WHEN YOU LOOK at – or remember – footage of Lindiwe Ndlovu, be it in the context of the terrifying ‘Sharon’ in the prison series Lockdown, ‘Sponono’, an ex-convict with her convictions close to her heart in Zabalaza, the inimitable ‘Patjutju’ in Uzalo among other characters, you see a rich and unique combination of strength and empathy, that even in a tiny role had a wonderful, compelling magnetism. Ndlovu’s face and presence were unforgettable, whether she was performing a villain or a hero, a victim or a saviour. She unequivocally left a mark of authenticity on the stories to which she committed herself. She died in her sleep on 11 January 2021, at the age of 45.
The elder daughter of popular community playwright Stanford Ngidi, Ndlovu was born on 8 January 1976 in Dube, Soweto, but was raised in the eThekwini town of Hammarsdale from babyhood. When she was a teenager, violence in the area made it practical for her family to move to the township of Klaarwater, near Pinetown, between 1989 and 1993, where they stayed with the brother of Ndlovu’s mother. She matriculated at Wingen Heights Secondary school in Shallcross, Durban in 1995. And while joining the police service was a career option she considered, the magic and the mystery of the theatre held her tighter and excited her more. In 1997, she enrolled at the Market Theatre Laboratory for a two-year training stint.
Studying drama in Johannesburg for a young woman from a poor town in KwaZulu-Natal was not a given nor an easy option, however. But she was not alone. Her family encouraged her and gave her the moral and material support she needed to get though. During the time she was studying, she stayed with her mother’s sister, Teresa Msimang, in Pimville, Soweto, who also helped her financially. It was a brand new world for her on so many important levels and the buzz and thrust of Johannesburg was infectious.
But more than that, emerging into the theatre industry in the late 1990s was like leaping into a melting pot of exciting possibility. Having studied alongside the generation of performers including Nomathamsanqa Baleka, who also went into soapies, Nicodemus Moremi, who went on to study at the Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris and the late Dudu Yende, who earned her fame in Robyn Orlin’s off-the-wall conceptual performance work, Ndlovu was nurtured by colleagues and peers to hone her craft and polish her talent. The Lab was, at the time headed up by Vanessa Cooke and Ndlovu was taught by facilitators of the incomparable ilk of Orlin, Dan Robbertse and the late Ramaloa Makhene, among others – people who were theatre and performance practitioners as well as seasoned teachers, and were able to give the best of both worlds to their students.
Upon graduating, Ndlovu found herself a theatre professional in a country that was a couple of years into its democracy, with the understanding of our rainbow nation at its peak of unbridled, uncynical optimism. It was a time where there were many jobs to be found in every aspect of performance culture in this country and money was not deemed a four-letter word with regard to arts support. Ndlovu quickly integrated into the populist sphere of TV soapies which were entertaining a wide sweep of ordinary South Africans, thirsty for local stories and contemporary humour in their own languages. In many ways, her various roles gave voice to the legacy her father – who passed away in 2015 – had left. The daily soapie arguably became the equivalent of community theatre in the 1950s for many Black South Africans.
Above all, it was her physicality that eased Ndlovu into the hearts of many a fan. She was not svelte and conventional in her proportions or appearance. Her body was big, her face strong. No wall flower or shrinking violet, she took on life with all its complexities, with a full heart and all her courage, and in many ways, became a role model for the ordinary South African. And she could laugh. And hug. Lynne Higgins of the Gaenor Artiste Management which represented Ndlovu, remembers the enormous hugs she gave, and the unstinting generosity of her spirit. Actors Warren Masemola and Sello Motloung commented on Facebook on the potency of the unforgettable impact that Ndlovu made on their personal and professional lives.
Fellow TV actress Charmaine Mtinta, a close friend of Ndlovu’s in a heart-breaking post on Facebook, described her as “My Shakespeare, SmaLindi, Gogo, Saint Thembekani, Mama ka Manzodidi … I am hurt … I love you Gogo …” in expressing her devastation at the loss of a good friend and beloved colleague.
Highly skilled in performance and articulate in several languages – including Setswana, isiZulu and Afrikaans – Ndlovu rapidly found work on the small screen and her face and persona became known to many millions of viewers, all over the country. Her litany of roles in soapies, TV dramas and theatrical productions is long. But it was in her role as ‘Pauline’ in Darrell Roodt’s Little One (2012), a heart-breaking essay on child abuse – and child rape – in urban South Africa that earned her her richest and most valued accolades.
Her interpretation of ‘Pauline’, the middle-aged shack dweller who discovers a profoundly mutilated six-year-old and fights for the integrity of the child, won her best actress in the coveted South African Film and Television Awards of that year. It was in this performance that Ndlovu articulated the wisdom, deep hurt and passions of a woman not intellectually sophisticated, but with a heart and soul that she was not afraid to show. In interpreting Pauline, Ndlovu gave this woman supreme dignity, but not in a stand-offish or crude way. Pauline comes across as a woman of valour, a real woman who will fight for what she believes in, with all she has, in spite of everything. In casting Ndlovu in this pivotal role, Roodt and his creative team on the film gave the character stature that was nothing less than biblical.
Ndlovu played cameo roles in several other local films, including Roodt’s Winnie Mandela (2011) and his Safari (2013), and she also performed in eHostela (2019) the made-for-television series about the dark world of the professional assassin. After a dire year with little work in 2020, Ndlovu was excited to embark on a new year, having secured a role on Isono, a new drama series released by BET Africa which screens on DStv, premised on the greedy and immoral sins of a money-oiled society.
A humble, down-to-earth person, who knew how to charm the camera, but enjoyed an intimate coterie of close friends, and an indelible reputation for being helpful, loyal and kind, Ndlovu leaves her mother, Gervasia Thandazile, her younger sister Nobuhle, close family and friends, and a fan base of millions of grieving South Africans.