Meet the new Shaka Zulu, talented actor ‘taking over Henry Cele’, and Nomzamo Mbatha, as Queen Nandi

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Nomzamo Mbatha plays Queen Nandi on the series and she is also co-executive producer.
Nomzamo Mbatha plays Queen Nandi on the series and she is also co-executive producer.
Mzansi Magic

It is a multimillion-rand production that easily has over 350 extras at any given time. They have hand woven huts with straws collected by women in rural Kwa Zulu Natal more than a year before they started shooting and some of the casting was done from George Goch Men’s Hostel in Johannesburg.

Just west of Johannesburg, out of nothing, Bomb Productions has recreated a story of the life and times of legendary Zulu warrior Shaka Zulu, in their Mzansi Magic production called Shaka Ilembe.

They've been shooting for over 100 days at Cradle of Human Kind in various weather conditions, some extremely cold, to tell the story set in the 1700s.

The cast includes Lemogang Tsipa, who plays the adult king and newcomer Ntando Zondi as the younger version of the king. Nomzamo Mbatha, who plays Queen Nandi, the revered mother of Shaka, with Thembinkosi Mthembu starring as King Dingiswayo and Wiseman Mncube in the role of King Zwide. 

Addressing the media, the internationally acclaimed Nomzamo describes the creative liberties taken as the sweetener or desserts in the series.

“Our art department has done an incredible job in terms of putting everything together. Everybody has a history lesson on this show, even those who are born and bred Zulu. We really tried our best to be extremely authentic, we also want to have some kind of modernized beauty. We have taken some inspiration of period pieces to stay authentic to the times but also give a visual sweetness to it. Idessert yakhona. We really hope you enjoy it,” she says.

Read more | Academy-award winner Antoine Fuqua to direct new Shaka Zulu series

They finish shooting the eight-part series at the end of August and it will air on Mzansi Magic mid-2023.

With the thunderous roar of amabutho singing and dancing in the background, Nhlanhla Mtaka who is the co-executive producer and also the head of the cultural and historical department, says people must remember it is not a documentary.

“There is also the element of drama and creative liberties taken too,” he says.

“Historically, because of colonialism and apartheid our history has been distorted and there are gaps. Here we also focus on who were the people who made Shaka. While Shaka was lionized as the warrior king, there are gaps about the women,” he adds.

Actor Wiseman Mncube plays Zwide and says this is a once in a lifetime kind of experience.

“As a Zulu man, I am extremely proud to be part of this production. It is absolutely mind-blowing. This story represents who we are as a people. And the fact that we are telling the story in Zulu is a cherry on top,” he says.

One of the executive producers, Desiree Markgraff says they are extremely proud of the work that is done by the cast and crew because it is a massive production. They have taken great care to make sure that they are historically correct.

“We have spoken to living family members, the descendants, we consulted with the royal family, the previous king and the current king. We also have a team of historians that are continuously giving their inputs,” she says.

Desiree explains that safety, both physical and sexual, was a priority.

“We have war scenes and because the cast is barefoot we had to make sure that the ground is clear and there are no rocks that can hurt them. Gowns and slippers are always on standby to keep them warm because we have shot in extremely cold weather and sometimes at nighttime.

“We have three categories of assegais, hard plastic ones, soft plastic ones that bend when they are used to stab so it looks real, and we have real ones that are only used for close ups. Then we have continuous weapons checks to ensure there are no accidents.

“Because the cast members are dressed in cultural attire, some have exposed breasts and some have exposed bums. It all depends on who their characters are and what stage of life they are in. We have really made sure that everyone is comfortable with the level of nakedness at all times because there are varying degrees of nakedness and types of nakedness,” she says.

Often history is told from the side of the colonialists, Desiree explains, but they are determined to bring story from the side of the indigenous people.

“And as a white person doing this, I had to make sure to listen and learn and not think I know it all. We all worked as a team so there was a lot of collaboration.”

Read more | M-Net adds another historical drama Shaka-Ilembe

More than 120 people had to be brought in from Kwa-Zulu Natal to build the huts on set, so they are done as accurately as possible.

“There are some cast members who are from a dance company, but we even had castings at hostels and we had them come audition at a stadium near George Goch Hostel."

The role of Senzangakhona is played by Senzo Radebe who says this is not even a dream come true for him because he never even imagined being part of such a series.

“To be in the show and play such a big role is extremely humbling. I am grateful. It is a beautiful experience and that it wasn’t even in my wildest dreams makes it an even greater blessing.”

Senzo already has a well-maintained body, but he says for this role he had to lose 13kg.

“They said I looked like a body builder and because of the time the story is set in, there were no gyms so I just had to look chiseled and not too big. I am used to putting in the work into my body, so the discipline was not the problem, I just had never done it to this level.

“I studied sports science, so I understand how the body works. For what was needed for this character I needed to condition my body differently than usual. I had to cut down on the carbs and increase the protein. I also did a lot of cardio to help with the weight loss, but I also wanted to retain some muscle, so I was lifting weights.”

He trained twice a day, for four days a week to get the look that was needed for the character.

“When you want something bad enough you will put in the work to make it happen,” he adds.

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