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Noxolo Dlamini: A 21st-century action hero

The acting, singing, and dancing Dlamini has proven to be her generation’s greatest triple threat

Emmanuel Tjiya S Mag Editor-in-chief
The enchanting Noxolo Dlamini.
The enchanting Noxolo Dlamini.
Image: Steve Tanchel

Noxolo Dlamini’s career has steadily been picking up steam until, in 2023, she finally clawed her way out of the wilderness and carved her path to superstardom.  

It’s just after 9am on Friday, on the eve of the Springboks being crowned the 2023 Rugby World Cup champions in Paris. Dlamini struts into Villa Simonne Boutique Hotel in the heart of Houghton, Joburg.

The morning rays are as hot as the midday sun with temperatures peaking at 33 degrees. Dlamini is just as sizzling, flaunting her glowing skin in tan dungarees styled with a matching bandeau bra and Papillio Birkenstocks, bought during a recent New York trip.

She’s hand in hand with her six-year-old niece Liyana, whose face lights up when she sees the exquisite pool and lush garden. Within ten minutes of their arrival, the cheerful Liyana is negotiating to jump into the pool, to which Dlamini softly responds, “You can only dip your feet in.” Liyana excitedly takes off her shoes and dashes to the pool.  

The first time I met Dlamini was in 2021 on the set of Sowetan40 x Netflix, and we immediately hit it off — she was goofy, zestful, curious, and inviting. Through her interactions with Liyana — she’s a handful — I observe Dlamini’s more mature, patient, and nurturing side. When I tell her that we are running behind schedule for her shoot, she’s chilled about it, ordering rooibos tea and apple juice for Liyana, whom she closely guards by the pool.

Image: Steve Tanchel

When we sit down for a chat, Liyana rushes to her aunt’s side and promises to behave. Dlamini will remember 2023 as a blessed year. This is the year she turned 30, won a prestigious South African Film and Television Award, debuted in the political thriller Death of a Whistleblower at Toronto International Film Festival, and returned to the stage with Magnificent 7 at the South African State Theatre. And all of it happened in September, her birthday month.  

“My career has exceeded my exceptions,” she says. 

But it didn’t happen overnight. Dlamini has worked hard. Fresh off completing her BA in dramatic arts from the University of Pretoria in 2015, she joined the cast of Disney’s The Lion King musical in London’s West End. 

Dlamini first auditioned for The Lion King with a group of friends in her second year at university. They were just fooling around, but to her surprise she was the only one to get a call-back. The call-back was harder, she admits, and it ended there. But a spark in her ignited, she had fallen in love with the story. So, the next year she auditioned again, this time around putting in more effort, and got it. 

“Now I got the job and had to work. I had a difficult time, it was tough. I had to sing eight shows a week. When rehearsals started, we were singing intensely,” she recounts. “I hadn’t built that muscle because I was doing drama at school. It was a shock, and I didn’t have technique. I was a Nala understudy in London and didn’t get to play her, because low-key I wasn’t prepared for it. That was a make-or-break moment.” 

Upon her return home, she scored the titular role in the popular stage production Sarafina! and worked on improving her craft. As fate would have it, she got to play Nala again in 2018. But, in the end, it didn’t work out. While it was kept secret from the public, she confirms that they let her go after eight months. 

“I didn’t just decide that I’m done with The Lion King, I was let go,” she confesses. “They felt that my voice wasn’t consistent — every night they were like, ‘Is it going to be great or is it just going to be ok?’”

She acknowledges that it was the best decision for the production. 

“In the first leg of the tour when we were in the Philippines, they were very supportive. Then we went to Singapore, things started shifting, and I felt it. I asked, but they were protecting me,” she says. “Then we had the meeting. But it was ok because it was so hard — getting out of bed was difficult. I couldn’t pray because I felt like, ‘Why do I keep getting to spaces and not being good enough?’” 

When she returned to South Africa, she yearned for dramatic acting, as she had been doing musical theatre for years. She tried to get into TV and film, but rejection still stalked her. “I was told I was theatrical in my expressions and delivery. I didn’t understand, since I’m so animated,” she laughs.  

After taking classes for acting on film, she got her breakthrough on telenovela Isibaya. It led to her breakout lead role in the 2021 dance series Jiva! opposite fellow SMag cover star Prince Grootboom as her love interest. “It was hard for them to find a dancer who can act and an actress who can dance — and then I came along.”  

After Jiva!, she was booked and busy. Suddenly, she was everywhere on local film and television, cast in high-profile productions such as Housekeepers, The Republic, iNumber Number: Jozi Gold, and Silverton Siege, and winning her first Safta. Many of her roles have been physical, powerful action heroes with stunts. When I call her the Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) of Mzansi, she cracks up. “I love it. It’s exciting, it’s something that I have been working on and to see it happen is lovely. I love that a lot of my work requires me to be physical, because that’s who I am,” she says. 

Born in Tshiawelo, Soweto, Dlamini is the youngest of five children. She was raised by a single mother in a religious environment (Pentecostal) and her family spoilt her rotten. Her big dream is to record and release a pop album that will see her touring and performing at European summer festivals. 

It’s now 2pm and Grootboom and Dlamini happily reunite, just before she jumps into the pool for her cover, first in a white one-piece and then in a neon swimsuit. Liyana’s mother (Dlamini’s older sister) Zamokuhle arrives soon after with swimwear and armbands for the little one. Liyana finally gets to dive into the pool, swimming the afternoon away.