Article by: Hlogi Sepota | Ilustration : Phile “MaziArt” Mazibuko
We bow out of Heritage month by tracing the impact and contribution Ndaba Mhlongo has had on the the South African Film, Theatre and Televion industry; notably through his work on Inyaka Nyaka as the rib-tickling Mshefane. Mhlongo was a multi-talented performer who wore many hats. He was an actor, comedian, assistant director and choreographer. His work spanned over many decades and is testimony to the notion that hard work pays off because he managed to leave behind an unwavering legacy.
Mhlongo was adored by many around him, family and colleagues. His passion and love for acting can be seen through his work, where he strived to give his best at all costs and this can be seen through the work that he was a part of and the reception he received from both the viewers as well as fellow industry practitioners. Some of Mhlongo’s work comprised of; Isivumelwano (1978), Upondo no Nkinsela (1984) Bad Company (1985) and Strike Force (1986). As if that wasn’t enough he went on and got nominated for a Tony Award as Best Choreographer alongside Mbongeni Ngema for the Broadway run of Sarafina in 1988. However, it was his role in the film Inyakanyaka, Mshefane, that saw him steal the hearts of many South Africans. His portrayal of Mshefane not only earned him immortality but has a multi-generational reach and is by far his most known and revered performance.
Mshefane was such a spectacle to watch by virtue of the over dramatized embodiment of the character, which is reminiscent of the theatre. The character offered viewers an escape from their daily lives while entertaining them at the same time. What Ndaba did, was bring theatre to television and it was refreshing to watch and I reckon that’s how he managed to keep the viewers coming for more. One can go as far as to argue that the character, Mshefane, paved a way for comedic actors today. Ndaba through Mshefane, normalized over the top character embodiment in comedy for film and television, which is why it is still a characterization technique that still works in this day and age.
Coming from the school of Gibson Kente, it was only natural that every character Mhlongo was to play was going to be strong and intricately constructed. Mshefane is testimony to that. Arguably, Mshefane is the blue print of what comedic acting should be. The quirks, idiosyncrasies, nuances and timing are all there and it is clear to see that almost everyone has taken a page in Mhlongo’s book. This sort of stylized form of acting can be seen in many characters both from the past and present. To a certain extent, you can even see similarities between Jabulani Nkosi’s character in Emzini Wezinsizwa, Chirawli, and Mshefane. Other characters that one could arguably say Mshefane helped give birth to include Warren Masemola’s Thokozani and Busi Lurayi’s Phumzile on Ses’Top La, all based on the portrayal and not so much on characterization.
It is quite evident that in order to portray the character of Mshefane, Mhlongo adopted the Meisner technique of acting as opposed to method acting. The Meisner technique is based on the concept of “truthful acting.” This means that those using this technique are encouraged to live truthfully and must act on their emotional impulses, leading with their hearts and not necessarily their brain. In simple terms, one needs to let go of all inhibitions and simply let the character live as naturally through the actor as possible. In as much as acting requires one to let go of all inhibitions, comedic acting requires one to strip down every form of self and doubt. It is through this very notion that Mhlongo was able to truthfully portray Mshefane without fear of prejudice and judgment. It was because of his passion and commitment that we are able to sit today and still enjoy Mshefane and find ourselves laughing from memory alone. Another aspect that made it possible for Ndaba Mhlongo to portray the role of Mshefane was through the help of his side kick in the film, Sdudla. Both were equally committed and trusted each other enough to “play” and fully immerse themselves in the world they were portraying. When you have great actors alongside you, it makes the portrayal of the character that much easier because you trust that they’ll be able to give you the right energy the scene needs as well as reciprocate what you give them. This was the case with Mhlongo in Inyakanyaka.
“Asibone ukuthi singaba njani senza umsebenzi.” This is one of the lines Mshefane delivered in Inyakanyaka and when you look at these words in hindsight, they are testimony to that fact that when you put in the work, there’s no way that the project will fail. A great example of this would be the film Inyakanyaka itself and the character Mshefane but also Ndaba Mhlongo’s life because he managed to leave a legacy through his work and passion. When one has to look at the aforementioned facts, the question then becomes; “Are we correct in labeling Ndaba Mhlongo (Mshefane) an icon?” Well, we would first have to establish what an icon is. An icon, according to the oxford dictionary is a famous person or thing that people admire and see as a symbol of a particular idea or way of life. Looking at the definition, it is crystal clear that Mshefane was and is indeed admired by the general public at large. One mention of the name and people’s faces light up with joy as they reminisce about times gone by. Mshefane truly was a symbol. He was instrumental in how comedy is told today as well as how comedic actors embody and hyperbolise their characters. When you look at all these things, you can definitely tell that Mshefane’s adoration and iconic status is beyond academia alone. It’s also the fact that his characters have been engrained in the psyche of South Africans, which in contemporary South Africa is still something that many aspire to do and Mhlongo managed to do that seamlessly.