By Nomali Cele
On 10 July the nation learnt that veteran actress, Nomhle Nkonyeni passed away at the age of 77. Born in Port Elizabeth, Nkonyeni was an actress and arts activist for most of her life.
Her acting careers spanned the forms of stage, film and television. She was as much a fixture on local television and stage productions as she was on international vehicles. On the international arena, she starred alongside the likes of Forest Whitaker, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Hilary Swank.
From the 1980s, Mama Nomhle Nkonyeni began her work as an arts education activist ensuring that there was a skills transfer and conversation between the older, experienced generation of actors and the youth. She was a volunteer drama teacher at the Shelter for Street Kids between 1986 and 1989. In the 1990s she worked at the Baxter Theatre implementing their youth projects. In her later years, her arts education and arts activism was particularly focuses and based in her hometown of Port Elizabeth.
She used her voice to campaign for the rights of actors and the improvement of the South Africa arts and culture landscape. During the dark days of apartheid, much of Nkonyeni’s theatre work was focused on shining a light on the atrocities of apartheid and opposing the regime.
In 2019 alone, Mama Nomhle Nkonyeni was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award in Theatre by the Arts & Culture Trust at the Arts & Culture Trust Awards. She was also recently named as one of the National Orders honorees for 2019, receiving the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for her achievements and contributions to the arts. The latter award was a sore point for the actress and she spoke out about the ways it wouldn’t change her life.
South African actors have been lobbying parliament since 2018 for the Performers Protection Amendment Bill, a change to which would grant actors and other onscreen performers a right to residual payments when their work is rebroadcast or broadcast in new markets.
To underscore this point, Nkonyeni declared that she would not be voting in the 2019 election. She told City Press, “It is sad that the government is taking us performers for granted. Sorry, I am not going to waste my vote on any party. Twenty-five years later we were given empty promises by the same government and to this day nothing has changed.”
She added, “We still have to live from hand to mouth; we still don’t have medical aid. It’s just hard being an actor in this country. Actors are suffering.”
Of course, the Department of Arts and Culture has shared its condolences with Mama Nomhle Nkonyeni’s family and fans, much like the rest of the nation. What will be interesting is whether they heed her cries for fair compensation for actors and put the department’s full weight behind the actors’ bill in parliament.
Images via the Department of Communications