Fanele Zulu has risen beyond adversity and managed to make an indelible mark on the local TV landscape—he stars in the ‘Nkalakatha: The Life of Mandoza’ and ‘Shaka iLembe’.
By: Thanduxolo ‘Thandz’ Buti
Main Image: Supplied
Fanele’s TV debut in 2020, as Dr Monqobi Mchunu on Durban Gen, was met with praise. His next role, portraying the gay-identifying and flamboyant NJ Cele on 1Magic’s popular Telenovela Lingishoni, was critically lauded and showed his range as a performer.
Talking to Blacklight, the award-winning actor shares his deep love and devotion to performing. “I believe that I am truly gifted,” he says, beaming with pride. “I believe that I didn’t just choose this, it was a calling.
“I try and treat every character with respect. When it’s time to perform, I break all barriers—I have no restrictions. I allow my characters to take me where they want me to go. I am just a vessel, man!”
Fanele is celebrating the premier of the much-anticipated show, Nkalakatha: The Life of Mandoza (BET Africa), where he plays Chiskop member Sibusiso “SB-Bless” Thanjekwayo. As a musician and actor influenced by Mandoza and Chiskop’s music, Fanele is overjoyed about bringing the story of musical legends to the TV screens.
“SB was just a guy who wanted to keep the brotherhood of Chiskop together. But some may not know his influence within Chiskop,” he adds.
“I just want to tell his story with respect and familiarity. We have all heard the stories about Mandoza and the boys, but we were able to capture the brotherhood they shared. This biopic is going to challenge what we thought we knew about them.”
This Sunday, he is also making his debut as Mgobhozi, one of Shaka’s right-hand men, on Shaka iLembe (Mzansi Magic), which depicts the story of the Zulu warrior, Shaka Zulu. He joins the all-star line-up on what is rumoured to be SA’s biggest show yet, boasting a multi-million-rand budget. This puts Fanele in the elite league in acting and he admits that he feels pressure to perform.
“I want to tell authentic South African stories,” he says.
“I see how the gods and ancestors have placed me in my career in terms of all these roles based on real-life characters. I am being put in a position where I play historical characters.”
While he may be “book and busy” at the moment, the actor had to wrestle his way into the acting industry. His come-up story is one of perseverance, resilience and sheer determination.
Born and raised in the small township of eMandeni, in KwaZulu Natal; he defied the odds and chose to pursue a career as a performer instead of taking the traditional route and becoming a lawyer.
He recalls a childhood memory when he had a slight hunch that he was meant to be on TV. Like many South Africans, at the time, he and his family would gather to watch the popular Soapy Generations.
“[One day] I said: I also want to be on TV. Kungenwa kanjani laphaya—how do you get on TV?” he laughs.
“Fast forward to Matric, I applied for a Law degree at Wits and I got accepted. Three days before I went to Johannesburg for my orientation week, I was talking to a friend about schools and he told me he was going to AFDA [Durban campus]. It was my first time hearing about such an institution. He explained that it specialises in drama and music.
“I told my parents that you could study to be on TV. They were a bit sceptical because of the costs of enrolling at the college. I pleaded my case and my father ended up selling his cars to take care of my school costs.”
In 2018, Fanele graduated from AFDA and was faced with the stark reality of unemployment and the myriad challenges that come with trying to break into the TV industry. Like many acting hopefuls, he headed for Johannesburg without money or a place to stay. He ended up living at Park Station.
“I lied to my parents and told them I got a gig in Jo’burg and they gave me money. I went to the city and got off at Johannesburg Park Station. There was a lady who used to be a hawker by MTN Taxi Rank and I kept my bags and belongings at her spot because she slept there,” he shares.
“Every day I would walk to the Moja Love offices, in Braamfontein, and to some agencies in Northriding. I stayed at Park Station for three months trying to figure out how to get auditions. I was also sleeping at that lady’s spot at Park Station.
“It got to a point where I had to open a gym membership at Virgin Active (on a one-month free special) just so I can have a place to shower every morning.”
A call from his former Dean at AFDA, informing him about auditions for the Stained Glass Productions show Durban Gen, would change the trajectory of his career. Stuck in Johannesburg without money, a good Samaritan, in the form of a taxi driver, bailed him out of his tight spot.
“I told him my story and he convinced me to go back home because he didn’t like how I was living at the time. He booked me a bus ticket and I went back to Durban.”
Fanele recorded his audition for Durban Gen on his cheap phone while on a bus to Durban. The following day, he would get a call informing him that he got the role of Dr Monqobi Mchunu.
His dream of becoming a TV star would finally come into realization and the months living in destitution serve as a reminder of the power of resilience.
“I cried when I got my first professional gig. I literally broke down in tears; I couldn’t believe it,” he reveals.
“I use that part of my life as motivation. I believe once you set your mind on something, there’s a high possibility of obtaining it.
“I spoke this into existence. I fought for this thing. I didn’t just dream about it, I took action and made it happen.
“I believe that we living in a world of energy: The world gives you back what you put in. In the end, it all works out, it just depends on how much you are willing to put into it.”
Watch Fanele as NJ Cele on Linganshoni:
This year, the actor won his first acting award—he won Best Actor in Film for his role as Joe in uThando Lwethu (Netflix film) at the 10th Annual Simon “Mabhuna” Sabela Awards. This further cements his status as one of the most promising actors on television.
He believes the award is proof that being a performer is a path that his ancestors chose for him. “It was meant to be!” he adds.
With a few roles to his name, the actor continues to show that he is a true chameleon, by choosing characters that challenge him and the viewers. He cites the role of NJ Cele in Lingashoni as his most challenging and rewarding yet.
Playing a gay role as a straight-identifying man is still considered a risky move due to the perceptions it comes with. It instantly opens the door for the public to pry into the performer’s personal life and sexuality.
“To move from a straight role, Dr Mchunu on Durban Gen, to a gay role was a great challenge for me. At first, I was so nervous because I wanted to do the character so much justice. I wanted people from the LGBTQ community to be proud and to be able to relate. The preparation was intense but I learned a lot.” He says.
“I am taking things one step at a time. I am doing things my way and the right way. I feel like eventually everything will align.”
Fanele is married to Nana Mthethwa, together they have a daughter, Luno. The actor says he is intent on keeping the focus on his work and not his personal life. However, as one of the most recognizable actors in a social media-driven era, this can be a challenge.
“I don’t think I am that interesting of a person,” he laughs. “What I do is not all about me. And I didn’t get into this [business] for the fame or likes. I followed my dream and I went to study the craft.
“People enjoy the work and the characters I play on TV, not me per se. And it shouldn’t be about me. I am just a storyteller— my personal life has no relevance unless it serves the purpose of inspiring someone else. If my personal life can inspire someone else then that’s great, but beyond that, it shouldn’t matter.”
The bigger vision for the star is to continue to tell authentic African stories and to build a lasting legacy for his family. “I want to create generational wealth for them so they don’t have it as tough as we did. I want to be the one to break the generational curses so that the next generation can have a better life than us.”
Fanele also wants to end 2023 on a high note. He is on a mission to try and accomplish as much as possible this year so he can begin 2024 at a higher level.
He is also currently working on his EP, Imihlola, dropping on the 1st of September. For the EP, he has collaborated with Tyler ICU, Prince Bulo, and artists from Afrotainment, including the rapper Duncan.
“I am taking things one step at a time. I am doing things my way and the right way. I also have creative freedom, so I don’t feel rushed into doing anything. I feel like eventually everything will align.”
Catch Fanele on ‘Nkalakatha: The Life of Mandoza’ (BET Africa) every Wednesday at 21h00 and on ‘Shaka iLembe’ (Mzansi Magic) on Sundays at 20h00.