Image by Mlungisi Mlungwana
By Mandi ‘Poefficient’ Vundla |
In a scrap yard down town in Jeppestown, where migrant laborers have come to the city for their share of gold, but little did they know that we would be shooting Nomzamo Mbatha of Isibaya, right outside their homes. The entrance of the scrap yard is littered with car parts, you have to mind your head on your way in or it may get caught in the wiring. The rain set the mood for the shoot, with a backdrop of grey sky and an old man with untainted kindness offered us a chair to sit. We geared up to let the star of the day, Nomzamo strike poses whilst Jeppe locals looked on in admiration.
After our snaps were done our interview followed at the Isibaya set and we got an exclusive pass to see Nomzamo in full character mode.
The director called for a break and that was our cue to get a deeper insight on our leading lady. Any African child will attest to how quickly one needs to grow up when living with their grandmother and so does Nomzamo. She speaks fondly of her childhood and what it was like growing up under her grandmother’s wing. She misses the simplest things like eating sherbet and being sent to buy bread. While her grandmother washed her school shirt, she would tend to the dishes.
She explodes into laughter when she recalls her grandmother’s words
“Weh Nomzamo, Forget about finding a man that only belongs to you. Where will you find a man like that on this earth? Your grandfather would tell me to my face that he’s going over to see Ma Dlamini and he’ll be back tomorrow.”
I know that grandmothers are notorious for that kind of advice.
There are habits she still keeps from her grandmother’s house, till this day Mbatha takes her food with freshly chopped chillies. She says because her uncles loved hot food,at the age of three, her grandmother started adding chilli to the food she cooked and Mbatha just had to learn to stomach it.
“Till this day, it’s hard for me to have a meal without an extra kick”
Mbatha attended Bechet High, she gets philosophical about her high school years.
This is when she started finding herself and her voice. It’s difficult to imagine her as the high school girl who never believed in her own pretty, she says to compensate for that, she knew she needed to be smart so she sunk her head into her books.
“Because girl, you can’t be ugly and dumb!”
Our chat is coupled with spurts of laughter in-between because Mbatha is candid like that. She knew that there would always be opinions about her lack of beauty but “check the score board, I’m smart; and I’m in the top three” her sass is on fleek. All of this sounds like a myth though because the girl who says she was once unattractive is now turning heads on every ‘front page’. Her mentality to thrive is still at bay and Mbatha applies it everywhere in her life.
“You can’t just rely on looks and your physical appearance. What do you have to offer as a human-being to another human-being? If there’s nothing and you only have looks to give, then there’s a problem?”
She inherited her social spirit from her mother, whom she says loved people. Her dad on the other hand, earned himself the nickname ‘Skuta’ because he was a pretty boy with a fetish for bikes. He also had adult conversations with her about boys when he realized that his daughter was now growing out of her child like body. When she shares it with me, her Zulu kicks back in.
“Yazi sisi, boys were here long before you were born and they we will remain long after you’re gone. Go out there, conquer the world first thereafter you can start dating.”
Mbatha grew up in a sheltered yet exposed environment in KwaMashu. She explains that although she wasn’t allowed to play in the streets, living in KwaMashu opened her up to many trying experiences. At 19:30 while watching the news, when they heard the sound of gunshots, this meant that bedtime came in earlier than usual because they’d had to switch the TV and lights off immediately; when they heard that someone was being beaten up the road because they were caught stealing, they’d go and see who it was then report it back home, a lot happened those many years ago.
These experiences she says equipped her for her journey. Adding on to the mayhem,
she attended a predominantly coloured school and she also remembers how disorderly it was.
“You’d be walking past the boys toilets and suddenly you’d hear fire-crackers going off because someone just lit fire-works.”
Her feathers weren’t ruffled by the chaos. Her journey towards being the Deputy Head Girl began in Grade 8, the preparation for leadership duties came when her school was invited to Westville Prison where the inmates had prepared a performance for her school. When none of the students raised their hands to share their opinion about the performance they had just seen, her teacher who referred to her as ‘Big Mouth’ called her onto the stage and when she showed signs of fear he said: “If you never take chances in life, you’ll never know.”
That was her very first experience of the stage, she can’t remember what she said but she knows that she was confident; articulate and poised enough to be selected as Madam Speaker at the KZN youth parliament later. “If somebody were to find those tapes, I’d be doomed!”
She may be doomed but it would definitely be interesting to watch. Mbatha’s leadership role grew over the years and so did the school events and she became the go to girl but when the work load and the traveling began to interfere with her academics, both her accounting teacher and her principal advised against her taking on any school events during her matric year, so she focused solely on her academics and received a bursary from Old Mutual. She went on to study for a BComm accounting degree at the University of Cape Town. Little did she know that years later she would become an Old Mutual ambassador serving advice on Taxes. “It’s weird how things have come full circle with Old Mutual”. On her experience at UCT; Mbatha says university was tough.
In 2009, her life took a grave turn. An hour before she was about to write her information systems exam, she received a call informing her that her sister had passed away. Her mother advised her to go through with the exam so that she wouldn’t risk jeopardizing her bursary. She wrote her exam. then packed her bags and made her way home for the funeral. Only to find that her grandmother was unwell. Mbatha’s relocation to the Cape took its toll on her grandmother and in January, the following year she laid her to rest on a Sunday and was back at UCT on Monday to write her entrance exam.
It’s always been a case of ‘get up and go’ for Mbatha.
“As black people, we always undermine PTSD. You are only able to connect the dots looking back, anyone who went through that should have gone for counselling”
When it all boiled down, Nomzamo became dissatisfied with her environment, she felt displaced and was discontent with her life and how mundane it was looking at UCT. Her bursary was taken away but she managed to apply for a NASFAS loan while juggling part-time work to keep afloat, she was crashing under the strain of having to use the little she made to help out back home. “I’ve always been a survivor”
She hung in there until 2012, when she went home for the July holidays, she came across a poster for the MTV BASE VJ search; her friend Sanda Mofokeng encouraged her to enter. But when she made her way to Gateway, she felt intimidated by all the cool kids who were also there to claim their spot as potential MTV BASE VJ’S.
“They came from good homes; looked and spoke better than me” When she hesitated, Sansa held her hand through it all and Mbatha who knew very little about make-up and being a glam girl made it into the top10; packed a few items in her bag and boarded a flight to Jo’burg to meet the other finalists. Too broke to dress up and hustle a photographer to take her promo picture,
She walked into a retail store, picked a cute looking outfit and went straight to the fitting room to take a selfie she would then use as her promo pic, to secure votes for the competition. “Poverty is very real!” she says, but so are her survival antics. What she thought was just a mere dare, turned into a big deal when she made it to the top3. She was doing her final year at UCT and again, traveling was detrimental to her studies. While Mbatha was campaigning for votes to win the VJ search she received a DM on twitter from Bomb Productions, to say that they’re coming up with a new story and they’d like her to audition.
She was nervous about responding to the call because she had never acted before in her life but the casting director put her doubt to rest when she said “as long as you can take direction; speak KZN Zulu and Model C English.” Not sure what that meant, after writing her exams Mbatha got on a plane to Jo’burg, this time to audition for Isibaya. She says the audition was grueling and went on for weeks but she scored big with the role of Thandeka Zungu. She wasn’t excited over her win because she knew she was trudging on foreign terrace and she didn’t really know what this meant for her, she was just grateful she could report back home with a job in her pocket.She told her family that she won’t be graduating in that year.
Although she has adapted to her career in acting, Mbatha doesn’t rate herself as a stellar performer
“No, I don’t think I’m an amazing actor because I want the formal training; to be able to grasp the technical side of things as much as I can grasp the easy and more natural emotions.I do believe training makes a difference. You can tell when somebody has technique, because when you have technique then you have something to lean on when instinct lets you down”
Mbatha is grateful for her colleagues on Isibaya and how they have allowed her to grow without judgement. She says she has always allowed herself to be the baby. “You have to allow yourself to be the kid; to allow the newness to teach you something”
When she lost out on the MTV BASE VJ search competition, she remembers sitting in the lavatories and thanking God for that ‘no’ because she knew he was preparing her for an even bigger ‘yes’. That ‘yes’ has brought numerous opportunities her way. She starred in her first movie ‘Tell Me Sweet Something’ alongside Maps Maponyane. She says although she cringes every time she watches her performance she is forever grateful for the experience.
You may wonder how she keeps herself grounded with all the publicity she gets.
Behind the Puma; Neutrogena; Audi and Old Mutual Ambassador lies a management team ‘Brand 360’ She says that they ensure that she makes business sense to different brands. Her best friend is also her executive life manager and prayer warrior. She says she also has a great agency: MLA that manages her film and television career. It looks like our girl is well looked after When I call her ‘the it girl’ she says she can’t identify with that. She is just a survivor
“I’m unafraid of being myself; of looking weird in my own space on social media.”
True! We’ve seen her dance around online, in her bikini, a wedding video and at work.
She is unashamedly free in her own skin. She says we should expect great things from her production company: Ground Six, named after the soccer grounds in KwaMashu.
“My life turned out the way it has because of the prayer of strangers.”
and because of those prayer, she would like to pay it forward.