Johannesburg - It’s hard to believe she once saw herself as an ugly duckling and would pray she’d wake up little like other kids her age. She was teased for being too tall and for a long time she felt self-conscious about her height. But those days are long gone for Zoe Mthiyane.
Graceful and gorgeous, the 37-year-old commands attention wherever she goes, flashing her perfect teeth in an ever-present smile. Zoe, who stands 1,79m tall in her stockinged feet, is used to being in the public eye. As Zitha on Generations: The Legacy, she’s a household name and is instantly recognisable. Yet it hasn’t always been her work that sparked attention: her failed relationships were major tabloid fodder and her two children were thrust into the headlines alongside her.
Zoe co-parents Awande (6) and Lulonke (2) with their fathers – sports presenter Robert Marawa is her first-born’s dad while producer Lebohang “Lebo M” Morake is her youngest’s baby daddy. It’s precisely because of the public scrutiny that she makes it clear her kids and her love life are out of bounds. But she will admit parenting is hard work.
“I don’t have the formula for successful parenting but the fathers and I want what’s best for the kids.” Sometimes they have to push their own feelings aside for the good of the kids, she adds.
There are rumours she and Rapulana Seiphemo, who plays her lover Tau on Generations, are getting cosy but she refuses to go there. “I’ve worked so hard for 14 years in this industry and stories about my private life have taken the focus away from my work,” she says. “I just want my kids to be inspired by me.”
Her smile returns when she talks about joining the soapie in 2016 and being inspired by the likes of the late Joe Mafela, who played Tebogo Moroka on the show until he passed away last year. “It’s wonderful to draw inspiration from people you grew up watching act,” she says. Zoe has had to dig deep lately as Zitha has been rather dishonest towards Tau.
“It’s difficult knowing you love this person yet you are deceiving them,” she says. Being deceptive is one thing she will never be, she adds, although there are other ways she relates to her character – one of them being they both lost their parents. Zoe’s beloved mother passed away at a time she needed her most. It was her mom who taught her to love herself and for a while it was hard to pick up the pieces and carry on.
Zoe grew up in a big polygamous family, which included five wives and “too many children”. Her mother, Clara Nthalane, was the youngest wife of her late father, Elias Mthiyane, a store owner in KwaZulu-Natal with whom she had six children – four boys and two girls. The family hails from Mabhuyeni in Empangeni and their house was the only one with electricity. Zoe was just five years old when her parents sent her to boarding school at the Little Flower Primary and High School in Ixopo, and she was looking forward to “a different life away from home”. She and all her siblings went to boarding schools – some as far as Cape Town. For her, it didn’t take long for harsh reality to set in, though.
She was always the tallest girl among her peers and was treated like “an unwanted ugly girl”. “I used to pray that I would wake up a short person,” she says. Her mom, who won a beauty pageant in 1973, refused to allow her daughter to feel bad about her height. “She made me walk in heels so I could appreciate myself,” she recalls. “She also entered me in beauty pageants.” Gradually her confidence was restored.
“I loved reading the story of The Ugly Duckling and swore that one day I would be that swan.” She decided to strive for excellence in academics and sport, instead of focussing on her looks. Her height proved to be an advantage: she excelled in netball and athletics and won many awards. “When I was 16 I won the victrix ludorum trophy for being the overall winner in various sporting codes including javelin, long jump and track running.” It was also around then she realised the ugly duckling in her was indeed blossoming into a swan.
Boarding school also helped shape her parenting style as she knew she didn’t want that kind of life for her kids. Even though she often works 12-hour shifts, the single mom wants her children to be close to her and tries to arrange her working life so she’s there for her little ones. “I want to see them before they go to school and come home again,” says Zoe, who lives in Fourways, North of Joburg, with her kids. “I want to read to them and I want to be there when they do their homework and when they bath. Boarding school is just not an option.”
Despite spending a chunk of her formative years in a school hostel, the actress remembers her childhood fondly. She didn’t get to see her father as much as she would’ve liked, but her mother did her best to ensure she was well cared for.
“Growing up in a big family was fun. I shared my dad with 20-something children, and there’s about a 24-year age gap between me and my oldest sibling,” she says. “It surprises me when people ask me how I survived my childhood – it was normal for me.”
Going down memory lane has her missing her mom, who died in a car accident in 2011 when Zoe was seven months pregnant with Awande. With tears in her eyes, she remembers the last time she saw her. “She was reluctant to leave but when it was time to go she hugged me and touched my tummy to say goodbye to the baby.” Zoe was devastated after the accident. “When you lose your parents, especially your mom, your life becomes empty. But you find a way to adapt,” she says. If her mom was alive she knows she’d be there to support Zoe and her two kids.
“I miss my mom’s confidence, she’s someone who would give you her last R20. I saw the love she had for my nieces and nephews, and I know she loved her grandkids.” Happy memories of her mother keep her company as she tries to be as good a mom to her kids as Clara was to her, she says. And with that she apologises and rushes off. She promised her children she’d be there to watch them riding their bikes – and she always keeps her promises to them.