“DON’T COMPROMISE YOURSELF; you are all you got,” were the words that Zoleka Helesi wrote on social media as a hook to her strongest beliefs. A giant of South African theatre, who took roles by their heart and guts allowed them to grab at immortality, Helesi believed implicitly in the value of children’s theatre in this country.
Described by the Baxter Theatre’s chief executive, Lara Foot as “a lion of a woman,” in both how she took on life and the intensity with which she addressed her illness, Helesi succumbed to cervical and lung cancer on 11 December 2020. She was 48.
Fondly known as MaZo, Helesi was deeply loved for, in theatre practitioner Yaël Farber’s words, having a “spirit tender as a child’s but tough as boots. The required grace and grit for telling the big stories; the ones that change things.”
Born on 26 February 1972 in Mdantsane, a large township between King Williamstown and East London in the Eastern Cape, Helesi studied theatre at the Community Arts Project in 1998. It was in the context of this institution which was established in 1977 under the pall of apartheid, by a collective of private individuals in order to maintain cultural life in Cape Town, that she honed her organisational muscles and became the project director of Iliso Theatre Company in Khayelitsha.
CAP is remembered for the printmaking and theatre initiatives that gave protest art from the 1970s its skills and clout. By 1994, CAP had been converted into a formal non-governmental organisation for unemployed youth and adults. Veering between theatre management and performing, Helesi embraced all that theatre was and could be.
Describing her as a “rare, fierce artist,” with “soft burning eyes, a proudly raised chin, and a singing voice that could awaken the spirits”, Farber cast her as Christine in her play Mies Julie, which debuted in 2012. Christine was the spiritual compass of a tale twisted with Eastern Cape values and a spot of Strindberg , based as it was on August Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie. It was a performance and a production which took her all over the world. Helesi, as a performer, was endowed with the depth of focus that could take a supporting role in a work and render it with such care, grace and empathy that it became the glue that bound the whole production together, and her interpretation of ‘Christine’ was memorable for this reason.
But her litany of works performed is long, ranging from Marc Lottering’s Auntie Merle, it’s a Girl, to Foot’s Woyzeck. Not partial to safe spaces, similar to Jaco Bouwer, the director of the Peter Weiss play Marat/Sade in which she performed 2016, Helesi had cut her theatre teeth in Brett Bailey’s controversial First World Bun Fight company, and performed in his iMumbo Jumbo in 1997 and The House of the Holy Afro from 2004.
She also directed the children’s theatre piece Memories by Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, a tale about contemporary elephants and how we treat them, Scrooge, reworked for stage by Lara Foot in 2013 and Ambabali Ethu, an isiXhosa translation of Janice Honeyman’s Bangalory’s Back in 2015, an anthology of classic tales in a South African idiom.
Her passionate belief in the value of children’s theatre was not just about making the works, however. Helesi was almost single-handedly responsible for making the theatre environment friendly for very young visitors. Believing completely in how the reality of theatre touches young sensibilities and plants “seeds” in them, she gave her all in to make it possible for literally thousands of children to discover the hallowed space of the Baxter Theatre, in Cape Town.
It was at this sacred theatre space where she started working in 2007 and it was where she had the opportunity with the Zabalaza Festival – one of the Baxter’s pillars – now in its eighth year, to give community theatre a powerful boost. The idiom of community theatre carries a veneer of perceived amateurism among elites.
Under Helesi’s hand, the work that came through Zabalaza was strong and gritty, startling and brave, superseding all stereotypes. One of the founding co-ordinators of this festival which was an iteration of the Ikhwezi Theatre Festival, Helesi didn’t soften what being a professional on stage means. She didn’t make it easier for would be performers. But she did make the access points possible; she did listen to others with her whole being and she was recognised – and will be remembered – for her ability to “give the best hugs”. Indeed, she was a person onstage and backstage who people loved with all their hearts, because of the courage she gave them as they confronted their biggest dreams.
Said Foot in a moving tribute to her: “I feel like a small part of my soul has died with her, and a terrific era at the Baxter Theatre has now ended and I can only hope and pray that the memory of her indomitable spirit will heal all who loved her so very much.” These sentiments are deeply concurred by performer Chuma Sopotela with whom she worked in the award-winning Karoo Moose, a production by Lara Foot which effectively set established South African theatre values on their heads, and redefined the possibilities of theatre with bold wisdom.
Helesi lost her brother ‘Pankie’ earlier this year. She leaves her son, Lazola, and her sisters, Tembisa Helesi, Xoliswa Vellem Mntuwomlambo, Zaza Vellem, Akhanye Nomawethu Mahala and Nombini Margaret Helesi and their families, as well as a completely devastated Western Cape theatre fraternity. She was the kind of individual whose empathy had the power to spill beyond the borders of restraint, and she touched the lives of so many professionals, dreamers and audience members with her guttural energy, husky laugh and penchant for gossip, unequivocal beauty, poise and never-ending empathy and courage to be.
- A version of this story was published on 17 December 2020 on New Frame.