Images by: Mlungisi Mlungwana | Creative Director Ayanda Sithebe | Make-up Phumzile Mhlongo | Styled by Onela Jones | production Asalinto Ntakana and Ayanda Ntuli |
Article by: Mandisa Vundla
Capturing mama Mary Twala has been a long-awaited Actor Spaces dream. We’ve spoken it to the universe, not once, not twice but far too many times that one has even lost count. When the day finally announced itself, driving to mam’ Mary’s house felt like chasing a far fetched dream, so near yet still far. We hopped into the car and found our way to Mapetla Extension in deep Soweto, where mam’ Mary Twala was already expecting us. A wrong turn here –a right turn there and we finally made it. After asking anyone we caught loitering Mapetla streets if they know where mama Mary Twala lives. We realised we had passed the house by an inch, so we turned back still in pursuit of our long-awaited dream. Mam mary’s daughter, Joyce, was posted at the gate and stood as guard, anticipating our arrival. I introduced myself to her before she kindly escorted me into the house. The reality sunk itself into my trembling bones as I followed her through the walkway.
The door of the house is left open, I stagger a bit when I spot Mam’ Mary Twala sitting on a chair, facing my direction with her face, creased with layers of storylines overlapping each other. She sits, one leg crossed over the other –commanding her space. Her daughter explains to her that we have arrived. “Knock knock”, I say, in a low voice, attempting to humble myself before I enter. She tells me to come in and the long-awaited dream stirs itself into an overwhelming reality. I am welcomed into her house, but not into her space. There’s a wall between us and I am not equipped with the tools to break the ice at first sight.
I am careful with my footing when I realize that she is irritable. I count my words carefully before I speak. She is quick to confess that she dislikes interviews. She asks me if we don’t get tired of asking her the same questions over and over again because she is tired of repeating herself. She thinks we are here to take measurements for her garments as we have also arranged a photo shoot, but I gently and carefully explain that we are here to take her to our offices for an in-depth conversation about her long-lived career journey. She obliges reluctantly and we make our way to the car, driving off in a victory lap to our head-quarters.
Enroute to our offices, the long drive relieves the team of the tension. There is a tranquility that comes with traveling that relaxes us through the highway. I stare out the window, day-dreaming about what to say now that mam’ Mary Twala is finally here. I turn my neck slowly towards the back seat to check if she’s comfortable when I realize that the journey has also softened her. I find an opportunity to sneak in a random question, just to test the waters. “Where are you from?” I ask.
Born in Orlando East, Twala is the eldest of all her siblings. She spent her primary years at the Dutch Reformed School and later transferred to the Methodist School on Albert Street in Johannesburg. She was raised by her aunt and together they relocated to Swaziland where she spent her high school years, attending the Swazi National School. She emphasizes that the school was also attended by the Swati Royal offspring.
In her matric year, Mary Twala got into a dispute with one of the children of royal descent and was reported to the principal as having sworn at the student – which she confirms is untrue. She was expelled from the school. Twala didn’t call ahead to report the matter to her aunt, instead, she boarded a bus and headed straight back home to her uncle’s house in Johannesburg. Her uncle reported the matter to the rest of the family and Twala; the teenage girl who thought she knew it all, moved back home to Orlando East and never returned to school to complete her matric. She found a job at a factory, sewing pinafores but was dissatisfied with the quality of her seamwork, so she quit. She applied for another job at the Galvanising Factory that purified steel products and here she stayed the course until her acting career took over.
For Twala, Acting was not in the pipeline, but the stars aligned when she was accompanying her late younger sister Gigi and a friend Sakhi to an audition, for a Gibson Kente production. She was the only one who was employed amongst the two, so she provided the transport fare. She admits that she only tagged along to watch them. To her disappointment, she recalls: “the way they were singing off key… I used to play the piano, I learned to play the piano at my aunt’s house. I think Gibson saw the way I was reacting. I covered my ears when they were singing. I’m sure he realized that there is something more to me than meets the eye. He came home and asked my mother if I could join his production. My mother said she’d like that because vele ‘uyaphapha’ and that’s how I started working with Gibson.”
Mama Mary Twala reveres Gibson to date, “He was a man above all men, he had everything in him. He was a social worker, he was a teacher, a music man, a parent. He was great. He did everything himself and then he taught us how it’s done, and if you struggled to grasp it, he’d teach you again, properly. We learned how to sing from Gibson.”
Mary began working with Gibson around the age of 19/20. She traded in her factory boots for the stage and was cast as the lead in Gibsons plays, replacing Margaret Singana in ‘Sikhalo’. She also featured in ‘Mama and The Load’, ‘Lifa’ and many more of Gibsons plays. She met her late husband Ndaba Mhlongo and his sister Busi Vicky (Victoria) Mhlongo at the Gibson camp. Ndaba sent Busi to court Mary on his behalf and It all worked out well for him because Mary said yes. They got married, she says, around the early 70s. They were colleagues and highly compatible love mates. “He was the best, he loved cooking for me, he made me laugh and he didn’t want to see me hurt. He was a sweet somebody.” Mama Mary Twala still mourns the loss of her late husband, her voice is still made soft by the void he left when he passed and she continues to wear her wedding ring. “The pain never stops. Losing someone you loved, in fact losing all the people I loved, my mother, my children… The pain visits and you just have to tell yourself that it was God’s will. Just to free yourself so you’re able to live.” Of all mama Mary’s children, she says, Somizi, her last born, is the only one who followed in her footsteps. Somizi was the fortunate one she adds, “because he was still very young, we had to travel with him. He was smart and he learned how to operate the lights, and everything on the stage. It was in his DNA –to this day.”
Acting gave mama Mary Twala wings and lifted her for flight. She traveled the world Performing Yael Fabir’s ‘SaZar’ alongside Menzi Ngubane, Siyabonga Twala and many great South African Actors. She landed a role in Duma ka Ndlovu’s ‘The Game’ while visiting Ndaba Mlhonogo (late husband) in the U.S. “I was traveling with Ndaba for Sarafina when Duma saw me in America, he said he’s been looking for me, there’s a show he’s producing. He had cast Letta Mbulu as a lead… (mara ngiyakhiphana mina). I read the script and in about a week, he gave me the afternoon show to try me out, –Letta played in the evening show.” Eventually, Mama Mary Twala replaced Letta and she was cast in the lead. She says these plays were her last theatre performances. My curiosity begs me to ask if she would ever go back to theatre and her enthusiastic response catches me off guard. “Nje! What would hold me back? I can walk, I can speak, I can see. I love theatre!”
While traveling the U.S, L.A in particular, mama Mary Twala notes that her biggest highlight was watching the actors abroad and seeing how powerful and strong their performances were. “International actors can really perform, bayayi khipha into yabo.” I steer the conversation back to South African soil when I ask about the difference between local actors and the American actors she can’t stop raving about.
“Sometimes we like to fake performances, I don’t know what causes that. Or is it because we think America has everything? We have everything too. Everything is already inside you, you have to express it. But of course, American actors should perform well because there is money overseas, and money pushes you as well. Here, one will just say, seng’yenza nje. And that’s not right because you’re performing for the people, you’re not performing for yourself, so that talent that you have… Release it. Give it to the audience.”
Mama Mary Twala goes on to share her own understanding of acting.
“Acting is when you perform using your body, your mouth and your expression. You‘re telling people a story: inganekwane. But you must use your upper body not ‘your lower body’ because people use acting in other ways.” I must confess, her sarcasm went way over my head. She lost me at ‘use your upper body, not your lower body’. After an awkward silence spreads itself across the room, I realise that what mama Mary is actually referring to is ‘couch-casting’. This is not a laughing matter, but when I eventually figure it out, I burst into uncontrollable bouts of laughter. I take a minute to gather my thoughts before seeking her counsel in addressing the normalized culture of sexual harassment, perpetuated by those in positions of power within the industry.
In an attempt to assist me with a possible resolution for this obstacle, she takes me back to when she was a young woman in the industry and says: “It wasn’t there in our times, and if it was, it wasn’t so visible, but now things are worse. This is nonsense, that now, if you want to act you have to sell your body. And we can’t blame our kids, they pick this up from us; that –if you want to act then allow a director to do this to you. Now, people have no shame. We can’t expect parliament to resolve such rubbish! Nonsense that we promote, some things we need to fix ourselves. I don’t know how, because we’re so scattered. We started this and we’re going to have to fix it.”
From theatre to the screen; mam’ Mary Twala was introduced to the world of television through her late husband, Ndaba Mhlongo. He was already acting on screen. When they were in need of more actors, he called her in to come and try her luck. “ahh, so ukufakile?” I exclaim. “No akufakwana.” she replies and elaborates further. “I read one line and they said the part is yours. This was for shows such as Udeliwe, Ikati Elimnyama, there are just too many… But that’s how I got into television.” So Ndaba Mhlongo may have given her a heads up about the auditions, but winning the audition was mama Mary’s responsibility.
Her television credits include: Ambitions – Season 1; Generations – Season 1; Hard Copy – Season 3; Hillside – Season 1; Home Affairs – Season 2&3; Imposter – Season 1; iNkaba – Season 1; Muvhango – Season 1; Roots – Season 1; Scandal! – Season 1; Sheroes – Season 2 (Sheroes in Media); Skwizas – Season 1-5; Sokhulu & Partners – Season 2; Soul Buddyz – Season 1&5; Stokvel – Season 3&4; The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – Season 1; Ubizo (The Calling) – Season 1; Yizo Yizo – Season 2; Zero Tolerance – Season 1&2; Zone 14 – Season 2.
The one role mama’ Mary can’t stop speaking about, is the character of Mary on ‘Ubizo, The Calling’. She recalls the impact it had on people and their response to her when she explains’. “I played an old woman, who was a ghost. It was scary. They made my eyes look spooky, there are people who still run away when they see me. I tell them that this is the real me, I’m not the character you see on T.V. Bathi ngitshele abelungu never to bring that character back again.”
Her uncontested love for her craft keeps her young and energized, ready for each character she is called to portray.“If you love something,” she says, “You’ll give it your best shot. You’ll try your best to learn the character so you can portray it properly. If you don’t love what you do, how are you going to portray the character? You won’t perform the way you’re supposed to.”
As much as mama Mary stresses her affection for her craft, she also emphasizes her boundaries within the art. “I don’t do kissing scenes, I will never do them. Because some of the things I see when they kiss each other; it becomes real. I’ll kiss you in a particular way then you’ll be enticed. Then what? I won’t because it leads to something else. Kissing and sex scenes… I won’t! My agent won’t even allow it, they know as well. No Kissing! No Sex! I can cry for you, I can sing for you, I can do vosho for you, but these two things, haai, sorry my darling. Even if it pays, I won’t! You can keep your money, I’ll do some other things, not that.” Mama Mary explains that she set her boundaries from the moment she started her acting career. “From the word go, I’ve never and I will never. That’s my stamp.”
With a career that spans six decades, Mary Twala has watched the industry unfurl and bloom before her eyes and has played a significant role in its evolution. We take stock of the drama series that decorated our screens and reminisce on how the stories felt so close to home and were a true reflection of our cultures, from the script right down to the use of language and characters such as Umfazi We Phepa, Lesilo, Mshefane… We agree that these stories are irreplaceable and that they will forever remain special. Growing up, we watched our aunts, uncles and grandmother’s on our T.V screens. The black South African family unit was so well represented. To this day, we agree that no drama on our screens can compare to the quality of that work. Mama Mary lends her wisdom and personal work experiences to explain how the quality of our stories today, have been compromised.
“Television back then had good stories, the stories had a good storyline and you really enjoyed the story. Now, most of us are gimmicks, we want to act like so and so… There are a few real actors now. Today all the stories are similar, when you watch one story it almost looks the same as the next story.” She commends the actors who put all their heart’s work into portraying their characters in a realistic and relatable manner. “They weren’t even educated, they had the talent and they were gifted.”
She also sights the misrepresentation of black stories by white producers and white directors as the second reason why stories are compromised. “Today, we don’t produce those kinds of stories because sometimes you’ll find that the producer is white and they want to make a film on black people… Something they don’t know. Sometimes mina ngoku phapha, I tell the white directors that this is not how it’s done in African culture, let’s try and do it this way because we have to teach each other.”
But is there room to teach and learn from each other on set? Do the directors listen to you? I probe and she responds by saying: “Some do, and some will tell you no! I’ll do it my way, so what will you do? That’s your salary… hahaha. Your peanut salary!” We can’t contain the laughter. Mam’ Mary’s humor is effortless, sometimes it is intentional but most of the time it is not. She is witty and our conversation is soaked in sarcasm, sometimes as a tool to emphasize serious issues, but in other moments, she uses it just to tickle the funny bones. When our laughter dissipates, I pause for a moment to meditate on why a veteran actor of Mary Twala’s calibre, at the age of 80, still needs to negotiate how she maneuvers her voice onset, to maintain a minimum wage.
It is clear to me that if you’re an African actor, the issue of remuneration doesn’t pick a team, young or old or in between. When I ask her to propose a possible resolution for this, all the jokes in the room cease and Mama Mary’s voice takes on a more serious tone, “I don’t know, now we have to go and sit in parliament and ask for artists to get paid. When your contract ends as an artist, you just sit around. When will they call you again? There’s no back pay, there is no UIF. When your contract ends, that’s the end of you. We have to go to parliament to talk about the artists – all the actors – Soccer players earn so much money! While I’m sitting around at home I should get money from arts and culture… But nothing my child. You have to wait until you get called, then you wait and sometimes you don’t get called. Then you read the paper and there are auditions. You don’t have money! You have to borrow money for transport – and where are the auditions? There in Sandton! And how do you get there? You can’t hop onto a bus and say, no I’m an actor, it’s me, MARY. People think we earn a lot of money because they see you on television all the time.” What gives them that impression?” I inquire.
“I do not know! You pay to watch t.v (referring to the T.V License), so maybe they think that we earn a lot of money, kanti as the tsotsi put it – ‘udololo’. But we make means, as long as there is a sack of mealie meal, sugar and oil, one can eat. But out here in the world, they think you eat bacon and egg!”
By the time this loaded conversation draws to an end, we are fortunate enough to have reached our destination. There is enough room at our Rosebank headquarters for mam’ Mary Twala to continue to share, to vent, to fill the air with her wit and inexhaustible sarcasm. The waiter walks in to take our order, he fills his notepad with our request then he exits the room. We’re enclosed in one of the meeting rooms, with just enough privacy to talk about anything and everything. When the waiter returns to deliver mama Mary’s Rooibos tea. The devastating look in her eyes at the sight of her cup is priceless.
The drama ensues: “Such a small cup!” she gushes out, and we chuckle. But the mug is pretty I say, “no, I don’t play like that, I want my tea in a big cup so I can pour it onto the saucer and sip,” she teases.
We welcome deeper discussions about tea and mugs when she challenges the waiter, asking why my Latte is served in a big mug, yet her tea comes in a smaller size. “I also want a bigger mug.” She takes a look at my Latte and teases even further, “it looks like Amageu or Umqombothi.” When I gloat about the foam heart drawing decorating my Latte, she exclaims “It even has a heart! Even when someone wants to bewitch you, they’ll draw something like that.” My colleague, Ayanda Ntuli gives the illustration a name. She calls it ‘Heart Korobela’.
The waiter returns with a mug that is slightly bigger in size to appease mam’ Mary. I sip my heart korobela, while she pours her tea and we slowly sink back into the conversation.
The transition from television to film was an easy step for mama Mary to take. “If you love what you do, you ensure that you give it your all.” is the mantra she lives by. Her undisputed love for acting has enabled her to glide through different performance mediums with ease, from theatre to television to film. “No matter where it is, I would go. I wasn’t afraid because I wanted to do the thing that I love doing. You know when you love something, you go towards it – noma kuthiwa lapha kunemi mfula, nani, nani – God help me, ngizoyenza!”
In addition to her television resume, Mary Twala has an impressive and mind-blowing film portfolio. She made her film debut in 1975, in the feature-film Udeliwe, directed by Simon Sabela. Her filmography includes Ikati Elimnyama (1974), Stoney: The One and Only(1984), Strike Force (1986), Bad Company (1985), Diamond in The Rough (1988), Mapantsula (1988), Taxi to Soweto (1991), Sarafina! (1992), Friends (1993), Waati (1995), Passeur d’ enfants (1995-2000), Malunde (2001), Cuppen (2006), Dr Lucille: The Lucille Teasdale Story (2001), Beat the Drum (2003), Ghost Son (2007), Hopeville (2010), State of Violence (2010), Life Above All (2010), Lucky (2011), Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013), Leading Lady (2014), Hector and The Search For Happiness (2014), Vaya (2016), The Dark Tower (2017), Beyond The River (2017), Wonder Boy President (2017), This is Not a Burial, It’s Resurrection (2019)
‘This Is Not a Burial, It’s Resurrection’, is Mary Twala’s most recent film work. The film was shot in Lesotho and hasn’t been released yet. Twala explains the synopsis, “My entire family is buried in Lesotho, my parents, my grandparents, my inlaws, my children and my grandchildren, all of them, and I’m the only one left. I make a decision that I want to get buried as well. So I dig myself a grave and … no, now I’m telling you the whole story, you must go watch it for yourself. It’s a painful movie.”
The film has also been selected for the Biennale College Cinema in Italy. It is directed by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese with Cait Pansegrouw as the producer. The main cast features, Makhaola Ndebele, Jerry Mofokeng Wa Makhetha, Tseko Monaheng. Mama Mary Twala was in the middle of shooting the film when she received the thrilling news that she was amongst those to be honored by the president with a National Order. She was flown down to S.A to receive the National Order of Ikhamanga in Silver, “For her excellent contribution to the performing arts and for creatively raising awareness on women’s health issues through storytelling.”
Mama Mary Twala recalls her excitement when she received the news that she was going to be honored for her service to the industry.
“I was so happy, I was in Lesotho and I had to fly to S.A to collect the award from Ramaphosa, such a sweet somebody, then I went back to Lesotho. I was ecstatic! However, where is the money?” So must the award come with a cheque? I probe.
“Yes, why do international awards come with money? I’m not tired of receiving awards I’m just annoyed because they don’t come with money. Did you see how many awards I have in my house? They fill up the house but where is the money? All of this needs to go to parliament.”
Mama Mary’s National Order of Ikhamanga in Silver comes in addition to previous triumphs: The Golden Horn for Best Actress in a TV Comedy – Skwizas; Best actress in comedy – Undenzani; Best supporting actress – Taxi to Soweto; PAWE Veteran Recognition.
Mbokodo Awards – Lifetime Achievement award; Naledi Award – Lifetime Achiever. In July 2005 she was honoured at the Living Legend Awards organised by the United Theatre Practitioners of South Africa. She is a living example of endurance and unwavering commitment to the craft.
Her consistency has not dwindled for the past sixty years. Mama Mary Twala is truly a National Treasure.
As we approach the end of our conversation, I can’t let mama Mary go without asking who or where she draws her inspiration from.
First On her list is undoubtedly Somizi. She explains how her fear of disappointing him keeps her on her toes. “He says you must work hard ma, don’t look back, do your job, but then he changed his tune and said, you need to stop working now because you’re old, but I refused. He is a strong and loving son, he is hardworking and he loves helping others. What also makes me happy is that when I work, I try not to let him down because he is at a level in his life that I can’t explain.” In addition to Somizi, there are two industry friends: Lillian Dube and Abigail Kubeka who also inspire her. She says Abigail, for her kindness and loving heart and Lillian: “She’s open, she has no secret and she is knowledgeable, even when you’re sick she’ll advise you on what medication to take. She is not shy, if she walks in here she’ll take over the room.” And if she could choose any actor to portray the Young, energetic and daring Mary Twala in a biographical film, she says it would have to be Nomvelo Makhanya (Lindiwe Ngema), of Scandal fame.
It has been an honor to sit beside mama Mary Twala, to be in the presence of her wisdom, on the receiving end of her long-anticipated life story.
You are a gift to the South African Theatre, Television and Film Industry.
May we walk in your light.
“Ability may get you to the top but it takes character to keep you there.”