‘I look at myself now and I cry’ – Durban Gen’s Nelisiwe Sibiya recalls life of hardship before fame

Nelisiwe Sibiya says she has overcome many traumas to get this far in her career and encourages others to not give up.
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Life is nicer, more comfortable, now but it hasn't always been this way.

Not only does Nelisiwe Sibiya now play one of the leading characters on e.TV's telenovela Durban Gen, but she's become a highly acclaimed performer.

In 2021, she bagged the Actress of The Year award at the Screams Awards and Best Actress in Africa at the Zambian Zikomo Awards.

But success didn’t come overnight. The 29-year-old doesn't shy away from talking about the life of hardship that came before the stardom.

“Yey ngoba umvelinqangi and idlozi (my God and ancestors) have been so faithful,” she posted on social media recently, adding that were it not for perseverance, she and her mother’s hard work, she would not have come this far.

“The reason why I’d never think I am better than anyone regardless of social status is because ngyakwazi ukuhlupheka mina (I know what it's like to be poor)," she wrote in a touching Instagram post.

“Shout out to my younger self after matric. The driven young me who had nothing but just a dream, a younger me who would take 3/4 taxis every day to go work as a promoter on the streets and malls.”

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Her mom made sure they never went to bed hungry despite being poor, she says. “Saving money to take myself to varsity because my mother was just a street vendor who couldn’t afford even to buy us clothes as long as sidle amagwinya asele from ukuthengiswa (we ate vetkoeks leftover from her stall).

"The same mother who would accompany me to taxis around 4/ 4:30 in the morning so that I catch the first one. I once shared that in those early mornings I’d find myself sleeping in toilets waiting for my shift to start if I got a lift.”

Nelisiwe says thinking about the old day brings tears to her eyes. “I look at myself now and I cry, I cry because this is everything I always cried and praying for with my family, and more is yet to come.” 

She encourages people who are feeling hopeless to never give up. “As the year starts, I know the stress from young people who wants to go to varsities, some don’t have money to even register, and some lost their jobs,” she says.

“Some lost their marriages, some lost their parents and more and don’t know where to start. I am here to say Do it!! just Do anything that will make you grow and stop thinking ‘abantu bazothini’ no one cares about you and what you choose to do now will determine your future.”

She went on to quote an African proverb that says, “Where you sit when you are old shows where you stood when you were a youth.”

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Nelisiwe had previously revealed has had to sleep in a mall bathroom before making it in the industry.

“One day, I’ll tell you a story of how I used to sleep in the bathroom for six months at the Glen Mall working as a promoter. Ngoba kade sizama impilo, bese there are people who would want to just take that away from us," Nelisiwe wrote.

She also opened up about how she struggled to cope following a traumatic scene she needed to play on Durban Gen after memories of how her father was shot and killed in front of her when she was a minor.

“It brought back all the pain when I was young, at the age of eight or nine, when my dad was shot in front of me. All the trauma we went through with my siblings when my father was hunted down and eventually killed by guns,” she posted on Instagram.

“I remember I cried so hard and got really sick. Sense of memory really dribbled me that day. It taught me how important it is to deal with our childhood trauma. I remember I had to go home for a whole weekend just to recover.” 

Nelisiwe says, playing Dr Mbali has been healing. “Playing the character in Durban Gen is nothing but a blessing. I am acting but at the same time I'm healing.” 

In another previous post, Nelisiwe revealed that some of her family struggled with watching the hospital-based show as it opened up old wounds from when her mother was hospitalised. 

“Shooting these hospital scenes was so close to my heart. And now they [are] affecting my family. I went all out bringing this to life as they always reminded me of my late mother’s last days at the hospital. How much she fought sickness which was said to be cancer. She fought, hey. She honestly thought she would be better, kanti no, death was stronger than her. It was time.”

Nelisiwe wrote about how she received a text message from her sister saying that she could not watch the show any longer.

“Yesterday I got a text from my sister that broke my heart so bad. She told me that since I started being in the hospital, she stopped watching Durban Gen because I look exactly like my mother, and it reminds her of those last days. Mind you, she passed away in her hands. I got sick the same time and now I am on my way home to recover and be with my family."