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Terry Pheto: From Community Theater To The World Stage

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Terry Pheto

If you close your eyes, you may remember this. It was a historic moment for Africa’s film industry. For the second time, a South African film stood a chance to win an Oscar. Millions anxiously glued to their TVs, crossing fingers in hope. With a white envelope in hand, American actor Will Smith took to the stage. Without hesitation, he announced Tsotsi as the winner of the Best Foreign Language Film award in 2006.

The Kodak Theatre in Hollywood was packed with the who’s who of America’s film industry. You could see Terry Pheto, a newcomer in the industry who played Miriam in the film, clap her hands and sigh in relief as director Gavin Hood accepted the award. History had been made and Pheto’s life was never to be the same.

For Pheto, this was a world away from the streets of Evaton, the township 50 kilometers south of Johannesburg, where she was born on May 11, 1981. Here, she found her love for acting.

“My love for acting came from the love of storytelling. My grandmother was the best storyteller and I looked forward to story time every evening. My cousin, Siya, even nicknamed me storyteller because I also started telling stories like my grandmother,” says Pheto.

It didn’t end there.

Pheto says she knew she wanted to tell stories for a living. At the age of 20, she left home to study acting in Johannesburg. It was tough. She lived in a shack until she was 21. One day, while acting in community theater, she was discovered by Moonyeenn Lee, South Africa’s casting agent extraordinaire.

With a talented agent by her side, Pheto thought the road to stardom had finally arrived, yet she went to audition after audition for over a year and had no job.

“I had roles that had been offered before but they never worked out. Sometimes the filmmakers would decide to go a different direction,” she says.

READ MORE: The World’s Highest-Paid Actresses 2017: Emma Stone Leads With $26 Million

She was ready to pack her bags and go home when she received the script for Tsotsi.

“I am thankful that I trusted the process because I feel like God wanted me to be in Tsotsi which was my first film and was massive for my career. I was introduced to the industry by the right project.”

From left to right: Actor Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto and director Gavin Hood with the Oscar that Tsotsi won. (Photo by Getty Images)

It was the perfect role for Pheto. Miriam is an attractive, young, single mother. She lost her husband, who was murdered on his way home from work. Despite her pain, she maintains her dignity and runs a small sewing business to support herself and her child.

It marked the rise of who many see as the leading lady of film in Africa. Everyone wanted a piece of her talent. International roles quickly trickled in.

In 2008, Pheto joined the list of beauties endorsing L’Oreal.  It set her as the first South African face for the cosmetics giant. She then left South Africa to try her luck in Hollywood. It was the right decision. She landed a recurring role as Dr Malaika Maponya on The Bold and the Beautiful, an American soap opera watched by 35 million people every day.

“I got a call from the SABC and I thought it was a joke… Because I didn’t audition for the role, the role was given to me… It was such an honor to work with people who have been doing this for such a long time and being chosen was dream come true for me,” she says.

READ MORE: ‘It’s Africa’s Time For Animation’

Pheto says working on a soap was a culture shock. She was used to films where there is more time to work. On a soap there are multi cameras and everything is done at lightning speed.

Her acting career was progressing just as quickly.

In 2017, Pheto also became the first South African to play Winnie Mandela, a character that has been played by American singer and actress, Jennifer Hudson, London-born Sophie Okonedo and Naomie Harris, an award-winning Cambridge University educated actress. These are big shoes to fill, but Pheto nailed the role in the miniseries, Madiba.

Pheto says she always felt like she knew Winnie Mandela, even before she met her because of how people admired her. In preparation for the role, she read books and watched interviews and documentaries of the struggle icon.

“Playing Mam’ Winnie Mandela has always been my ultimate dream. She is powerful and remains a beacon of hope considering all she has been through. …I have met her before but Mam’ Winnie hasn’t been too well so I couldn’t spend time with her to prepare for this role. There is no greater blessing than living your dream. I am very lucky to be doing what I love,” she says.

Terry Pheto

Terry Pheto (Photo by Jay Caboz)

At home and abroad, this leading lady always steals the show. Hard work mixed with talent has won her more awards than we can count.

This September, she added two international accolades, at International Achievement Recognition Awards (IARA Awards) in London, to the list. She was the biggest winner of the night bringing home the Best Actress 2017 award for her role in A United Kingdom, and the Best Actress TV/ Drama 2017 for her role in Madiba.

“Both A United Kingdom and Madiba portray very important stories. Seeing these stories travel globally has been a beautiful journey. It has been an absolute honor to be in a position to have played strong characters in both roles. Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela for example is one of the strongest women I know. I’m in awe of her strength and resilience after all she’s been through. She inspires me to believe that I can overcome any obstacles or challenges in life and still remain human, kind and unshaken,” says Pheto.

A United Kingdom depicts the true story of Seretse Khama, Botswana’s first president.  Pheto plays his sister, Naledi Khama, alongside British-Nigerian actor, David Oyelowo, known for playing Martin Luther King Jr in the 2014 awarding winning movie, Selma.

Oyelowo is not the only international star Pheto has worked with. Among them, she counts Idris Elba on Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom.

“It was fun working with Idris. He is very humble and very talented,” she says.

READ MORE: Trailing Charlize Theron?

Pheto says her mind is always working in overdrive. It means she can wear many hats. In addition to her successful career in front of the camera, she is also an entrepreneur.

“I knew it is important to also be behind the scenes and know what happens there. I am able to produce and also act and do other things. You just have to surround yourself with the right people.”

Ten years after Tsotsi, Pheto produced her first film under her production company, Leading Lady Productions. The production company has just finished working on a short film shot in Los Angeles.

“I am working on developing enough content. There is a library of scripts I am going through for next year,” she says.

There is more.

This year, Pheto and her best friend, actress Mampho Brescia, cofounded, Let’s Learn Toys, an educational toys company to help prepare children to be leaders. Although not a mother yet, Pheto says, in a statement, she is a devoted aunt who tries to give children around her more than she had growing up. The company has 2,000 different toys for children between 12 months and 18 years.

Surely, there should be a secret to this success?

“One thing I learned from a very young age is to be humble and always respectful. These are the principles my mother and grandmother taught me and they were right because people can see through you. Working hard and everything else just adds to that,” she says.

Clearly, this is not the last we will see of Pheto.

Big Shots

Celebrating Women With Monumental Strength

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Sixty two years ago, on August 9, 20,000 women of all races, classes and creed marched, singing and chanting, babies on their backs, to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital city, to deliver a petition to then Prime Minister J.G Strydom against the introduction of the apartheid pass laws.

This meant black women were not allowed in urban areas for more than 72 hours unless they possessed a pass with the holder’s details, including payment of taxes and permission to be in these urban areas. The march was led by the struggle stalwarts: Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu, Sophia Williams-De Bruyn and Rahima Moosa.

“I didn’t see much of Helen Joseph at the march, she was in front of the crowd. She was a big strong woman and she led the march with other strong women. They told us that women are holding passes and if we don’t demonstrate against [the government], we [too will one day end up] holding these passes,” recollects Ramnie Naidoo to FORBES AFRICA. She was only was 14 years old at the time, escorting her mother at the march.

Pictured here is Helen Joseph (1905-1992), founding member of the Federation of South African Women, and Rahima Moosa (1922-1993), union activist and member of the Transvaal Indian Congress, both co-leaders of the 1956 Women’s March.

They have been immortalized in the Long March To Freedom, a procession of 100 life-sized bronzes celebrating the pioneers of South Africa’s journey to democracy, at the Fountains Recreation Resort in the City of Tshwane, Gauteng, South Africa.

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Arts

Talking African Writing in London

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Africa Writes, the Royal African Society’s annual literature festival, dwelt on Afrofuturism and where black British artists see themselves in the burgeoning new aesthetic.

(more…)

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Life

Kingdom Calling At The Bushfire Festival

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It’s an early morning in May and as the sun rises, red, orange and yellow hues bathe the swaying sugarcane fields of Malkerns, a small town in the landlocked southern African country of Swaziland.

Swaziland, renamed ‘the kingdom of eSwatini’ in April this year on its 50th birthday, awakens to the sounds of the rustling wind and chirping birds. Very soon, these natural notes will be replaced by the cacophony and camaraderie of thousands of guests jetting into the country for the annual Bushfire Festival, a three-day fiesta of art, culture, music and food in the last week of May.

It’s a busy time of the year for a kingdom that is one of the world’s last remaining monarchies.

Within the Bushfire Festival arena, djembe drums beat to the rhythm of the heartbeat of Africa. Revelers indulge in traditional feasts at the food markets as the musicians take center-stage.

The likes of South Africa’s Samthing Soweto, Brazil’s Flavia Coelho, Nigeria’s Yemi Alade and Mali’s Salif Keita are present, offering a profusion of sounds and melodies.

In the camping arena is a confluence of cultures, as over 29,000 guests who have traveled here to attend the festival make new friends and form unlikely collaborations.

Many stop to admire a hand-crafted grass hat worn by a young woman who has traveled from Lesotho. Anna Thai is originally from Memphis, Tennessee, in the United States.

“The people here are very relaxed and accepting of each other. There are so many from different countries, so many languages and so many different faces and I really enjoy the diversity of it,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.

What started as a cultural meet around a small amphitheater, where artistes performed in front of a crowd of no more than a hundred, is today one of Africa’s most talked-about festivals.

 

Swazi-born Jiggs Thorne. Photo by Karen Mwendera.

“We started off as kind of a charity running a business and very quickly learned that it needed to be a business running a charity.” – Jiggs Thorne

Swaziland-born Jiggs Thorne, the founder and director of the festival, always had a passion for the arts, but admits he had to learn the business aspect of the festival the hard way.

“The important thing is I never studied to become a festival director and that’s the thing with entrepreneurs, you are driven by passion; the kind of passion that gets you up and creates that drive you need to make something work. And you have to be incessant,” Thorne tells us.

Born in Manzini, he was inspired by his parents who owned a restaurant. He went on to pursue a degree in drama and politics at the University of Natal in South Africa.

In 1994, when he finished his degree, he decided to return to his home country and apply his passion for the arts. Thorne wanted to develop the local arts scene.

In 2000, he set up House On Fire, the eclectic venue where the festival is now held.

However, its business model wasn’t sustainable, and Thorne realized that if he didn’t act quickly, his dream would slowly fade away.

“Well, I was very much an artiste and I think I’ve become entrepreneurial along the way and we started off as kind of a charity running a business and very quickly learned that it needed to be a business running a charity,” he says.

The Bushfire Festival came into being.

“It was always about a positive light, warmth, about celebrating diversity,” he says.

A majority of the funding came from sponsorships, and partnerships – the festival is called MTN Bushfire.

With his brother Shelton, Thorne fine-tuned the business model to keep its mandate as a creative arts platform and business at the same time. As Thorne came from an arts background, he had to depend on others to make his dream work.

Read More: Setting Fire To Swaziland

“There needs to be integrity in the way in which you deal with people so I think that’s kind of paramount in this equation where you are dependent on others to make it happen,” says the 48-year-old father of two.

The festival grew beyond what Thorne had imagined, he says, contributing over E50 million ($3.7 million) to Swaziland’s economy.

“When the king travels overseas, people ask him about Bushfire, you know. So it’s quite a surreal thing that the concept that came up all those years ago in a sense has become owned by others,” laughs Thorne.

This year, the local newspapers, radio stations and social media were abuzz with news on the festival.

Thorne owes its success to his team and his parents who left the legacy for him and the family to build on.

“It was kind of the fire they started and it’s a light that we’ve been able to follow. They are the legacy, says Thorne, who runs the festival with his siblings and extended family.

“Entrepreneurship is something that you don’t really study, you learn, and it’s something that takes over, and it’s kind of all-encompassing,” he signs off.

After the curtains come down on the festival, it’s back to the idyllic sights and sounds of Swaziland, until next year, when the little town of Malkerns will fire up again.

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