Minister Nathi Mthethwa's moving tribute to the late Nomhle Nkyonyeni: 'I have been at a loss for words'

Nomhle Nkonyeni (Photo: Gallo)
Nomhle Nkonyeni (Photo: Gallo)

Cape Town - Veteran actress Nomhle Nkonyeni has died at the age of 77.

Minister Nathi Mthethwa has released a moving tribute to the actress, well-known for her roles on Mzansi, Tsha Tsha and the 2007 mini-series Society.

Following the news of her death, messages of condolences have flooded social media, with many paying tribute to the legendary actress.

He opens his tribute with the words of the late composer Michael Moerane. 


Had I the musical genius of the late composer Michael Moerane, and had to write a song befitting this devastating occurrence, I might have written the  song Mr Moerane wrote- "Sylvia", except mine would have been entitled "Nomhle". 

The song- a beautiful tribute about the death of a matriarch- goes... (Allow me for but this mournful period, to replace the name in the original title of the song):

"Nomhle, mntakwethu, ntomb'asekhaya (Nomhle, my elder sister)

Kazi ndothini ukuthetha nawe (What words do I use to speak to you?)

Xana ku namhlanje sosala sodwa (Now that today you have left us all alone)

Ewe, ke namhlanje sizinkedama. (Yes, today, we are orphans.)

Kazi kunamhlanje soba yini na (As of this day what will become of us?)

Kambe sitsho sithi ndlela ntle." (Nevertheless, we say 'farewell').

I evoke this powerful, heart-wrenching melody, because since I have learnt of the passing of Mama Nomhle Nkonyeni, I have been at a loss for words. While  it is absolutely true, that hers was an advanced age, she had numerous times in recent days with great humour and defiance reminded us all that she was not about to be done with the business of living, let alone get into retirement. 

It is therefore with heartbreak, to learn of her demise on Wednesday morning at Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth. She was 77 years old.

Nkonyeni's body of work spans over 55 years, which began as a member of the "Serpent Group"- a group of actors in Port Elizabeth who performed anti-apartheid classic theatre. Her contemporaries include industry greats Dr John Kani and the late Dr Winston Ntshona. 

Mama Nomhle has appeared in far too many television productions to mention and has also shared the silver screen with Hollywood heavyweights, and mine is not to regurgitate where her name has appeared in the rolling TV credits, but to note that her longevity bore testament to her mastery of  her craft, unparalleled professionalism, her larger than life yet fully authentic personality, incomparable and disarming wit, and enviable grace even in the most extremely challenging and disheartening circumstances in both her professional and personal life. 

Her late daughter Thabang had also followed in her mother's footsteps in pursuing Acting, but met her untimely death in 2009. It was Thabang's death that would later inform Mama Nomhle's endorsement of the nationwide campaign against Gender-based violence #TotalShutdown last year. 

Mama Nomhle was not afraid to use her massive social capital to speak out in no ambiguous terms in condemning whatever ill she witnessed, not only in the industry where she was a legendary veteran, but in the communities where she lived and worked.  

She also belonged to the  prestigious league of highly-decorated South Africans, in the Department of Arts and Culture's "Living Legends Legacy Programme (LLLP)", an initiative that seeks to honour the living legends of the arts, culture and heritage sector, documenting their contributions and providing opportunities for interaction, training and the imparting of skills to the younger generation of artists. Mama Nomhle facilitated one such workshop as recently as last year. She was deeply passionate about Community and Developmental Theatre, and had attained her Master's Degree in Theatre for Development from the King Alfred's College in the United Kingdom in 2002.

It is perhaps befitting, that amongst the many accolades and honour heaped on her in her lifetime, the very last was the "Order of Ikhamanga in Silver" in April this year, "...for her brilliant contribution to the performing arts. Over many decades, she has shown durability and adaptability. She has graced the national and international stages and her mastery of her craft has moved many audiences locally and around the world."

There is no greater honour and higher appreciation by one's own country that any person, especially the living, can ever know in their lifetime than a National Order. That she attained by the time she passed away is of some comfort on this sad day. 

Her passing has knocked the wind out of her peers, her legions of fans, the youth who had and were continuing to benefit from the skills transfer she was concerning herself with in Port Elizabeth townships in between travelling to Johannesburg to act in productions we continue to watch today. In this day of grief sweeping across the nation, and the community of New Brighton and the "Windy City" of Port Elizabeth in particular, I invoke the great composer MM Moerane's words once more in stating:

UThixo azabenawe ngaselwandle Mama Hlehle (May God be with you by the sea). 

UThixo azakuphe amathamsanq'onke (May God bestow you with all great blessings).

Ntomb'entle, themba lihle kum (Beautiful lady, in whom we had great faith)

Ntomb'enkulu, sithwandwa sethu (Our eldest sister, our beloved.)

On behalf of the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, I wish to convey my deepest condolences to her son Tebogo, her daughter-in-law, her grandchildren, her family at large, her industry peers, the community of New Brighton in Port Elizabeth, each and every community she touched, as well as every household of her adoring fans where she was a regular visitor through their Television screens over the decades.

Phumla ngoxolo MaMpangele. Rest in eternal peace. 

ALSO READ: Her legacy will live on: South Africa pays tribute to Nomhle Nkonyeni

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