Mantsai’s knockout performance earns Safta win

Award-winning actor Bongile Mantsai, centre, won a Safta for best actor in a feature film for his portrayal of Dudu 'Nightrider' Nyakama in 'Knuckle City'
DIGGING DEEP: Award-winning actor Bongile Mantsai, centre, won a Safta for best actor in a feature film for his portrayal of Dudu 'Nightrider' Nyakama in 'Knuckle City'
Image: TIFF

After spending more than 21 years polishing his craft in theatres to having his life threatened for a role he played in a film and transforming into a boxer to tell another proudly Eastern Cape story, actor Bongile Mantsai’s acknowledgment at the 2020 SA Film and Television awards has put the spotlight on his growing presence in the industry.

Mantsai won two Saftas for best actor in a TV soap and best actor in a feature film for his portrayal of Mthunzi on’s Scandal! and Dudu in Mdantsane-based boxing film Knuckle City respectively.

This after collecting another best male performance award for Knuckle City at the Africa International Film Festival in February.

He plays Dudu “Nightrider” Nyakama, a Mdantsane boxing champ shaped by habits and traits inherited while growing up in a society that fostered toxic masculinity.

Accolades or not, the actor prides himself on the maximum effort he puts into every character he plays — a quality he says earned him the awards.

“I have immense respect for my craft and, because of that and the love I have for acting, I can’t help but perform my best,” Mantsai said.

Hard work begins from the moment he received a character description, introducing him to the role he would  be playing in a film, soap opera or on a theatre stage, Mantsai said.

He describes the character of Dudu as one of his most challenging yet and one that required months of training to embody the characteristics of a true Mdantsane boxer.

A stern reminder that acting skills are not all that is required to deliver the perfect portrayal of a character, Knuckle City challenged Mantsai to spend time with experienced boxers, studying their every move.

“It was quite a challenge because when I showed up in Mdantsane, I went as an actor and not a boxer and while doing my research I met a veteran boxer who immediately told me I did not look like a boxer, so I spent a lot of time training with professionals in Johannesburg, preparing for the film.

“After that intense training, I got to Mdantsane and learnt that their style of boxing was different from the training I’d had, and I had to train there again.”

During the time spent with boxers in the Eastern Cape, Mantsai picked up useful gems and traits that would come in handy in his portrayal of Dudu.

“My script initially had a lot more dialogue but when I spent time with boxers in Mdantsane, I realised that they actually didn’t talk much, so I went back to [director] Jahmil Qubeka and told him, and we had to reduce Dudu’s dialogue and let actions speak for him.

“Mdantsane helped me a lot with that character. We built ‘Nightrider’ together,” Mantsai said.

Knuckle City is Mantsai’s third Eastern Cape film after playing Fearless The Rabble Rouser in Sew the Winter to My Skin in 2018, and Vija in the controversial coming-of-age film Inxeba: The Wound in 2017.

Inxeba: The Wound earned the actor his first Safta for best-supporting actor, though the win was clouded by protests over the movie.

Inxeba: The Wound deals with a traditional Xhosa initiation ceremony while exploring the love between two of the male characters.

The backlash — which resulted in the lives of its actors being threatened — resulted in Mantsai relocating from his Cape Town home to Johannesburg, where he fully pursued the Mthunzi character on Scandal!, among other commitments.

Before  Cape Town, Mantsai lived in Stellenbosch.

“Since moving from Stellenbosch to Cape Town I started telling more Xhosa stories than before and that made me so happy.

“On Inxeba I was telling a story of love more than I was telling a story of culture, and that character stretched me as an actor,” he said.

An unforgettable journey in his career, both for its positive and negative reviews, Inxeba was a role that firmly thrust Mantsai into the spotlight.

“I’ve come to understand that any character you play will follow you around, even when the cameras are off, and people will have different reactions to you, so I try to remind my supporters who engage with me when we meet that I am not the person they see on TV.

“There are definitely real people who behave like the characters I portray, but I am not them,” he said.