Terry Pheto tells CNN about her journey to success

Picture supplied by Sheila Afari PR
Picture supplied by Sheila Afari PR

Johannesburg - CNN’s African Voices went to Johannesburg to meet multi award-winning actress Terry Pheto.

In the chat she described overcoming rejection in the acting business and why she wants to be a role model for young African women.

Here are some highlights from the interview, the screening time and other people featured in the show:

Beautiful Sunday with beautiful people. Thank you my loves ???? @sihle_pennyndlela & @_thenicest

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Pheto explained she has been passionate about acting and creating stories since she was young:

“Growing up, I always knew I wanted to be a storyteller. I wanted to not be defined by my circumstances and the things all around me. Through storytelling, I can escape my reality. I can have a different life. I can be whoever I want to be.”

She elaborated on why she enjoyed the escapism of acting:

“I come from humble beginnings. We moved around a lot, from one squatter camp to another, especially after my parents divorced. I was always that one kid that was very reserved… I discovered my love for acting in primary school when I was given an opportunity to be on stage. I was about nine and it was like a new person was born. I felt like I had a voice. I came alive and that’s a feeling I never wanted to let go of.” After leaving school, Pheto got involved with community theatre as she couldn’t afford to go to acting school.

She reflected on this period of her career warmly, as she tells the programme that these early days of acting were some of her most exciting:

“We weren’t making a lot of films when I was training in the early 2000s, so actors knew that you needed to bring your friends, create a community and tell stories. The most successful theatre actors were touring the world. The festivals were still buzzing and exciting… it was the golden age of theatre, I would say.”

It wasn’t long before Pheto traded the stage for the screen:

“I was 20 when I was discovered by my agent. I remember how excited I was. I had no idea what that meant, but I knew that it was going to change my life seeing everyone’s reactions.” It was this introduction to the cut-throat acting business that shaped the woman she is today: “I realised what I was getting myself into – the industry of rejection. I was no longer the girl from a small town who’s protected by family and love. Now I’m in a place where everyone is hungry, if not hungrier, and I have to fight for what I believe in and that really shaped my character and made me who I am today.”

Pheto quickly bounced back from the original rejection and was cast as the female lead in Tsotsi, the first South African film to win an Oscar. She describes how it felt to attend the star-studded awards ceremony: “The funny story was that I had never watched the Oscars until I was there… It was an out-of-body experience where I could see myself walk the red carpet and being comfortable and happy, smiling and being proud of myself. I knew that this moment would go down in the history books and young girls from wherever, whichever part of the world or background – I will be the face of possibilities for them.”

After the success of Tsotsi, Pheto went on to grace screens around the world from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom to The Bold and The Beautiful. Most recently she was honoured at the International Achievement Recognition Awards where she won Best Actress for her role in A United Kingdom and Best Actress in a TV Series for her role as Winnie Mandela in Madiba
Pheto reflects on playing Nelson Mandela’s wife and why she chooses her roles carefully: “I choose [roles] based on the character and what I can learn from them. For me, the story has to be important… Playing Winnie Mandela was the highlight of my acting career. I knew the responsibility that came with that role, especially as a South African. It was humbling.”

Don’t miss #MadibaSeries tonight 9pm on Discovery Channel 121. #alutacontinua

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Pheto spends much of her time when she isn’t acting at home in Johannesburg, where she runs her own production company, Leading Lady Productions. She is also the co-founder of an educational children’s toy brand, Let’s Learn Toys. 

Pheto explains to the programme why she wants to be a positive role model for future generations:

“Most African girls don’t come from privilege - they have a lot of challenges to overcome. They need someone they can relate to and I hope I can be the person who can say, ‘It doesn’t matter where you come from, as long as you are driven and bold in pursuing your dreams, you can achieve.’”

Also in the programme, South African writer Nadia Davids describes the challenges of writing narratives closely connected to her family’s past trauma in District Six and why this has encouraged her to work towards a more inclusive future. 

The programme also meets visual artist Tamzyn Botha “Limb” who explains why she enjoys gaining inspiration from nature and sourcing materials from unconventional locations. 

Screening dates of African Voices CNN (401):

African Voices airs Saturday, 24 November at 11:30 on CNN International (401).

The show also airs at the following times:

Saturday, 25 November at 17:30
Sunday, 26 November at 01:30, 05:30 and 21:00 
Monday, 27 November at 11:30 
Tuesday, 28 November at 06:30