‘At times I would lock myself in my bedroom, sleep for days and not eat’- Mapula Mafole on battling depression

Mapula Mafole. (Photo: Dino Codevilla)
Mapula Mafole. (Photo: Dino Codevilla)

Cape Town - She has replaced her usual cornrows with a sleek bob and looks very different to her troubled teen character – far more mature and more in control of her life.

But then Mapula Mafole is 28 – 11 years older than the young girl she plays on e.tv’s Rhythm City.

It’s no problem playing someone so much younger, the petite powerhouse says after welcoming DRUM into her flat in Sandton. 

With her pixie face and tiny frame she can easily slip into the shoes of her character – but it’s more than that, she says. She’s young at heart and remembers what it was like to be a teenager – and one with plenty of problems at that.

Mapula can relate to her orphaned character’s struggles with depression and feelings of loneliness, she says.

“I didn’t have my parents around for a long time when I was growing up,” she explains.

Her mom and dad didn’t pass away, she adds hastily, but they moved to the UK to work as nurses and their absence affected her deeply.

Her character, also called Mapula, has it far worse. “She has no parents at all and she’s very poor. People treat her differently because of her financial situation – all that would’ve been too much for me to handle.”

Fictional Mapula is “braver” than real-life Mapula, the actress admits. “She is more patient and tolerant and there are things I wouldn’t have been able to cope with, such as rape and abuse.”

Yet that doesn’t mean she hasn’t had her own demons to cope with. Her personal struggles have helped her play the role with conviction. 

Mapula’s character was created with her in mind and the actress’ performance landed her a best supporting nomination at this year’s SA Film and Television Awards.

It’s a meaty role. TV’s Mapula is an orphaned schoolgirl who has survived being molested and has to raise her two younger siblings. When she eventually starts to trust people, she finds a boyfriend who becomes abusive because of his jealousy.

Mapula digs deep into her own experiences to play the part.

When she was 10 years old her family moved to Tshwane from Klerksdorp and that same year her parents, Monica and Moses, headed for the UK, leaving Mapula in the care of her older sister, Tebogo (38), and her husband, producer and DJ Christos (49).

They looked after her until she left for university. Her older brothers, Thabiso (35) and Kabelo (34), went to boarding school.

“My sister was very young when she raised me, so it was a challenge for her as well,” she says.

Life without her parents was hard but she understood they had made the tough decision to work overseas in order to provide financially for their family.

“I never felt like my parents abandoned us because I knew they were trying to do their best for us.” But as much as she understood their good intentions, growing up without them took its toll.

“It was a difficult time for me. I was too young. I had to change schools and the move from Klerksdorp, which is a small town, to the big city – it was tough. My brother-in-law is a DJ and being exposed to the fast life was a lot to take in.”

Mapula says she felt alone and isolated. “I bottled up a lot of my thoughts and feelings and I became depressed and anxious. At times I would lock myself in my bedroom, sleep for days and not eat. I’d cry and wonder why I was on Earth at all.”

When she was 13 she realised she had to do something so she made an appointment to see her school psychologist.

“I knew something was wrong, that I wasn’t okay. I didn’t fit in with the other kids.”

Having regular therapy sessions with the psychologist helped her a lot, Mapula says, and by the time she finished school the teen knew what she wanted to do with her life: become an actress.

She enrolled in an acting course at Afda – then her father announced he was returning home to SA.

Mapula was overjoyed. “He said he wanted to be closer to me, especially during my university years, and that really helped me.”

All was well for a while – until tragedy struck and her dad had a stroke.

“He was all I had because my mom was still overseas. I thought I was going to lose my dad,” she recalls.

Paralysed with fear, Mapula felt herself slipping back into depression. She was unable to get out of bed and stopped attending classes. After one of her lecturers contacted her to say she was failing, Mapula knew what she had to do. “I needed to see a psychologist again.”

Therapy and acting saved her life, she says. She finished her course and in 2012 landed her first TV role on Intersexions.

“I played a young girl who was dealing with issues similar to mine. That role gave me hope and affirmed that acting is really what I wanted to do.”

She followed it up with a stint on Generations: The Legacy before joining the cast of Rhythm City.

Although she still faces moments of depression and anxiety, acting has been “a true blessing”, she says.

“Playing Mapula has encouraged me because she has been through a lot and she can still get up and pull herself together. She inspires me to do better every day.”

Mapula says depression is unpredictable and anything can trigger it. “It’s different for everyone.
Missing my mom and fear of failure can drag me back down but I push on every day.”

Fortunately her father survived and is a source of comfort and support  to her. Mapula also has a passion for music, which she was introduced to while living with her sister.

“Music has always made me feel good – I love it all: gospel, soul, house. Being around my brother-in-law during my teenage years had a good influence on me. I wish I could sing but I can’t so I’ve started practising how to DJ.” 

For now, though, Mapula is taking one step at a time and working hard at improving her relationship with her sister.

“It’s a work in progress because she was stuck between being a mom and a sister, so things were difficult. She was also very strict with me but, looking back, I understand that she was trying to protect me.”

She loves and appreciates her family, she adds, and knows life could have been so much worse. Playing one of the most troubled teens on TV has taught her that.

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