Mmabatho Montsho on going from actress to director

Mmabatho Montsho. (Photo: Sharon Seretlo)
Mmabatho Montsho. (Photo: Sharon Seretlo)

Johannesburg - She’s beautiful, talented and became the envy of many after rumours surfaced she may well be the woman in the life of Mbuyiseni Ndlozi – the EFF hottie dubbed “the people’s bae” – but she doesn’t want to talk about that, Mmabatho Montsho says.

She’d much rather talk about her professional life and there’s plenty happening as far as that’s concerned.

The woman who burst onto our screens as the feisty Lumka on Generations and went to have roles in movies, such as Happiness is a Four-Letter Word, and hit shows Rhythm City and Lockdown is now involved in a project that’s bringing her plenty of joy.

Mmabatho (34) is directing her first film, Joko Ya Hao, and it’s bound to cement her standing even further as a force to be reckoned with.

We delve further into the world of this multi-talented powerhouse.


Joko Ya Hao tells the story of a Christian woman who leaves her village to seek help for her oppressed people in the 1950s. The main character is based on Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and it explores how she finds her voice in society.

“The title of the movie means ‘my load’ so the film explores the different ways we carry our loads. She’s fighting to become a leader in a world that doesn’t necessarily accept female leadership.”

It was important for her to explore leadership through the eyes of a woman, Mmabatho adds.

“I chose the Methodist women’s manyano (union) because they really fought patriarchy in the church. At the time the manyano was formed women were not allowed to take a leadership position in the church so they decided if God has this mission for His people, surely He has to communicate through them. They are on a mission of their own.”


Mmabatho is also a director on Mzansi Magic’s prison drama series Lockdown. Giving women voices is the main aim of all her productions, she says. “I am a woman, I'm alive so it is important to me to do that.”

She’s intent on making her mark in the industry. She doesn’t like focusing on gender bias, she says, but is forced to do so to disrupt the idea women can’t be directors.

“I am a director because I love it,” she says, and the world just has to accept her.


Mmabatho admits her goal has always been to be instrumental behind the scenes. “I’ve wanted to be a director since I was a child,” she says. “Acting was a gateway. I learnt how to direct on the job. So even when I was acting I was always learning, always observing, always trying to understand what directing was about.”

Her brother got her interested in directing when she was little, she says. They used to sit together and watch music videos on the Zero Hour Zone.

“I knew there was someone who was making everything look the way it does but I didn’t know who did it so my brother explained to me what a director was.”

Before long she was following the work of Hype Williams, a music-video director from the USA who inspired her. Now she gets to live out her dream of storytelling. “What I like about directing is all the different tools you can use to tell a story,” Mmabatho tells us.

“I want to be a storyteller because I have something to say and the best way I know how to say it is through directing. I’m not good at speaking but I know camera language and I am good with that language. I think TV storytelling is a powerful medium because you get to show people the world in a different way.”


Not only is she a talented actress and director, Mmabatho is also an artist. Her emotive depiction of Winnie Madikizela- Mandela’s Methodist church jacket was featured in a 16-page spread in the Mail & Guardian after the icon’s death.

Mmabatho’s artwork was part of an exhibition centring on the ceremony conducted by the Methodist church in which a deceased member’s jacket and uniform are hung up for the last time.

Mmabatho believes there “is a Winnie in every woman, in some way or another”, and she wanted to celebrate that.
She hasn’t formally studied art but she’s been painting her whole life. An exhibition of a series of her oil paintings recently opened at Constitutional Hill.

Mmabatho admits she’s a “bit nervous” about it. “The last time I exhibited something was 18 years ago so it feels new. This time it’s on a larger scale because back then nobody knew who I was.”


One of Mmabatho’s goals is to “dismantle patriarchy” with her work. “I don’t believe in individuality. If I am a director and I feel like I have arrived it doesn’t change the status quo. The only thing that will change it is when even the sweeper who cleans up the set feels her life has changed.

“If the person doing the most basic job isn’t respected and doesn’t get what she deserves and doesn’t earn a decent salary... if she doesn’t feel as if she is equal, you have achieved nothing.”


Mmabatho is also often invited to teach and mentor script development and scriptwriting. It’s something she would do full time if she ever quit the industry, she believes. “I would write stories and help others write theirs because there is no stress there, only joy. When students pitch their stories it’s amazing.”

She still has a lot of work to do in showbiz, however, including opening doors for others to live out their dreams.

By the time she retires she wants to have had had a hand in many more films.

“I hope to have taught more and I hope to have played a role in getting women into the industry. From sound work to the technical side and camera work, women should be able to thrive in any division of the film industry they choose.”

She’s already set the bar pretty high all by herself.

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