Thabang Molaba on ambition and his next move in the acting industry

Budding actor Thabang Molaba.
Budding actor Thabang Molaba.
Image: Themba Mokase

The global entertainment industry, tough as it can be on its talents, is also a world of serendipity. It’s an aspirational and fantastical business, filled with stories of incredible luck. Like how Charlize Theron, at 19 years of age and new to Los Angeles, was discovered by a talent agent while she was arguing with a bank teller who wouldn’t let her cash a cheque her mother had sent her to help her stay afloat. Or how Jerusalema, a track by Master KG — a relatively unknown 25-year-old from Limpopo — became a global phenomenon with over 440 million views on YouTube.

Success stories such as these are the reason why so many reality TV shows are looking to unearth “the next big thing”. We talk about realising “the impossible dream”, going from “rags to riches” and being “breakout stars”. We love celebrating established stars as much as we love launching new ones.

And now you can add 27-year-old Thabang Molaba to the ever-growing list of “unlikely” stars.

Most viewers of the Netflix teen thriller Blood & Water will not have heard of, let alone visited, the small town of Harrismith in the Free State. This not where you’d think stars are made, yet it’s where Molaba grew up before leaving home to study logistics and supply chain management at the Tshwane University of Technology. 

While he was getting to grips with demand forecasting, inventory management, and fleet management, he was also dreaming of another career — one in entertainment. 

“As soon as I graduated, I asked my parents if I could take a year off so I could go for what I really wanted, which was acting,” he tells S Mag after wrapping up the accompanying shoot for this interview. “I modelled during my studies just to get my name out there. It was like a stepping stone. The plan was always to venture into acting. But I’d be lying if I said that that plan included one day being on Netflix.”

I ask him for his “how I was discovered” tale, but he can’t remember how it all happened, just that there was “a lot of people” encouraging him to try out for gigs.

Four years ago, he was cast in his first gig — a TV ad for Wimpy, which was followed by ad campaigns for 5FM, Edgars, and Ackermans. Soon after that, he made his debut on Mzansi Magic’s The Queen, where he played the recurring role of Gift Mabuza, appearing alongside Rami Chuene, Connie Ferguson, and Themba Ndaba.

He cringes when he thinks about his first audition, calling it “horrible stuff”. He has also been quoted in the past admitting to feeling uncomfortable and self-conscious on set, but got back on track after taking one-on-one lessons with actress and acting and dialect coach Patricia Boyer.

“I see failure as an opportunity for growth,” he says now. “Every successful person in the world, no matter the industry, has failed before. The only difference is they never gave up. It is part of life. For instance, when someone else is picked over me at an audition, I just go back and try to improve and perfect my craft. It’s definitely not something to be afraid of.”

His hard work and determination culminated in his being cast in Blood & Water which, while not the first South African series on Netflix, is definitely the biggest of the lot so far. After its release in May last year, it quickly became a Top 10 show in some of Netflix’s biggest markets, including the US and UK.

The series, which follows Capetonian teen Puleng Khumalo’s attempts to find out whether private-school “It girl” Fikile Bhele is her sister who was abducted at birth, catapulted stars Ama Qamata and Khosi Ngema into the international spotlight.

While Molaba’s character, KB Molapo, has spent the bulk of the show chasing a music career and being toyed with by Puleng, there are suggestions that he is about to feature strongly, as the teens question the role of their parents in child trafficking. The first season ended on a cliff-hanger, and fans will finally get answers to all their unanswered questions when the second season premieres on 24 September.

The second season was shot earlier this year and Molaba admits it was a far different proposition to the first one, thanks to the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown. Some colleagues contracted Covid-19, which disrupted the shooting schedule, and this interview had to be postponed by a week because Molaba was in quarantine.

Fully recovered now, he says via Zoom: “A shout-out to us for getting a season in the can during a pandemic. It was extreme. It also disrupted a lot of my other projects. I had to put them aside to finish up Blood & Water. It was touch-and-go with everything.”

That wasn’t the only change. With “mind-blowing” success comes expectations that are just as sizable, and that has changed everything. “Nothing about Blood & Water was expected. We did not expect the public reception. We were all in a grey area, wondering how it would go. The popularity came as a shocker for all of us,” he says. “Being on Netflix has brought pressure to keep working on myself and my craft even more. If you’re going to be on such global platforms you need to bring your A game. That’s the kind of pressure I am feeling more than anything else.” 

As for the (valid) frenzied attention his TV appearances and Instagram posts elicit, Molaba says he has learned how to “deflect” it all. You get the sense the popularity is a little bemusing to someone who simply wants to “put my momma in a mansion”, as he sing-raps on the track On My Own from his 2019 album, Soul Ties

I ask him how close he is to realising that dream, to which he replies: “it’s coming — give me another two or three years.”

While his modelling career might have suffered, he believes his acting and music can coexist. He declines to comment on rumours that he has signed on for a hip-hop biopic called African/American, said to be based on the story of music industry alum Syd Money and his collaboration with kasi rap pioneer ProKid. If reports are to be believed, Molaba will play ProKid opposite Chicago rapper Vic Mensa as Syd Money.

Seeing as South Africa is celebrating Heritage Month, I am curious how he feels about criticisms that certain stories our artists are putting out are inauthentic. In some sections, Blood & Water has been skewered for depicting lifestyles not representative of the experience of the majority of teens in this country. Similarly, there have long been concerns of an overabundance of international content on our TV and radio. But Molaba gives content creators and broadcasters in this country a pass mark.

“That’s a tough one,” he says. “But to be honest, when I look at artists standing out musically, right now, they represent where they come from well. They are rapping or singing in isiZulu or seSotho, for example, and those are also the artists who are being received well [at home and abroad].” He cites Blaq Diamond and Malome Vector as just two such examples. “I also started sing-rapping in seSotho on my latest project. That’s the way to go, personally.”

Having said that, Molaba’s ultimate goal is to make it in the United States. It’s a dream of many artists around the world — and countless have seen those dreams dashed. But Molaba has picked up a few lessons while working alongside some of this country’s crème de la crème.

“Mastering one’s craft is not something that just happens; it takes time and you have to work at it. They [veterans I’ve worked with] are very professional — they always show up with the work done. I’ve grabbed that and I’m using it as a tool to help me grow and push on.”

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