Nonku Ndlovu has big, piercing brown eyes that somehow manage to be extra gentle when they rest on you. She has a sharp, angular face. High cheekbones. Straight nose. Strong chin. Her braided hair is copper-coloured. Today she wears a straight cut, white floral dress that rests just above her knees. Over that and around her waist, she wears a yellow Zulu belt. Her red stilettos match her lipstick and show off her legs. Legs, let me add, that I would kill for.
Her beauty is striking.
It all makes sense. Before becoming an actress and then opening her film school, Eagles Academy, Ms. Ndlovu was Ms. Soweto. She was a beauty queen. It still shows.
Ms. Ndlovu was born and spent much of her childhood in Soweto, the biggest township in South Africa, located south-west of Johannesburg. She grew up in a four-roomed house without much luxury. “My mother sacrificed everything to send me to private schools. I don’t, for one instance, negate the sacrifices she made for my education”, she says solemnly. I know that when she says “everything” Nonku Ndlovu means everything because she adds that even after these sacrifices, she still needed outside help with her transportation to school. For that help, she is still grateful to the Maponyas who “…sponsored my trips to school”.
Later in her childhood though, the actress frequented New York where her father, renowned television producer, Duma ka-Ndlovu, was exiled. She recalls these moments with her dad , with great nostalgia. “I’d visit my dad at his apartment. He had portraits of Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. His home was decisively African. He maintained that identity although living in a foreign country”, she says, gesticulating. “That really inspired me”, she continues, and points to her belt, “So even when I get dressed in the morning, I try to wear something that shows my African heritage”.
She makes many affectionate references to her father, and talks about him with high regard. Nonku Ndlovu recalls watching Sarafina performed live in New York at only nine years old and that being the moment she decided she would be an actress. “That production completely blew me away, and I longed to be on stage from that day”, she says, reliving the moment. Her father disapproved of her becoming a performer and suggested she focus on a career in business instead, which she did. “I have always sought my father’s approval”, she admits, “It was awkward defying him. So I went into corporate”.
By the age of 23, Ms. Ndlovu was doing better than most of her peers. “I was always the youngest person and the only black person in a boardroom. I was peaking and making a lot of money doing it too, but I was also very unhappy. After I had bought the designer handbags and hung out in all the right places there was still a deep-set feeling of emptiness”, she laughs shyly. She then took a yearlong break and went back to the New York of her childhood to regroup.
When she returned, she began working on her desired career choice. Soon she was appearing on local soapies such as Backstage, television commercials and music videos. Her stunning looks also landed her work as a model. “When I told my dad of my unhappiness, he supported my acting career. He would take me to workshops with actors on his productions and I would suck up all I could. The exposure was amazing. I learnt that acting was an exact science. I was around people like John Kani and Nthati Moshoeshoe and I am so grateful for that experience”, she explains passionately, and then stops. There is a comfortable silence between us before she says, “I am glad that he came around”. Without any further explanation, I understand how profoundly important it was for her to get her father’s understanding.
Ms. Ndlovu recently made a brief appearance in the South African romantic comedy, Happiness is a Four Letter Word, which made close to R10 million at the local box office by some estimates, a feat most local films struggle to achieve. However, these days she spends most of her time working on her Eagles Academy, a film school designed to equip students who cannot afford the exorbitant fees normal film schools charge with the right professional tools to get involved in the film business. “Eagles is the gap between AFDA and Wits and all the other film schools that require parents to have in excess of R100 000 in fees a year. We are also so much more than that. I thought I’d open this school, and we’d start shooting and making movies, but I realised that I had a lot more work in store for me”.
Ms. Ndlovu had her work cut out. Many of her students lacked basic literacy skills. A lot of these students also struggled with inferiority complexes that stemmed from their disadvantaged circumstances. “I was ready to start script-writing, then I realised I needed to teach sentence construction and spelling first. We honestly started from the ground up. And as they got better, they began believing in themselves and the self-esteem issues sorted themselves out. It has been quite a journey”, she says.
It helps that she understands a bit of her students’ backgrounds, having been brought up not so rich herself, by a single mom, in a township, under difficult circumstances. It is not far-fecthed to say that she draws her strength to mother her Eagles Academy students, as it were, from what she saw her own mother do to mother her, what her mother sacrificed to make Nonku Ndlovu, Nonku Ndlovu.
It is also of great value that her father stands by her. His support has afforded Eagles Academy students behind-the-scenes access to his productions where they have been allowed to shadow and learn. “My dad has been very supportive with the school and he truly sees the vision behind it. In the productions that we do at the school we incorporate a very strong African identity. Our characters are always reading books written by African writers, playing music by African artists and characters wear some kind of African print. One of these elements has to be present; we have to subliminally push a very pro African agenda. We have to push us and who we are”, she says, determined.
As our time together draws to an end, I ask Ms. Ndlovu how the school has helped her. She takes a moment to reply, then says, “It has literally been a calling from God. I cannot explain the connection between my students and I. Although I come from a completely different world and have had opportunities they haven’t. We share universal pain and joy. We all have daddy issues and we all need to be affirmed and loved and we all experience grief. They have taught me so much about life and being a person’.
I have come across many philanthropists whose work is geared at either relieving themselves of the guilt that comes with their privileged lives, or worse, focused on feeding their insatiable egos that leech off being needed. Nonku Ndlovu is driven by neither of these. She is truly committed to making a change, both on the broader ideological level of helping the African child embrace the African identity as one that is as legitimate as any other, and on the more specific goal of making a positive difference in the lives of young people by giving them skills to use to get work in the film industry.
When I finally say goodbye to Ms. Ndlovu, I feel an infinite admiration for her work and passion for change.