In this exclusive interview the actor and theatre director talks about how corrupt leaders regard occupying positions of power as an invitation to a buffet meal.
By Edward Tsumele
When I arrived at the rather quirk Loof Coffee shop off Grant Avenue in Norwood, north eastern Johannesburg at its entrance , my attention was drawn to four dogs with their owners.
One of the four dogs is loose and is howling around, in turn provoking responses of the other three dogs that were on a leash with the owner enjoying coffee with his mates, seemingly not bothered by the restlessness of one of the three dogs, the biggest of them. The other two seem to be of the same age and relatively small in stature, compared to the restless bigger dog, which is bucking aggressively in response to the loose dog running around howling.
I ignored the rather irritating howling dogs and their owners and entered the coffee shop to take a seat at a quieter corner table. of Loof Coffee Shop. The coffee shop seems to be a favourite breakfast spot for locals, as it was almost packed with families enjoying their breakfast meals. I am the only black face in a sea of white patrons who are obviously hungry as they gobble on their light breakfast dishes. The only other black faces are the waiters and the cleaning staff.
My attention was however particularly drawn to one such family seated at a table close to where I sat. It is a couple with two children, both boys of between 6 and 9, one of whom seems to be receiving Afrikaans lessons from his daddy who seemed to be explaining Afrikaans words in English to the curious boy as they enjoyed their breakfast. I was rather amused by the goings on there as I opened a book I have just started reading as I waited for award winning actor and theatre director James Ngcobo, who a night before had just clinched the Best Supporting Actor Award category of the South African Film and Television Awards (SAFTA) for his role in the South African feature movie, Queen Sono. Queen Sono has the distinction of being the first feature movie in South Africa to be commissioned by Netflix, the global movie-on-demand streaming service.
“Under apartheid South Africa for white people was the land of milk and honey where they could expect a standard of living probably unmatched by any other country in the world. A beautiful country with such wealth that it literally oozes out of the ground And such an abundance of cheap labour that virtually every white family could afford a servant. It was a life of luxury, pleasure, holidays, travel, , sunshine and sport,” this paragraph from Escape From :Pretoria, a book written by Tim Jenkin and set in apartheid South Africa when a group of white political prisoners staged a daring escape from Pretoria Maximum Security Prison, screamed at me.
As I wait for Ngcobo to arrive so that we could talk about his having won the Best Supporting Actor award the previous night, I could not help but wonder whether the picture being painted by Jenkin in this book has changed that much in contemporary South Africa, 27 years after the country gained its freedom and democracy was ushered in.
When Ngcobo eventually arrived and suggested that rather we sit at a pavement table outside as it was sunny there, I thought, well those disturbing thoughts, looking at reality today compared to the environment of white opulence described by Jenkin in his book during the apartheid years,, were now gratefully interrupted and banished to the back of my mind.
How wrong I was. Well in contemporary South Africa, whites still enjoy comparatively luxury living, in relation the the black majority who still wallow in poverty, and the face of poverty is still largely black.
However in a free South Africa, the face of wealth is slowly changing as a black middle class has since emerged, alongside an extremely wealthy business and political elite.
However the brutality of South African reality today is that some of the new money is unfortunately ill-gotten, especially among the politically connected black wealthy elite through a toxic combination of corruption, patronage networks and other malfeasance defining the crude social reality of today.
In fact the role that won Ngcobo the Best Supporting Actor Award of the SAFTAs on Saturday, May 22, 2021, is that of a corrupt President Malunga of a post colonial African state.
“This President Malunga character is a very powerful but very corrupt African leader, who amassed much of his wealth from corruption. The guy also has comic caricature as sometimes you cannot help but laugh at his shenanigans.
“President Malunga’s situation has definitely a South African echo, but also has a global connection as corruption today is everywhere in the world,” says Ngcobo about his role in Queen Sono, a feature film conceptualised by actress Pearl Thusi, and directed by Kagiso Lediga for Netflix.
Ngcobo said that when he was approached by Lediga to play this role, alongside familiar names that over the years he has acted along on TV and film, he was excited as he got yet another opportunity to explore his other artistic side.
He reflected on this in the context of his current role on stage, as for the past five and half years, Ngcobo has mainly directed productions on stage as the Artistic Director of the Market Theatre Foundation, an influential and prestigious role on the South African Theatre scene. He is currently serving his second five year term, meaning that by the time he finishes this term, he would have held this position for 10 years at this prestigious institution.
“Winning the Best Supporting Actor Award, means a lot to me, as it just demonstrates that I am also relevant in other aspects of the creative industry, away from theatre. I definitely love my role as Artistic Director at the Market Theatre Foundation and this is an important role for me to play on the country’s theatre scene. But winning awards away from theatre is also important in my career as it simply shows my other side, and that is that of an actor on film and TV. And getting this role was gratifying as I acted alongside people I had worked with on TV and film. Some of them I had directed on stage. And this time I simply did nothing else other than just acting. And also this award follows another award I got from Standard Bank and Joy of Jazz for the jazz content the Market Theatre has produced with me as Artistic Director” Ngcobo said, who acted alongside other people, such as Thusi, who played the lead role of Queen Sono in Queen Sono.
However before I made my way home after the interview, the social contradictions that still exist in a free South Africa, whereby some people still enjoy to dream-of-lifestyles while a large number of the population is still struggling to emerge out of inter-generational poverty was reinforced by an incident at the coffee shop.
A middle aged black woman, cautiously approached our table on the pavement. After greeting us politely she had one question to ask;
“Can you please help me with R17 as I need this money for transport to my sister’s place,” she pleaded.
Unfortunately this poor woman’s situation reflects a crude reality that still affects the majority of the people in most of post colonial Africa, South Africa, included, as the President Malungas of this world as in Ngcobo’s own words “take being in a position of power as an invitation to a buffet dish.”
The desperate woman’s plea for R17 transport money came shortly after james and I were warned by a waiter not to display valuables , such as cell phones on the table “because we do not know who else maybe passing through here,” a euphemism to be careful about cell phone snatchers.
These two unrelated incidents that happened only a few minutes apart in the one hour that we were in the rather intimate coffee shop popular with the middle class families of Norwood, illustrate best the contradictions South Africa finds itself in today, with regards to the socio-economic situation, whereby there are those who are extremely rich and those driven to desperation by abject poverty. It is a currently prevailing in the country where opulent wealth and abject poverty sit uncomfortably and untenably too close to each other.
There is certainly unfortunately a connection between continual poverty in the post colonial African state and the scourge of corruption by the political elite as this disease delays and hampers the transformation of society in the post colonial African state of today. This picture happens in almost all the post colonial African states today, and .is certainly not unique to South Africa as best illustrated by the actions of President Malunga in Queen Sono. The SAFTA judges must have therefore noticed the powerful way in which Ngcobo portrayed the corrupt President Malunga to award him the Best Supporting Actor Award for his role in Queen Sono.