Quanita Adams' moving tribute to Shaleen Surtie-Richards: 'I don't have the words that could ever contain her'

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Shaleen Surtie-Richards
Shaleen Surtie-Richards
Photo: Gallo Images
  • Beloved South African actor Shaleen Surtie-Richards has died at the age of 66.
  • Speaking to Channel24, friend and colleague Quanita Adams says: "For someone who's in the business of words, I've been struggling to find them."
  • Remembering the first time working with Shaleen on Rugby Motors, Quanita says: "It changed the kind of actor that I was. I was never the same again after that."

"What Shaleen represents is so large, and the magnitude of who she was professionally and personally is so overwhelming that I don't have the words that could ever contain her," says award-winning actor, writer and director Quanita Adams, following the death of Shaleen Surtie-Richards.

On Monday, the final curtain fell on the life of one of the country's most beloved actors, as news of Shaleen's death broke across the country.  

The 66-year-old, who most recently portrayed the role of retired nurse Muriel Foster on KykNET's Arendsvlei, was found dead in a Cape Town guest house, where she was staying while filming scenes for the Afrikaans telenovela.

ALSON READ | Shaleen Surtie-Richards' final Arendsvlei episodes to air in September

Speaking to Channel24, Quanita, who had closely worked with Shaleen for nearly a decade, says: "I've been struggling to put into words exactly what this means. The impact that she had. It's just so big. For someone who's in the business of words, I've been struggling to find them."

'Shaleen was our horizon, leading us forward and showing us the way'

As tributes continue to pour in across the country, Shaleen is remembered as a trailblazer who paved the way for coloured actors in South Africa. With a celebrated career spanning nearly four decades, the actor was instrumental in ensuring female voices be heard and she moved a nation with the characters she passionately brought to life. 

"She is our Genesis, and she has been a leader on the vanguard of our Exodus. What I understand about these two stories, these origin stories, is that somewhere it started, and then there was a movement that followed.

"That's what I think about when I think about Shaleen. She was there at the start, and she led a movement to this idea of a promised land that we might never get to. But what's important narratively about this idea of an exodus is that we move from a place where we were," says Quanita. 

Shaleen Surtie-Richards
Shaleen Surtie-Richards.

"When I think about what she represents for me as a woman of colour, a storyteller of colour. A woman who has had a lifelong struggle even with my body and what I look like, what I sounded like. To know that even as I was moving forward, surrounded by others who were moving forward, we could look up to Shaleen, who was on our horizon, leading us forward and showing us the way," she says. 

'She had two states, either you had golden circle tickets, or you had to watch delayed at home on the SABC'

Although Quanita and Shaleen first started working together on KykNET's mockumentary-style sitcom Rugby Motors in 2012, the actors met years earlier at the Shoprite Checkers Women of the Year Awards.

She describes the moment she met Shaleen as one of mutual respect, love and adoration. "What was wonderful for me was that she was familiar with my work, and I didn't even realise that she knew who I was. So, her excitement at meeting me was at the same level as my excitement at meeting her," she says. 

"She had two states, either you had golden circle tickets, or you had to watch delayed at home on the SABC. You're either in the golden circle or shame; you had to buy the DVD at Game," she says about Shaleen's relationship with those around her.

If you offered to light Shaleen's cigarette, then you were in the golden circle, you got an all-access, backstage pass - you were even the bouncer.

But not to worry if you found yourself in cheap seats, says Quanita: "She forgave easily. She let things go. She didn't hold a grudge." 

"She was not the type of person to hide her emotions or shield people from what she was feeling. There was no fakeness or pretence. She's warm; she's open; she's loving. She's hilarious. Her capacity for humour was next level," Quanita adds.  

'There is nothing I could write that would top what Shaleen would bring' 

Quanita recalls working with Shaleen for the first time on Rugby Motors, saying: "It changed the kind of actor that I was. I was never the same again after that." 

I learnt that sense of irreverence that comes from a hundred per cent being immersed in the character. She has this weird thing that she does of balancing the seriousness of her craft with this kind of carelessness. 

"It was so easy for her to relax into things because she was so focused, and she was so clear about her craft. It was amazing. And after that, I was a very different kind of actor," she says. 

Shaleen Surtie-Richards
October 2006. At home with South African actress Shaleen Surtie-Richards, well-known for her role as Nenna in the local soapie Egoli.

Most recently, Quanita worked with Shaleen on Arendsvlei and the Showmax film, Swirl. "I feel like I have spent so many years trying to write Shaleen into pretty much anything and everything, because I adore her, and working with her excites me," Quanita admits. 

Asked about Shaleen's role on Swirl, as the "don't-mince-her-words" chainsmoking granny with an unending supply of witty comebacks, Quanita confesses: "Of course I wrote that role for Shaleen!"

Once you have Shaleen in your head and, of course, in your heart, it's easy.

"I wrote that part for her. Her character's name is Constance. And I love that so much because that is who she is - she is constant. On reflection, it was so beautiful. That was our gift to each other," she says fondly. 

"For Shaleen, you write a script in, sort of, 'ideas.' Knowing that she was going to take those ideas and the words, and what comes out of her mouth was going to be so spectacularly funny or poignant or moving or powerful.

"For Shaleen, you script in pictures. You script in ideas. You don't give her lines. Because there is nothing I could write that would top what Shaleen would bring," he says.  

'In the venn-diagram of aunt, mother, grandmother and colleague, Shaleen is the golden bits in the middle where all those things meet'

About Shaleen, the person behind the accolades and magnitude, Quanita says: "She adored her mother. She loved her dogs. She loved her home and opening her home to people. The best thing about going to Shaleen's home is that there was always a Christmas bed. 365 days a year. When you arrived, before long, you were taking your shoes off, you were in bed - and it's the dogs, and Ouma and whoever else arrived that day.

"In the venn diagram of aunt, mother, grandmother and colleague, Shaleen is the golden bits in the middle where all those things meet," she says.

Shaleen Surtie-Richards
Shaleen played the role of Fiela in the Afrikaans film, Fiela se Kind.

Quanita and Shaleen never went more than a month without speaking, and she remembers Shaleen as a mentor, a supporter, someone who always believed in her - and what they could achieve together. 

"She inspired me and helped me push myself forward, and that is who she was. It's going to sound cheesy, but she was the wind beneath my wings and the mountain on which I stood.

"She was like a pacemaker, when I was tired or felt overwhelmed by the challenges of the industry. And she knew exactly just when to send a stupid voice note or what silly photo to send," she says. 

When asked if she could share any photos of the two together, Quanita responds: "I don't. It's a regret. It's a sadness. Testament to the idea that I would always have her." 

ALSO READ | 4 memorable performances by Shaleen Surtie-Richards

ALSO READ | LIFE IN PHOTOS : Remembering Shaleen Surtie-Richards


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