Renowned actress of theatre and cinema, Thembi Mtshali-Jones is a co-founder of Spirit Sister Productions which has produced television productions like ‘Power Within’, an acclaimed women’s television magazine program. She has co-written and acted in plays such as “Mother to Mother”, “Big Sister” and “A Woman in Waiting”. She received an honorary Doctor of Philosophy at the Durban University of Technology (Faculty of Arts and Design) in 2022.
Thembi Mtshali-Jones, who interpreted the role of the domestic worker Pat, celebrated the 35th anniversary of anti-apartheid film, Mapantsula by Oliver Schmitz at the Berlin International Film Festival. The world premiere of the digitally restored version takes placed in February.
Thembi talked to me about the making of the film in a 1998 interview:
That was the first political movie made in South Africa, in the late eighties, during the state of emergency in our country. A lot was happening around us. I remember that the casting was very closed. During the interview, they wanted to understand what your political views were and, of course, they really had to be careful. Everything was underground. It was done clandestinely. Finally, we started filming. Most of the shots were done in Soweto, in this woman's house. Most of the whites who were working with the film were liberals. The whole thing was done right under the nose of the system, without them knowing it. Before they knew it, the film was outside the country. It was introduced at the Cannes Festival.
What was its impact on you as an artist? How did you experience your role in the film?
I was not aware of the impact of it at the time. To me, I just thought, well it is one of those films that will end up being screened in little places, at political rallies. I did not really think that it was going to be big. I was very, very proud at the end. I remember being invited to a women's conference called "Malibongwe" in Amsterdam, which was organized by the ANC women, and it was at the same time the release of Mapantsula. It was a huge thing. I thought, "Oh my, I am in Hollywood or something!"
With the film Mapantsula, it was the first time that you had seen your image on the big screen. What was it like?
I do not know how to describe it. It was amazing. We were all invited to this big cinema for the preview and I thought, "Oh my, that is me!"
Compare the impression you got from your experience of seeing your image on television....
Well, when watching television, you are at home, it is very relaxed, whereas in the cinema, there are all these strangers, and they are looking at your image. It was a very different feeling.
How did people respond to you in general? You spoke some about your experiences at the women's conference?
The film was difficult for a lot of people who were in exile at the time. It was very touching. Seeing that it was done at home, seeing the surroundings, people commented, "Oh my, this is near my house." In fact, many people cried, but they were also excited by the fact that people in South Africa were using any means to expose the brutality of the South African government.
So you were often in audiences of South Africans in exile?
Yes, it was only screened outside of South Africa. It was only released in South Africa after 1990.
What did you think about your character Pat? I know this was a while ago, but do you remember her and how she was portrayed?
Pat was this girl who had just moved to the city looking for a job, and the first job that she could get was as a domestic worker. I do not know how she got caught up with that guy Panic, who is a gangster.
The fascination of this lifestyle perhaps?
Maybe the protection, because she was new in the city. If you are seen with "the" guy, you feel that you are protected. Although I view Panic more so as a survivor. People do anything just to survive. If you do not have a job, you have to find another way of survival. Pat did not look at herself just as a domestic worker. This was the beginning. She wanted to step forward and do other things—for instance, when she gets involved with the union guy, who introduces her to secretarial work. She had other ambitions for herself.
You said that you had been a nanny. How did you, as the actor in the film, connect with Pat's experiences?
In fact, I did not act in that movie. I just became myself; I just did what I did when I was a nanny. It was funny, because the woman who played the role of my madam is a very nice person. We worked together at the Market Theater. She found it very difficult to be harsh. They tried to push her saying, "You have to be harsh to be in this role." After the take she would come and say, "You know, I did not mean to do that." I would say to her, "Please, come on, we are acting here!" She would take it so personally. She would wonder if she was being too pushy. They would tell her, "In fact, you must be more pushy."
(Excerpts from Sisters of the Screen, Women of Africa on Film, Video and Television, 2000. Beti Ellerson)
During demonstrations in apartheid-era South Africa, police arrest not only activists but also Panic, a “mapantsula” or petty gangster. While a cop tries to get him to make incriminating statements, we learn in flashbacks how Panic got caught up in the township riots. Panic is only interested in partying, alcohol, and his girlfriend Pat, and stays away from the protests against exorbitant rents. But then Pat, who loses her job as a house maid because of him, cuts Panic loose, and his landlady’s son is taken away by the police …