It was 1976.
Thousands of children had taken to the streets in the fight against the education system, schools were burning and the sound of gunshots was becoming the norm. Schools were ghost towns and that meant teachers didn’t really have anything to do.
Renowned South African actress Connie Chiume was one of those teachers in Orlando then. So when she saw a poster calling for auditions for a show, Sola Sola, she decided to take a chance.
“When I got there, I could see a different world. I saw men and women abaphaphayo (vibrant) and they were singing and moving around. You could see they knew each other and I’m just standing there alone. But when my chance came, I gave it my shot. Because it’s something that I grew up doing.” She got the part and it opened up her world.
“That show took me to Israel and Greece. It steered me into acting. When I got back I did a classical musical, Porgy and Bess. After that, I started in theatre until we actually got TVs. Then there was TV 1, which was for white people, and then we got TV 2 and TV 3. The rest is history.”
She knew she was destined for the spotlight – she just wasn’t sure of how. Young black children were discouraged from pursuing careers in the arts back then, she says.
“Even now I think some are still discouraged from following their dreams in showbiz.” But it was bound to happen for her.
“I thought that I was going to be a singer, because that’s what I grew up doing. I remember at home there was a bench outside and a stoep where I used to stand and sing. But because of the discouragement, after high school I went to study nursing.
“Even while studying I used to sing and perform. It was just in my blood.” She didn’t finish nursing and moved on to teaching, she says.
“I was still a performer in school, even composing my own songs.”
It’s been a little hard pinning Mam Connie down for an interview. Not because she doesn’t want to talk to us, but because she’s so busy. When we finally catch up with her, she chats to us in the middle of breakfast. Mam Connie can remember the first time she featured in DRUM.
She can’t recall the year but says they had a fun photoshoot as a family with her children in Hyde Park.
“Then the next one was in Rosebank and it was just me.”
DRUM has always been there, she says. “It’s the magazine that’s always told stories of ordinary people and so-called celebrities. I grew up reading DRUM.
“When we first started reading magazines, that was the one we picked up. DRUM has seriously played a big role in the industry and SA as a whole. It tells our stories.”
And what stories she has to tell. Having been in the industry for more than 40 years, she’s seen it all. She’s been in theatre, in TV series and movies. It’s hard to pick out her favourites, she says, because she gives everything to every role. But if pressed, she’d mention Sola Sola, Ipi Ntombi, Inkom’ edla Yodwa and Black Panther, among a few others, she says.
“Sola Sola wasn’t known in South Africa, but it put my foot in the door of the industry. Even though people don’t know it, it gave me an opportunity to see the world.
“My eyes started opening and I saw how people lived and did things. It was 1977, during apartheid, so it was different.
“Porgy and Bess taught me a lot in theatre because I wasn’t trained. This was a classic and we were taught what stage left and right is, how to project and control your voice, and how to be disciplined.”
She loved Ipi Ntombi as well, and she can’t not mention Ihlabathi Ziyagqibana when talking about her career, as it was her TV debut, she says. Zone 14 was also a personal favourite. “Because as time went on I started being stereotyped, and on Zone 14 I was something else. I was a woman who was taking another woman’s husband. I was a word that you can’t write in a magazine, essentially,” she says with a chuckle. On Gomora they threw the stereotype all the way out when they cast Mam Connie as the criminal mind behind a syndicate, which she runs from her tavern. “There, I prayed with a gun in my hands.”
She’s got a host of international work under her belt and shows no signs of slowing down. “Oh, I feel so young,” she says. She’s worked with Samuel L Jackson on In My Country, with Kim Basinger in I Dreamed of Africa, and with Angela Bassett, Michael B Jordan and the late Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther. She was also part of Beyonce’s Black is King.
“It has really been an honour to be in all that.” Locally, she’s loved working with actresses such as Nandi Nyembe, Lillian Dube and the late Thandi Klaasen.
“I haven’t worked with Thoko Ntshinga, but she’s also one of my favourite South African artists.” In all this time, Mam Connie has watched the industry change in both good and bad ways. “Opportunities are a little better and there are more production houses. We now have black production houses, something which was unheard of during that time.
“We have new talent coming in. They are so dedicated to the craft they actually go to school and study. Thina (for us) there were just no schools for black people for drama. Everything that we know we learnt from experience. And the money is getting better.” But she doesn’t think the industry has grown as much as she thought it would have by now.
“I’m talking about the conditions under which some actors still work, the hours, for government to take us as serious workers. We are still classified as independent workers, which means we don’t get government benefits and yet they still take 25% from us. It’s a whole lot of things that still need to be improved and addressed. Our industry doesn’t have an HR. Producers do everything. But it’s much better than when she started out, she says. After many years on the frontlines of the industry she’s now sharing her knowledge with up-and-coming actors and actresses. She’s doing workshops on the business of acting but she wants them to know the industry isn’t just about acting. There’s a lot to aspire to in working behind the camera too.
She’s in awe of the work young directors have been putting out, she says, and more people should aspire to do the same. She’s also opened the Connie Chiume Foundation because she wants to give back to the community where she lives. And there’s the film academy that she’s working on.
There’s clearly no slowing down for her. As she puts it, “There have been [stumbling] blocks along the way, but it’s life. You have to stand up and keep on walking.”
This interview was originally published in a special issue of Drum, commemorating its 70th anniversary.