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’.