Nyeleti Ndubane is black, Tsonga and female. This innate power combination has put her in a lifelong tussle for representation and equality in society, which she does unflinchingly with grace. But the untimely demise of her partner Manoko ‘Snooks’ Ramotshela in 2018 gored her with a novel sharp pain of loss.
“Snooks’ death had a profound effect on me. When we started dating, we fell madly in love and started making plans for our future together. I declared to everyone in my life that I had found my husband- I was done! So his accidental drowning knocked the wind out of me because that was not part of the plan!” Ndubane tells me.
The love they shared was mighty palpable, beautiful and rich in uniqueness. Snooks the musician, model and all round creative with Nyeleti the actress, writer and a fireball. It was reminiscent of a young Zam and Khensani Nkosi. Funky, genuine and authentically black.
They met at a house party six years ago and hit it off immediately. “To my disappointment, he told me he had a girlfriend. So as attracted as I was to him, I knew that I couldn’t pursue anything with him because I’m a big believer in the girl code so he was off-limits!” After two years the two met again and they were both available this time. “And so began our whirlwind romance filled with incredible highs and heart-breaking lows.”
Snooks drowned on December first in 2018. In her 1969 book titled On Death and Dying, American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the five stages of grief, a sequence of emotions that terminally ill patients or someone whose lost a loved one goes through. “…I remember feeling very angry with him for dying because I felt like he left me all alone. I swam in this anger for a long time but luckily, I didn’t drown in it.”
According to Kübler-Ross, Denial comes at you before Anger but it was the other way around for Ndubane, who tried hard to push herself to being better by putting a big smile on her face and pretend as though the loss was a case of shit happens. “But that way of thinking backfired on me because what I went through was a painful trauma that completely shifted my world. It was then that I realized that being healed doesn’t mean that my pain and trauma magically disappeared. Healing for me means that I acknowledge that my pain may always exist, but I won’t let it define or break me.”
And so the real healing began, where she says there was a lot of crying, reading, art and family. “Whenever I would get consumed with the knowledge that I will never see the man I love ever again, a good cry would make me feel a little bit better. Any chance I could get during weekends or days off; I would go straight to my mother’s house for home-cooked meals and hugs,” the Soshanguvan tells me.
Sometimes you just need to hear that everything will be okay and more often than not, those words have more assurance when coming from a parent. “My mother is my best friend and biggest cheerleader, and if it wasn’t for her talking me through it and assuring me that I will heal and be okay- I don’t know where I’d be.
It also helps a great deal listening to people who’ve gone through exactly what you’re in the midst of. It serves the same purpose as group therapy- taking in people’s testimonies as encouragement that things do pass. “I read a lot during my grieving period… there were two books in particular that helped soothe my soul: Elizabeth Taylor’s autobiography, and Jackie Kennedy’s autobiography. Both of these women lost the men they loved, and reading about how they dealt with the pain and made it to the other side gave me hope that I too will be fine.”
Going through grief, as it was just three months after Snooks’ passing, Ndubane landed a part on TV series Giyani: Land Of Blood. “Being an actress of Tsonga heritage, I really wanted a role on Giyani- any role in fact! Being a part of the first Tsonga TV series to grace South African screens was a dream job for me. But when I found out exactly which role I landed- a woman who becomes a widow after her husband is murdered at the end of the first episode- I started to get scared…”
Ndubane has been acting professionally for a decade now “but I do consider it[Esther] to be my break-out role because of all the characters I’ve played, this character really connected with audiences. I get stopped by fans of the show all the time and they tell me that they really felt for Esther and what she was going through.”
But the trepidation that came with the role wasn’t because this was her biggest in term of impact, but the fact that she was going to play the character of Esther, a woman who becomes widowed on the first episode. “I was hoping to play a character that was on a completely different journey to what I was going through so that I could escape the pain and grief that was engulfing me at that point. But lo and behold! Esther ends up being on a closely identical journey to what I was going through. Sure, there were a few differences: Esther was a newly-wed, pregnant humble village woman who works on a banana farm. But our similarities overlapped greatly: we both had to deal with the sudden loss of the man we loved, and we both experienced the gut-wrenching pain of seeing the body of our loved one at the scene of his death.”
She played the part so brilliantly, you’d swear she’s a widow who resides ka Malamulele not the feisty damsel who could take on anyone on MTV‘s Lip Sync Battles performing Kendrick Lamar’s For Free. “The shoot was right in the middle of my grieving period, the pain was still raw and I feel like it enhanced my performance because I could relate to Esther’s pain on a genuine level.”
“Lauryn Hill once said: ‘As an artist, you have to live your life so that you have something substantial to share with your audience…’ This quote perfectly encapsulates my experience playing the role of Esther,” says Ndubane who is also a teacher’s assistant at the Joburg Theatre for the Duma Ndlovu Academy (DNA).
‘Language-hierarchy’ in South Africa is realer than the chaos at Eskom. If you don’t speak isiZulu, isiXhosa or Sesotho you’re an alien or less of a human being in this country. That Giyani: Land Of Blood is the first ever Xitsonga TV series is embarrassing, but it’s a start none the less. “…The existence of ‘Giyani: Land of Blood‘ on our screens is huge because it speaks to representation. Growing up, I never saw Xitsonga-speaking actresses on TV speaking our language and representing our culture. Society has always made Xitsonga people feel ostracized and ridiculed for our looks, culture and language. So to be on a show that celebrates the things that we were made to be embarrassed about for so long is simply incredible!”
Having proud, beautiful ambassadors of the all cultures is important to breaking down pillars of ignorance. “Hopefully, South Africans will begin to un-learn the insulting stereotypes and misconceptions about the Xitsonga people because the show will help to put our culture in the mainstream in the same way that Sho Madjozi is doing so beautifully.”
Ndubane is currently busy with theatre rehearsals for Alice In Wonderland which will be staged at the Peter Torien Theatre at Monte Casino in March. And also “Writing a feminist theatre piece about the plight of black women. It’s a work in progress, and my working title for the project is: ‘Black girl, you are on your own’, which is a wink to the Steve Biko quote: ‘Black man, you are on your own’.
Me: I see you as a renaissance man. I mean, you do everything.
Him: (In his hoarse voice,he bursts into laughter nearly falling off his chair)
He is Abdul Milazi. A former reporter and editor, now an avid full time painter and an eccentric life coach.
I’m at his Randburg home to sit with the man. He is quite an extraordinary individual in that he was at the helm of South Africa’s biggest tabloid print publication, the Sunday World when its sales rocketed from 138 000 copies a week to 200 000 in less than two years. While his artistic inclination is second to none- he published a book of his poetry collection in 2015 and creates music on a daily at his home and performs around Joburg regularly-and does this without inner conflict, looking at the hats he wears.
“…that’s the beauty of African languages, they are richer than Western languages. The only other languages I’ve come across that are as rich, are Arabic, Latin American languages…abo English and what what are too shallow.”
“Bongi, mina I never have conflict. You can give me any task, if I don’t understand it I’ll ask you to fill me in, and then I’ll give you the best of what you want. I use to joke with people and say the subject is irrelevant, you could give me Framer’s Weekly [to be editor] and I’ll give you the best Farmer’s Weekly ever,” says Milazi.
He fell in-love with art at a young age, like any other kid beginning with simple drawings. But growing up, he’s struggled with what the Western world defined as art. The West’s insistence on not giving credit to African Cultural artists when they do work steeped in African traditions, on things such as ukhamba.
“Most of the time, they are never recognized by the West. They’ll say ‘it’s clay pot or whatever’ but when they do pottery, they call it art…it’s the same thing. How is it, that one is not [art] and this one is. That’s a struggle I’ve had all my life,” says Milazi.
“It kinda worries me, when people are left behind when I move because when I move, I want us to move together so we can celebrate together…”
When he was 16 years-old, he use to visit his English teacher who was also painter. She introduced him to painting and the young Milazi used to hound her with questions about this hypocritical stance that the West has on African art. “[Black] people use to draw on rocks, using simplistic drawings to tell stories…art is an expression, it doesn’t matter what medium. It’s an expression. Why do people isolate other expressions?”
He says we’ll only witness true expression once artists stop excluding certain people from expressing themselves. “Even the ladies who do amacansi or ama duvet…how do you then isolate that, and say ‘no, that is not art’”
His paintings are laden all over his abode. I was welcomed by a gripping landscape painting he did of Joburg City as I walked into the house. The paintings are simple but all have a different feel to it-there’s work I would buy but also work that my mother would also gravitate towards.
The paintings have been a mainstay at the Zoo Lake’s Art At The Zoo, since he first started exhibiting work last November. “The same white people who’ve been buying there, say [to me] ‘you’ve brought something different…it’s modern and not this old arty farty work’”
He admits that he also started out painting in that dull style- landscapes, portraits, etc. “Until I got bored because all I’m doing is photocopying and there are photocopying machines, right? So if I want a landscape, I can bring a camera and shoot it. Mina I want to paint emotions uyabo, make people happy. If you see all of them [my paintings] you won’t find morbid ones. When you get my painting, and you put it up your wall, it should make you happy when you enter your home. I wana do pieces that will make people’s home feel home-it’s your escape from all the crap outside.”
Milazi’s work-be it the painting, music, poetry, or his life coaching- is primarily inspired by people and their stories. “Some stories make me wana cry. But I don’t wana paint sadness, I wana take the positives. If you tell me your family is not treating you right, but tell me you’re still carrying on…Mina I take the still carrying on part, not the cutting down. I capture your strength. It’ll emphasize your resilience.”
He’s had an illustrious career as a journalist, but fell into it by default. “I asked my English teacher, where will I do the most writing, she said Journalism-I said that’s where I’ll go. But I never romanticised journalism-but I ended up in it. I just wanted to write books. But I wanted to write books as early as 10 years-old.”
At that young age, he was an ardent reader of comics. From there, he grew into reading novels, going to book exchange shops, where he would get a load of books by trading with the store the stuff he’d already read.
His first gig as a journalist came right after he completed his matric, at the South Coast Herald in January 1987. “Because I was black, they thought I was applying to be a messenger. And I told them that no, I want to be a reporter- I think the editor was amused because I had been writing for school magazines and newspapers,” says Milazi. He adds that, those publications in the schools he went to were brainchildren of his.
Currently, he writes a column for Ilanga Newspaper. “I’m actually having loads of fun. It’s forcing me to go back and reacquaint myself with the language [isiZulu]. After writing three columns, I was laughing to myself ngoba ngathi ng’se high school futhi. It’s beautiful…that’s the beauty of African languages, they are richer than Western languages. The only other languages I’ve come across that are as rich, are Arabic, Latin American languages…abo English and what what are too shallow.”
His career has seen him in newsrooms such as the Financial Mail, Business Day, The Star, The Sunday Times and The Times.
He is one of those confident individuals who aren’t shy to tell you about their achievements, but without making you inferior. While sharing his success stories which include horrid times, he will, in a slick way make sure you also benefit from it, in whatever manner.
It’s his life coaching coming into effect.
“I’ve helped colleagues I started out with, to keep focus…without knowing it was life coaching. Ku mina, I still love to see all of us succeeding. It kinda worries me, when people are left behind when I move because when I move, I want us to move together so we can celebrate together-if it’s only me moving, it poses a question to me ‘Am I a good friend’ ,” he calmly utters the rhetorical question.
He began his life coaching studies while at the Witness Newspaper in 2012 and got his certificate in 2013. “As a life coach, I help you. I don’t decide things for you. I give you clarity on things you want and together we work towards achieving those things. But every decision will be made by you, not by me.”
Necessity is the mother of invention and it because of the necessity of a good guitarist when performing his poetry, that he ended up teaching himself to play. “Most session musicians are drug addicts and are unreliable- they would dump me on the day of the fucken show. So I said to myself, ‘let me learn how to play one instrument’. I bought an acoustic guitar, bought a book and taught myself how to play. ”
A month after purchasing the book, he composed his first track with three chords. “Now, I’ve taught people how to play…”
His music is all over Soundcloud now and he’s worked with a number of young artists. Before I left his home, Milazi jammed some of his tracks on his guitar that he named Maruapula. The music serenaded the bottle of whisky we had that afternoon so smoothly.