The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
UNKWOWN to many viewers that watched the show in its heyday, Robert Mele, the man who portrayed the character of Donga in the hit television series, Kukhulwa Kokuphela, did not stammer in real life.
Unlike the man that he portrayed on the small screen, Mele was a writer and an eloquent speaker who only lost his gift of garb when he got in front of the camera. In front of that camera, he was Donga, a bumbling figure that provided a perfect foil for the sleek Silandulo, played by Felix Moyo.
Silandulo was a smooth talker able to talk his way out of any sticky situation. From his slick tongue came such words and phrases as “ukukapula” or “isandla esiloboya”. Donga on the other hand, was the man who was always nervous, his own tongue often betraying him.
While Silandulo was assured, Donga was hesitant, believing that their best laid plans would unravel and land them behind bars. For that role, the man that played Donga had made a great leap and stepped completely out of character.
“Sometimes it’s not your character in real life but you acquire it,” says Pathisa Nyathi, an actor, contributing writer and a one-time assistant director on the series. “That’s what we had with Donga. And he was quite good at that. He started stammering when he took up the role but he was not naturally that way. He could speak fluently and he was actually a writer.”
For one to understand how an accomplished writer transformed into Donga, they have to go back all the way to the 1970s, to the formation of an organisation known as the Mthwakazi Actors and Writers Association (MAWA).
“I think the starting point is to realise and acknowledge that once upon a time, before independence, there was an organisation called MAWA,” says Nyathi.
MAWA was driven by writer Mthandazo Ndema Ngwenya, the man whose pen would give birth to the series known as Kukhulwa Kokuphela.
“We had come together as writers as the name suggests and the moving spirit in that organisation was Mthandazo Ndema Ngwenya. He died in a car accident after independence. As I said, I think the basis for the formation of that organisation was writing. Ndema was a writer, Felix was a writer, I am a writer and most of the others in the cast and crew were writers, whether it be in history or poetry. So, we were writers and actors at the same time. It built some esprit de corps among us and even to this day we are people who can relate to each other,” Nyathi says.
After Ngwenya passed away after independence, there was a danger that his vision of the show would be lost with him. This did not happen as Felix Moyo picked up his pen and took over from his fallen comrade. It was Moyo who Nyathi credits as the prophetic brain that made Kukhulwa Kokuphela an unforgettable series.
“You could say that someone like Felix, who wrote that and introduced it as if alerting us about what was about to happen. He became prophetic. At the time corruption wasn’t as rampant as it has become now. I look at Felix Moyo as I look at Lovemore Majaivana. Majaivana equally was singing about things that, at the time he was singing about them, you couldn’t see them.
It was prophetic at that time and over time you begin to realise that these people were seers. You begin to appreciate that there are people that are prophetic, people who will see the future. In a way you can say they’re spiritually endowed and possess the power to see into the future. So that soapie came at a time when corruption became epidemic and then eventually a pandemic. This is where we are and I know the authorities are trying but now it is well rooted in our society and it will take a while before it is eradicated from our society,” says Nyathi.
So loved was Silandulo by viewers that words that he frequently used became a part of everyday speech.
“You create your characters and create them in such a way that they depict certain life characters. You want somebody who is corrupt as a character. And you give them a language, an appropriate language and that is what happened. If you look at someone like Felix, I attribute to him the word umakhala. There are people like that. There are people who become influential in society. You look at the language used by some people and you can tell that their language came from Cont Mhlanga and I think Felix was one of those people as well,” says Nyathi.
While the series was memorable to viewers, it had an equally profound effect on young writers in Bulawayo, who saw that it was possible to tell authentic stories from the City of Kings. One of those young writers was Cont Mhlanga, who went on to make Stitsha, another legendary show that came soon after Kukhulwa Kokuphela ended its run on the national broadcaster.