His role feels like a slice of his own life, says ‘Grassroots’ actor

Lihleli Tini
Lihleli Tini
Image: Supplied

Not many actors can say their first lead role in a major drama was like a chapter out of their own biography.

But for East London actor Lihleli Tini, one of the protagonists in 1Magic’s drama series Grassroots, no role has been more relatable.

Tini plays Asanda Debeza, an Eastern Cape teen rugby player faced with a complex transition into manhood while finding his feet in a prominent rugby high school in Johannesburg.

The character tackles several obstacles, including his father’s disapproval of his passion for the sport, bullying, seeking acceptance by the rugby captain and sharing a room with his family rival Monwabisi while hiding a secret that may change both their lives.

“So many of Asanda’s experiences are very similar to things I have gone through myself. When I got the brief of that character I related to about 90% of his story,” Tini said.

Once a rugby and waterpolo player himself, the former St Andrew’s College pupil said he had undergone his fair share of bullying disguised as “initiation” by his peers when he joined as one of only two black players in his team.

“I didn’t have to do a lot of preparing for that role other than just having to dig deep and reminisce on what I went through while at boarding school at St Andrew’s.

“Most of the time I felt like a token black player because there were only two of us in the first team and I was one of the first black team captains – but I resigned because I didn’t like the dynamics of it all, so Asanda’s story really felt like my life,” he said.

In the series, Asanda and Monwabisi join St Sebastian’s High School amid transformation of the school’s predominantly white culture.

As newcomers, the two boys are woken up in the early hours of the morning by team captain Carl and his peers, who bully them to a point of throwing Monwabisi into the pool.

“That episode and the process building up to it was the most relatable for me because it’s exactly what I went through in boarding school, with the exception of the scene where Monwabisi was thrown into the pool,” Tini said.

While playing Asanda is Tini’s first series lead, the actor has played several smaller roles, including in Ezibiweyo and My Perfect Family.

With just two episodes of Grassroots left to air before the season ends, Tini reflected on performing alongside seasoned actors such as Zikhona Sodlaka, Connie Chiume, Lerato Mvelase, Justin Strydom and Sibulele Gcilitshana.

“At first you get nervous about working with experienced actors when you’re still new but they were really helpful and a pleasure to work with.

“I now refer to the likes of Zikhona and Lerato as my big sisters because they offered a lot of guidance where I lacked confidence,” he said.

Grassroots, a Clive Morris Productions production, premiered in July and the channel said it could not confirm a second season as yet.

Presently, now Johannesburg-based Tini is auditioning for other roles and hopes to land a new challenge soon.

“Nothing has materialised yet but I’ve been doing some auditions and meeting some producers. After having worked on this production I just want to be at it all the time. Being on stage, taking someone’s imagination and bringing it to life is where I feel most alive,” he said.


  • Grassroots airs on Dstv 1Magic at 7.30pm on Fridays.