Sonia Mbele on depression, raising her children and being a producer

Sonia Mbele. (Photo: DRUM)
Sonia Mbele. (Photo: DRUM)

It took five long years, months of preparation and a lot of patience, but she did it – and it’s all been 100% worth it.

Sonia Mbele, the renowned actress and businesswoman, managed to pull off a successful, fun-filled first season of The Real Housewives of Johannesburg – and now she’s ready to take a few well-deserved days off.

But first the 41-year-old, who is the executive producer of the show alongside business partners Pebbles Gqunta and Rebone Sesing, has invited her mostly female crew members and DRUM to her upmarket home in Morningside, Gauteng to watch the last episode.

There’s a festive atmosphere as everyone gathers in the lounge, laughing and chatting away like family while they compliment one another on a job well done.

Sonia mimics one of the phrases RHOJ star Evodia Mogase used to say, “What a joke, my darling,” and everyone laughs.

Sonia is on her feet serving drinks and a delicious supper of couscous and a variety of salads with bottomless glasses of wine.

“We did it, guys,” she says and everyone screams as the credits roll up, showing the names of all involved behind the scenes. It’s been a long couple of months of preparation and the cast and crew worked tirelessly, sometimes right through the night to try to meet their deadlines.

“It takes a team of positive minds to be able to produce a quality show,” Sonia says.

But it took a challenging five years to put the programme together. When she sealed the deal back in early 2014 with her then-business partners, she’d also been going through a highly publicized split from a well-known businessman and her attempt at making the reality show work initially failed.

Yet she learnt from her past experiences, she tells DRUM.

“I’m happy all my hard work and endurance didn’t go to waste.”

Sonia is dressed down in a black jumpsuit, a floral jacket and sandals from her own shoe range when she meets us at our offices after the last viewing.

We ask if she wants anything for lunch and she replies she isn’t fussy as long as it’s not meat.

“I don’t like eating animals. I decided to stop eating meat a long time ago and I don’t see myself going back.”

Still, she doesn’t make a major fuss about it and there’s nothing diva-like about Sonia.

She got over the fame a long time ago, she says, and laughs at celebrities with big egos.

“I realised a long time ago that fame is not the beginning and end of it all. Fame for what if you’re not going to make a difference in someone’s life and empower people?

“I don’t take celebrities who act like divas seriously. I just laugh at them because we breathe the same air and we get the same rands.”

Life has knocked her down a few times and it’s helped her stay humble and grounded.

Five years ago, when the idea of The Real Housewives of Johannesburg was just a concept she was building with her partners, she got a taste of how cruel the industry could be.

She was fresh out of Generations – the show that put her on the map – and ready to pursue her goals of directing, producing and writing with her partners.

But then her dream was shattered.

“I was going through a lot on a personal front,” she says. “The people I worked with reduced me to nothing and took advantage of the fact I was going through a messy break-up.

“I lost my sense of self.”

She was judged by friends and colleagues for the split, she says.

“I was in a dark hole, but I was committed to making the show work. I pushed and got the cast together, I got the sponsorship and 80% of the production was possible because I worked hard and made it happen.”

But then she received an email from her partners with her job description.

“I was no longer producer but told I needed to make coffee for people, hang curtains, move boxes and basically do the work of an intern.

“That is not what I had signed up to do. I was supposed to deal with bigger issues, but I was made to deal with broken doorknobs. Those people truly mistreated me.”

She did a lot of introspection.

“I realized I was selling myself short.”

Sonia knew that if she left, the production would crumble. “I decided f*** this, I went home and handed in my resignation letter. I was then told, ‘No, you’re not resigning, you’re fired’.

“When everyone heard I’d walked away, they all pulled out and that’s how the first attempt of RHOJ failed.”

Walking away from her dream wasn’t easy, especially since she was going through a break-up at the same time, Sonia says. She became depressed.

“I tried therapy, but it didn’t work. Things got so bad I would even google ways of committing suicide and going out quickly and pain-free because I’d had enough of my life,” she says.

She would cry herself to sleep and sometimes sleep from Monday to Friday without checking on her kids, Donell (17), Khumo (11) and Mosa (7).

Her helper had to look after the kids as she was unable to at the time.

Things became so bad she was almost admitted into a psychiatric hospital in Sandton.

One evening after her son’s birthday five years ago, Sonia had a panic attack that changed her life.

“It was a sort of mental breakdown. After coming from dinner I just lost it and became hysterical. I was crying and talking non-stop,” she says.

A friend suggested she sleep over at her house so she could keep an eye on her.

“We got into the car and while on the highway I felt like I was losing my mind. I drove myself to the nearest mental hospital.”

She ran into the reception talking to herself.

“I was rambling on and on when a nurse came to me. That woman was my saving grace.”

She asked Sonia if she was sure she was ready to be admitted because it could be a while before she was out again.

“I had a vision of myself in an institution, standing at a window and watching my children play outside – being trapped in a room, unable to go anywhere or move.

“I don’t know what happened, but I became determined to work hard on pulling myself out of the depression,”she says.

After the talk with the nurse Sonia left.

 “I have a beautiful, warm, happy home for my kids. I am doing what I love and find joy in waking up every morning,” she says.

“This year everything erupted – it’s the year of the volcano for me.”

Sonia is very involved with her children.

Every weekday she wakes up at 5am and gets them ready for school.

 “I try to balance my life. I have minimized events I attend and I choose where I want to be and the friends I keep.

“Motherhood hasn’t been easy, but it has been pleasurable. I’m at peace, but there is a lot of work that needs to be done and my sleeves are rolled up.”

She’s keeping her fingers crossed that there’ll be a second season of The Real Housewives of Johannesburg this year.

“We might make a few changes to the cast,” she says.

In 2019 people can expect to see a lot more of Sonia’s name in TV credits.

“I have a lot of content and in the past five years, I literally didn’t sleep. I put ideas down and created shows.

“This I’m looking to pilot the ideas and make them into reality television.”