In full colour

In full colour

Nomzamo Mbatha opens up to Rebekah Kendal about balancing fame with being the good girl

Dressed casually in a pair of black leggings and a Champagne-coloured sweater, young starlet Nomzamo Mbatha is unassuming. The only trace of the photo shoot that has just taken place is her resplendent updo and bright lipstick. At first she seems a little bit nervous, but it isn’t long before the petite actress is slipping into that great big smile and laughing at herself.

During the interview, something strange happens: somehow Mbatha becomes brighter and more iridescent. It seems as if everything and everyone around her fades into black and white, while she dazzles in full colour. It is easy to see how she has so quickly managed to captivate South African audiences.

A mere three years ago Mbatha, who grew up in the township of KwaMashu in Durban, was well on her way to becoming an accountant. ‘I chose to study accounting because it was a safe option. I loved doing accounting at school and it meant a stable career. It meant that I would have a salary and I could take care of my family. At the time, everyone seemed to be dying on me, and there were kids who needed to be taken care of, and I felt like this was up to me. I’ve always been one to weigh my passion against reason – the accounting was the reason, but the work I’m doing now is the passion.’

By the time she was in her fourth year of her B.Com degree at the University of Cape Town, Mbatha had already suffered more loss than many her age. After her parents got divorced, she went off to stay with her father and paternal grandmother, while her siblings stayed behind with their mother. ‘I was always very well behaved. I think I have always been an old soul because of my grandmother. When you are raised by your grandmother and you are the only child in the house, you get sent around a lot – to the store, to do the grocery shopping. Later, we had two orphans come and stay with us, and I kind of raised the infant.’

When her father passed away in 2005, Mbatha, who was just 15 at the time, felt the burden of responsibility keenly. Then her older sister, whom she would turn to for comfort and reassurance, died during her first year at university. ‘Losing my sister was the most gut-wrenching and heart-breaking thing I had ever been through. My sister died in November 2009, and then I went into second year and my grandmother died. It was one after the other, and I felt overwhelmed. That kind of thing can mess with you quite a lot emotionally and academically, and I had to push myself to continue with my studies.’

When she enrolled in her fourth year, Mbatha decided that – regardless of whether or not she passed – her time in Cape Town was over. That year, while on her holiday in Durban, she took a chance and entered the MTV Base VJ Search competition after being encouraged to do so by a friend. Although Mbatha didn’t win, her making it to the top three gave someone from Bomb Productions the opportunity to see something they liked. After Mbatha had completed her final exams, she then flew up to Joburg to audition for the part of Thandeka Zungu on a show called isiBaya. At the time, she had no training and no acting experience.

‘It was probably one of the bravest things that I’ve ever done in my life. Everyone was asking me: “What are you going to do?” I don’t know. “Do you have a job?” No. “Are you going to go study?” I don’t know. There were so many things that were not confirmed, and all I could say was: “I don’t know”. And, somehow, I found power in that and I owned it.’

After a day of intensive auditions, Mbatha was told that she had the part. Being unfamiliar with the industry, she didn’t quite realise what this meant. At the time, she was simply grateful to have a job. ‘I didn’t realise that within months my face would be on a billboard across a highway. The billboard had four people on it – three men and this one girl. Never in my wildest dreams did I picture myself up there. People loved the show.’

Not one to shy away from her heritage, Mbatha, who has won a few style awards, is known for loving traditional prints and beads. ‘I work a lot with Khosi Nkosi, Ryan Keys from Keys Fashion, and Jerri Mokgofe – he’s a great stylist. I’ve learnt that once brands, magazines and companies start taking notice of you, you don’t want to be seen with a hair out of place. I don’t want to look like I have tried too hard though, so I always go with designs that look effortless. The only thing I want to look like I’ve made an effort with is the beads. To me, it is almost like putting on my armour.’

While she is aware that appearances matter in the industry, Mbatha is equally committed to honing her skills as an actress. ‘I think acting comes naturally to me, but I still want to go to school for it. To sharpen my skills. It is one thing being led by intuition, but it’s another having the craft. If you only depend on intuition, you are always going to fall short, because you just don’t understand the technical aspects. I feel that sometimes my performances fall short for this reason.’

In addition to acting in the drama series Umlilo and hosting the reality travel show Holiday Swap, Mbatha is also the first local face of the international brand Neutrogena. But success – whether it is doing well at school or starring in a major advertising campaign – comes with expectations. ‘I’ve always been the golden child and the good girl. It’s been so amazing to be able to support the family, and to be able to care for myself and enjoy the fruits of my labour.’


In 2015, Mbatha jumped from the TV screen to the big screen when she appeared in two local movies – Tell Me Sweet Something and The Jakes Are Missing. Although she only had a small role in the latter, she was the leading actress in Akin Omotoso’s playful romantic comedy.

‘When I was called to audition for Tell Me Sweet Something, I felt it was premature. I didn’t have a body of work to carry a film. At the time I just had isiBaya. But I auditioned and Akin loved me. The story was told so authentically and so simply. It sold out.’

While Mbatha may have big dreams – they include winning an Oscar, becoming a Unicef ambassador, telling beautiful African stories, and opening at least one school – she is already pretty successful for someone who is only 25 years old. In addition to making quite a name for herself in the entertainment industry, the actress is also one of the directors in a facilities management company, and has recently started her own production company called Ground Six. Next year, she hopes to team up with another production company to produce her own TV series.

‘There are so many things that have come together – it really was the universe conspiring. That’s why I have such a personal relationship with a higher power. I also believe in positive thinking. When I was on the red carpet at the premiere for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part Two in Berlin, I closed my eyes and thought: be centred; claim it; this is going to be your life very, very soon, so prepare yourself, baby girl!’

Fashion: Jodi Cohen; Photography: Andreas Eiselen/, GalloImages; Hair & Make-up: Sebastine Pepler/Birdonawire
February/March 2016

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