Images by: Mlungisi Mlungwana | Creative Director: Ayanda Sithebe | dressed and styled by Ernest Mahomane
By Mandi ‘Poefficient’ Vundla |
There is more to Israel than meets the eye. Beneath the man known for mastering on-screen gangster roles lies Ndumiso Israel Matseke-Zulu. A self-made man shaped by his grandmother, poverty, prison bars and art. I can’t calm my nerves from ticking as he enters our offices but as soon as we start talking I begin to realize that there is nothing to be nervous about. Israel is street-wise and he carries the streets of Alexandra Township in his body, mind and spirit. He is generous with his story. His coarse voice consumes the air around us and all the dust from his childhood memories settles into the space. I ask him about the era in his life before the crimes began because I know that there’s a boy in there who had bigger aspirations beyond making a quick buck and I want to meet him.
“When I was young, I had no expectations of what my life should look like. I appreciated the life i had as a little boy. At the age of ten, I participated in church activities, I attended Sunday school and I was a cub in the scouts.”
There has to be more to that little boy than this. So I make an inquiry about Israel’s fondest childhood memory and ‘church camp’ takes the number one spot. “At home they knew that I’d choose camp over school any day” he says. The getaway relieved him from the stresses of his poverty at home by putting food in his stomach. Camp was also the only form of entertainment available to him. Church activities included dance, acting and singing but the last day of camp is what excited him most. There he would showcase his interdisciplinary artistic splendor. A gift he thought was far too out of reach for him.
Israel ‘the school boy’ attended Gordon Combined School,
but before we can move further into his schooling years, the first thing to burst out of his mouth is “Jissis, our principal was a dictator haai indaba yokuganga, ubeshaya imvubu from umtwana ka sub A to std 5!”
Throughout Alexandra Township his school was notorious for its strict nature and stern conductor ‘Principle Baloyi.’ All the parents wanted to send their children there, he says.
Though Baloyi was a strict Principle he was also their ‘Hero’ and they looked up to him.
“Our principle was an entertainer, father-figure, friend and dictator but at the same time he could crack a joke and have us all in stitches”. He played such a significant role in Israel’s life that Israel even wrote a play about him. “We called him ‘Brigo Brixton Tower Brigado because he was tall and big like Idi Amin, he wore size 12 shoes and he had a big voice” says Matseke-Zulu, and with that big voice he taught them how to sing artistically too. How to stretch each word from its root without leaving any letter out. “When you sing you don’t have to mold your voice and be beautiful” he said “you must be ugly!” Matseke-Zulu recalls the dictator’s instructions to them and I laugh with all my teeth hanging out.
This is the nature of our conversation; unexpected laughs to balance out any traces of sorrow.
Through it all Israel doesn’t forget his late grandmother and how she shaped him into the man he is today. She encouraged him to be active in the community. She forced him to go to church where he took part in his first play, under the guidance of Mrs Griffin.
Israel was a strategic boy, he invited the people from his church to his home with the hopes that they would be affected by his poverty and bring along groceries upon their next visit. He also participated in sports because “i had no excuse”, he says. “I couldn’t say I’m going to this place or that place because I was always available.”
To remain proactive in his day to day life Israel also partook in sports, he sucked at soccer so he took up tennis and was motivated by the possibility of these activities manifesting into bigger opportunities.
Between the ages of ten and twelve he worked as a street vendor, trading at the PEN bus terminals.
This was a favourite pastime,“There was no time where I had nothing to do, if I wasn’t selling apples and peanuts at the bus station then I was at the youth centre rehearsing gumboot dance and after that I went to play tennis. That’s the kind of child I was. There was no activity I didn’t participate in.”
He spread himself far and wide, poverty fed his hunger for knowledge because there was nothing else to fall back on. Though he was very diligent he confesses that “I was also a naughty child!”
He dropped out of school in grade 9 and graduated into crime. “We were failing in high school because Brigado was no longer there.” Abo Kleva were the well-kempt township super-heroes and Israel aspired to be just like them. A well- kempt-thug who stole from white people to feed his own family. When I asked what motivated him to start doing crime, and he recalls a time over the school holidays when he took walks outside the township and into the suburbs, to clear his mind and breathe in new air. There he woke up to the sad reality of white privilege on the backdrop of black suffering and he wondered why life in the township is so different from life in the neighboring suburbs. Why white parents could afford to buy their children chocolate at the mall and why white houses were adorned with swimming pools. “We were watching all of this” he says.
This gave him a clear understanding of the reasons behind the uprisings and the heightened political tide and protests sweeping through the country. “Our mothers were starving while they were looking after their children. I was affected and I participated.”
During his high school days in ‘Realogile Secondary’ Israel’s independence grew bolder wings and he was making his own money.
“I treated myself like I was attending a school in the suburbs and I was extraordinarily neat.”
Being exposed to racial and economic inequalities made him a determined criminal. He dressed well so he could be socially accepted and respected. He boasts about wearing expensive sneakers to school and drinking his appletizer.
“I treated myself like we were rich at home.”
But his actions didn’t go unpunished. Matseke-Zulu was arrested at the age of 12; at the age of 14 he was arrested again and he appeared in court wearing school shorts, a trick young criminals used to soften the magistrate and to keep the law from holding them accountable for their actions.
He got away with four lashes and a criminal record. A hiding was sufficient punishment for a school boy
but a criminal record was non-negotiable.
Some lessons are learnt only when stern repercussions are carried out. Matseke-Zulu’s punishment drove him to more crime instead. The lashes enraged him.
In 1995 he was arrested for the last time at the age of 22 and sentenced to eight years in prison on two accounts of house-breaking.
When I ask him about the first thing he remembers when he walked into Sun City maximum prison. He recalls the memory like a permanent stain that will stay with him as a reminder to never relapse into crime.
“I saw darkness and blood and writing on the walls. I saw big scary men, the kind you don’t see on the streets. I never thought I was ever going to make it out.”
When all hope was lost, and the prison cells were locked, Matseke-Zulu listened to the radio religiously
to keep his spirits up. YFM was the lifeline that kept his head above the water.
DJ Fresh and Khabzela in particular he says, had inspirational programs on radio that shifted his thinking. “I began to shape myself from that. I meditated about this thug life and I thought that if I continue with it when I get released, I’ll only land back in prison.”
Sometimes to find your way forward you have to take a few steps back. Matseke-Zulu had to remind himself what else he thrived in, outside of crime. Art became the answer. He formed the Abanqobi Drama Group, wrote plays and introduced inmates to gumboot dance. “Art was not part of the correctional services calendar, there was only soccer, school, and life skills courses, somebody was supposed to plough the seed and that’s what I did.”
He wrote an anti-crime awareness play titled ‘Haai Kabi Magenge’. “The story looks at the conditions of our upbringing and what drives us to towards crime.”
When the universe is at work everything moves in your favor.
While in prison Matseke-Zulu met Bongani Linda, the founder of ‘Victory Sonqoba Theatre’ who used to bring his soccer team to Sun City to play against the inmates.
“There are people who don’t forget about inmates, who know that there are brothers out there in prison. They just wake up and decide that today I am going to preach in prison. Bongani Linda was that guy.”
Bongani’s brother ‘Vusi Hendry Nkosi’ was also serving time in Sun City prison. “He was a good guy and a good writer who brought sponsors to prison” says Matseke-Zulu
Israel’s plan materialized when he convinced ‘Vusi’ to help him source funding for the arts. Vusi invited his brother to come and watch the play Matseke-Zulu had written and a fruitful relationship brewed between the brothers and Matseke-Zulu, who went from being an ordinary inmate to a respected prisoner who implemented drama in prison. He managed to win his dignity back, secure an office, a revolving chair, a store room, rehearsal space and sponsorship all in preparation for the outside world he says.
He cautions himself from blowing his own horn when he recalls his last day in prison “I had a fare well as a send off when I was released.
I was honored. Making it out was like receiving a certificate saying you have passed, you’re going to make it outside.”
Israel’s prison story had a positive ending, there was light at the end of the tunnel for him but not much hope for the streets of Alexandra. Israel relates the question I asked about what he first saw when he walked inside prison to the day he was released.
“Remember you asked me what I first saw when I went into prison,” I say yes, he continues “well when I got out, the first thing I saw in Alexandra was poverty.
I had expected him to say light or children playing in the streets. Something to match the happy ending, but the story goes downhill from here and so does the mood. “When I got off the taxi In Alexandra, I cried” he says. “I saw shame. The houses were small and skew, people were hopeless and I was welcomed into hell.”
When he finally arrived home, the condition of his grandmother’s house only submerged him further into grief. “They also made me cry when I looked at them, it was like they were no longer part of the living. I was challenged with changing the condition of our home.”
And that he did and everything went uphill from there. Chuffed at how everything had gone according to plan he says, “I was released from prison at 9am in the morning and by 11am I was already a director at the Victory Sonqoba Theatre. Ungazodlala!”
There was no time to wallow. Matseke-Zulu landed his breakthrough role on the controversial South African hit Teen Drama series Yizo Yizo 2, as the much feared gang leader, Boyza. “When I watched the show in prison, I said to myself, I’m going to be the next Yizo Yizo star.” Of all the villains Israel has played he says that ‘Boyza’ still holds a special place in his heart. “When Papa Action and Chester were sentenced to prison it sent a message to the people that crime doesn’t pay. It disciplined the youth the way I wanted it to. It showed them what prison looks like on the inside. I meet a lot of people today who watched Yizo Yizo who say that they will never attempt crime because of what they saw in the jail scenes. People didn’t talk about prison life because they wanted you to experience it for yourself so the legacy can continue.”
Matseke-Zulu says parents are his biggest fans, they use him to educate their own children.
Yizo Yizo kick-started Israel’s acting career. Since then he has featured in Gaz’lam as GP; Zone 14(Uncle Israel); Ithunzi (Zakes) Rockville (Bra Ali); iNumber Number (Skroef); Z’bondiwe (Jakes).
Not only did Matseke-Zulu star in Z‘bondiwe but he also worked as a script consultant for the crime series, using his past life experience in the avenue of crime as a reference point for the characters.
“But where does a story begin?” I ask and Matseke-Zulu lets me in on his own script-writing process.
“It starts with what influences me in the society, then I draft my own vision”
He emphasizes that writing is difficult, he highlights that as the reason why we have more actors than writers in the industry.
“Sometimes you write and write, and when you get to pg. 345, you kill the character; when you get to pg. 400 you’ve forgotten that you’ve killed the character. Sometimes you get stuck for five months and you don’t know where the story must go from there. Along the way you realize that the first scene is wrong and you have to start from scratch.”
Wow! There really is no telling how the story will end is there?
After spending 17 years in the industry, writing, acting and teaching, Israel points at the red flags holding the industry back.
“The industry has set a boundary for actors which we cannot move beyond.
When they say you’re a top actor what they mean is you’re acting everyday on a Soapie and there is no moving beyond that. Not everyone has the opportunity to go to Hollywood but anyone can come to South Africa. Our chances are limited and we can’t reach the level that we secretly want to reach.
We also want to be like the Denzel Washington’s, we are ready to be wealthy actors.”
He advises that to reach that level, we need to start by practicing at the level we secretly aspire to. “We need to open our own production companies, write our own scripts and shoot our own films. We can’t always queue outside the NFVF and the DAC for funding because not all of us will receive the funds.
As actors we need to invest in ourselves.”
Working in television may have its challenges but there is no turning back for Matseke-Zulu “even if fame and acting come to an end I am not going back to prison.”
He stimulates his mind by reading inspirational books and tending to his acting school (The Israel Acting School) in Alexandra: a multi-disciplinary arts institution that caters to budding talent in the community.
“My happy place is when I’m with my students. When I’m surrounded by children who are hungry for education they remind me of myself when I was younger. It’s a different kind of society when I’m in the classroom training them, we’re in a spiritual world. When I look at them I see super-stars not just kids who are here to pass time because they’re bored. They are really talented.”
This is how Israel Matseke-Zulu has continued to invest back into the arts. By being the role model he needed when he was growing up.