Ma’Mpangela, our legend - South Africa mourns Nomhle Nkonyeni
Even as a little girl she was a real firecracker – a tomboy who refused to do chores, preferring to climb onto the roof and put on a show – and it was evident from an early age she would be a star.
The antics of New Brighton actress Nomhle Nkonyeni, who grew up to become a national treasure and died at Livingstone Hospital on Wednesday, were recalled by her cousin, Ronnie Madinda, a few hours later.
Nkonyeni, 77, who received the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver from President Cyril Ramaphosa in April, had been in hospital since Friday and died at 4.30am from heart complications.
The fiery little girl who once demanded a pair of pants so she could “go to the bush” grew up to become a mother to all, her friends, family and fellow thespians said.
“I remember coming home from church one day and Hlehle – who was nine – had chores to do, but instead she got on the roof saying she was going to be the man in the house,” Madinda, 74, said.
“She was always role-playing.
“I was shouting at her to come and help me with the dishes and she just refused,” he said, smiling sadly.
“She was a tomboy growing up, a natural leader, and we were her cast.”
Madinda said as she got older, her character became even stronger. “She had a very warm and welcoming spirit.
“She made the family house a home.”
Nkonyeni’s eldest granddaughter, Mpho, 26, said: “Hlehle really loved people, to such an extent that she would cook a full meal every day for people who would come visit.
“We were much alike. She loved clothes and so did I and we always fought about it because I always wanted to take something from her wardrobe and she would say ‘no ways, I paid a lot for that’.”
South African acting legend John Kani, who is in Hollywood for the world premiere of The Lion King, said it was with great sadness that he had learnt of the loss of his “friend and comrade in the arts”.
“Her performance as Antigone still stands as the greatest of all time,” he said.
“With Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona, Mulligan Mbikwana, Norman Ntshinga and Vuyelwa Ntshona, we founded the legendary Serpent Players Drama Group of Port Elizabeth in 1965.
“A great lady, a teacher and a dear friend of mine. What a grand lady,” he said.
For Port Elizabeth actor Anele Penny, 38, Nkonyeni became a surrogate mother when he moved from Peddie to Port Elizabeth.
Penny, whom Nkonyeni directed in the play, Buzani ku Bawo, at the Opera House in April, said: “With us she was not a superstar, she was a mother.”
Penny painted a picture of a woman who would not let a visitor leave her home without them first having a meal, and someone who was always willing to help.
“Working with her was something I can’t really describe,” he said.
“I had watched her on TV – her directing skills were motherly.”
For third-year Stageworld Theatre school student Sigqibo Kutase, 24, working with Nkonyeni evoked mixed emotions.
“I was very terrified originally,” the actor, who also appeared in Buzani ku Bawo, said. But that soon disappeared.
“She would always ask us, ‘My child, what do you think of this character? What do you think of this line?’
“She was so open to our ideas,” Kutase said.
Another cast member, Siphosethu Puti, 23, said: “It was an honour to work with her.
“She loved order but gave with all her heart.”
Neighbour and friend Sandile Mahlakahlaka, 55, said Nkonyeni was his first friend when he moved into his Tsewu Street home seven years ago.
“She loved everyone, she was a very outspoken person,” he said.
“In the community, she had a watchful eye and spoke words of wisdom and guidance to the young and the elders.
“And when she addressed things she was very stern.
“She would say ‘Not kum, ndingu Nomhle Nkonyeni mna [that won’t fly with me, I am Nomhle Nkonyeni]’.
“She was a very proud and dignified woman.”
National Arts Festival executive producer Nobesuthu Rayi, 31, said she had worked with Nkonyeni since 2006.
“Our relationship went from her being a mentor to a mother figure.
“She had a unique style of nurturing talent – not your typical classroom approach.
“She had a tough-love and storytelling approach.”
Opera House creative director Xabiso Zweni, 32, said Nkonyeni’s relationship with the Opera House started during the apartheid era, when Fugard would sneak her and other actors into the theatre.
“And since 2008 when I got to work with her, we have done numerous productions.
“I spoke to her two days ago and she told me to call everyone for rehearsals because she was going to be discharged.”
Zweni said Nkonyeni had been fighting for the Opera House to be fully funded by the government and they would continue to honour her legacy.
Tributes have also poured in from politicians, with arts minister Nathi Mthethwa saying: “I have been at a loss for words.
“While hers was an advanced age, she had numerous times in recent days – with great humour and defiance – reminded us all that she was not about to be done with the business of living, let alone go into retirement.
“Mama Nomhle appeared in far too many television productions to mention and also shared the silver screen with Hollywood heavyweights.
“Her longevity bore testament to her mastery of her craft, unparallelled professionalism, her larger than life authentic personality, incomparable and disarming wit, and enviable grace even in the most extremely challenging and disheartening circumstances in both her professional and personal life,” he said.
In June, Nkonyeni expressed her joy at having Aggrey Road in New Brighton renamed in her honour as part of a proposal by the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality to rename several streets.
She has been in numerous television and stage productions, including her most recent role in Scandal! on e.tv.
She appeared in the 2004 feature film, Red Dust, and in 2016 received the lifetime achievement honour at the SA Film and Television Awards.
In her breakthrough role in 1981, Nkonyeni was cast in the play, Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena, at the Capab (Cape Performing Arts Board) theatre in Cape Town.
Nkonyeni is survived by her son, Teboho, and grandchildren Mpho, Vuyokazi, Thandiwe and Itumeleng.
- A service will be held at the the Arthur Wellington Memorial Church in New Brighton on July 19 at 8am, followed by the main funeral event at Nangoza Jebe Hall at 9.30am.
PLEASE NOTE: This article has been updated to include the funeral details.