As a proud Black queer man Kagiso Rathebe (30) not only strives for more queer representation and visibility, he also wants to break casting stereotypes and redefine the term “leading man”.
By: Thanduxolo ‘Thandz’ Buti
All images: Supplied/Courtesy of Canvas Cam
Kagiso first made his big television debut by portraying two gay characters, Ilam on Generations: The Legacy, and Anda on Igazi. While being a champion for inclusion and representation, he wants to be known as an actor who can colour outside the box.
“The first roles that I played on TV were gay characters. I remember people asking me if I was not worried or scared of being typecast,” says Kagiso during our Zoom conversation.
“I was not worried because I knew I had the ability in me to play different characters. I have proven from the beginning that I have versatility as a performer. When you look at my entire career, there is a balance in my roles. So the onus is also on me to ensure I don’t get pigeonholed, hence the decision from the beginning not to be someone who can only portray gay characters.”
The actor now plays the psychopath Amo on Scandal (eTV), who audiences have deep ambivalence towards. This comes after appearing on the international series, Noughts & Crosses (iTV), where he played Bonnie Mbuli’s boy toy. With such a mix of characters in his bag, the actor says he has an affinity with darker characters like Amo.
“I love stories that deal with the mind – psychology. I love flawed characters; I don’t like playing perfect characters. I like this idea of roles that show the whole journey of a character, including the good and bad,” he explains.
“I have been playing Amo for about two years or so, and for the most part, he has been a decent guy. Now we are getting to see a different and darker side to him. It’s almost like a complete switch.
“I was attracted to his mysterious side. And I was drawn to the possibility of exploring his darker side in the future.”
Watch a clip of Amo from Scandal eTV:
Kagiso grew up in Soweto, and from the early age of four, he knew he wanted to be an entertainer. After completing matric, he enrolled for a diploma in Live Performance at the Market Theatre Laboratory.
“I never doubted that my calling was to be a performer, even though I didn’t know what that profession was exactly,” he explains. “I was lucky to have a mother who helped me nurture that gift because most performers don’t usually have a supportive structure at home.
“My mother always wanted me to follow my passion and helped nurture that by signing me up for things like drama school. I loved the element of escapism that comes with storytelling. I love being moved by characters and transferring that feeling to people. Storytelling is important. It’s a powerful tool that helps us to engage about social ills or to make social commentary. It’s a big responsibility.”
Before landing major roles and gaining popularity, the actor says he went through a spiritual journey of self-acceptance. This led to him aligning more with his truth and being more authentic in his life. In 2017, he came out to his family and never looked back.
“I am not straight at all! Like, there is no straight bone in me at all. In real life, I have always been into guys. I am queer, gay, or whatever you want to call it. That is why it was so easy for me to play gay roles at the beginning of my TV career,” he says.
“I love the challenge of redefining what a leading man looks like. Because for a long time, being a leading man was rigid and came with many rules and guidelines, and at the top of that was being heterosexual. Now we have broken that mould completely, and there is more freedom for us to play different characters regardless of our sexuality. It’s also great to have a clear distinction between my private life and work-life, and be able to step into another character and have that be believable.”
With the world moving towards a more inclusive society, which finally recognizes the queer community, the film and TV industry has the task of crafting content that represents everyone. While there have been some great strides in queer representation on TV, we still have a long way to go. Coming out as a Black queer man is still a silent protest, and many still live in fear of discrimination in society and the workplace. But for Kagiso, being transparent about his sexuality seems to have given him a sense of freedom as a performer.
“People’s situations are different, and it’s not my place to speak on anyone’s personal coming out journey. But it is a sad situation when a lot of actors still have to suppress their truth because they have to maintain a certain public image.
“That shows us that we as a country still have some work to do because there is a reason why we still have people being scared of living their truth. I made a conscious decision earlier in my career that I was not going to hide my sexuality from anyone. I never wanted to get to a point where I had created an image based on a lie. I opted to be upfront from the beginning and have people make their judgements based on truth instead of a lie.”
Speaking to Kagiso, one can’t help but wonder where a Black queer man who grew up in the township found the courage to live their truth so unapologetically. He also admits that he doesn’t know where the courage comes from. But he does cite an existential crisis he faced in 2015 as a big shift in his life and helped him get a clear sense of self.
“It was a point in my life when I decided to have a clear look at myself and begin to shed all the things that were no longer servicing me,” he explains. “I am talking about people-pleasing, wanting to fit in, saying or behaving in a certain manner to get approval. That was the year that I decided to cut all of that out.
“I am not sure if there was a specific thing that gave me that bravery, but I assume that it was just different moments of life that get any human to a point where you decide to speak your truth and choose how you want to show up in the world. Just not caring what anybody thinks. If you love me, then love me; if you don’t then you don’t. Anyway, the people that matter are the ones who love you no matter what.”
He advises young people who are struggling with their identity and living their truth not to be disillusioned by social media. As someone who serves as some sort of queer representation in film on TV, he is motivated by truth and authenticity.
“When we say someone ‘has it all,’ what exactly are we talking about? Are we talking about material level, mental level, or appearance? Because materially, you could have it all but mentally be a wreck. So I say to young people: As basic as it may sound, find your truth, live it, even if it’s scary.
“You have this one life, and it’s your life – and you have to live for yourself. When I look at my life, the scariest thing is the idea of reaching old age and looking back with regret. Living life for other people is time wasted. It’s your life, and you have to make decisions that serve you. If that’s your motivation, you can’t go wrong.”
Kagiso has a vivid idea of what his dream life looks like. He wants to represent South African film and TV on the global stage. His definition of success is being of service to his community and loved ones and achieving a state of sheer happiness.
“You can have it all and still be unhappy. If I can be happy, keep that perspective, and never get jaded, no matter how much money I have. And also maintain a healthy lifestyle and healthy relationships – that’s success for me.”