories.

My South African highlight of 2019 is winning the Rugby World Cup, of course.

I will write a book about my life when the ink dries.

I tell a lie when I say I’ll start to diet tomorrow.

The qualities I most value in my friends are honesty and respect.

My hidden talents are cooking and knitting.

The person I most admire is my mother. She’s the epitome of strength and grace.

My favourite possession is my home. It’s my sanctuary and my haven, you can’t buy that kind of peace.

My current state of mind is gratitude. I’m grateful for all my blessings and lessons in life.