BEST OF 2021 | Shaleen Surtie-Richards: the sadness and struggle behind the smile

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Shaleen Surtie-Richards’ body was discovered on Monday in a guesthouse she was staying in. (PHOTO: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Bongiwe Gumede)
Shaleen Surtie-Richards’ body was discovered on Monday in a guesthouse she was staying in. (PHOTO: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Bongiwe Gumede)

This year is going to be different, she told her friends shortly after celebrating her birthday in May.

Shaleen Surtie-Richards had had a tough time in recent years and the pandemic didn’t help. But things were looking up for her – she had work again after long, desperate periods of joblessness that left her almost destitute.

She’d also had many health issues, including two strokes and an extended battle with Type 2 diabetes.

READ MORE | ‘No one could’ve guessed she wouldn’t wake up’: heartbreak after Shaleen Surtie-Richards dies

Her financial situation was so dire at one stage that she struggled to keep a roof over her head and could barely afford food.

actor, fiela se kind, death
The beloved actress had previously suffered two strokes and had Type 2 diabetes. (PHOTO: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Cornel van Heerden)

“I don’t have money for electricity either,” she said in an interview in March this year. “I have to rely on family and friends to send me something every now and then.”

Shaleen, who shot to prominence playing the beloved character Esther Willemse – or Nenna, as everyone called her – on the long-running soap Egoli, took whatever work she could find. At one stage she lent her voice to radio ads for a linen company.

Yet in recent months, hope started to emerge after all the hardship. She had regular work again – there was a role in the kykNET & Kie telenovela Arendsvlei and she played Constance in the movie Swirl. She was also planning to do a show in Paternoster in the Western Cape and another movie was in the works.

“She’d had tough times,” actor and musician Pedro Kruger says. “Work had dried up, there was loneliness, there was her health. But recently she’d been doing so well.

“She bragged that she’d lost weight and she was loving working again. She’d say, ‘As long as the work comes in, things will only get better’.”

Which is why it was such a shock when Shaleen (66) was found lifeless in the room of the guesthouse in Cape Town where she was staying while shooting episodes of her show in the Mother City.

No one knows exactly what happened – all her colleagues can say is she seemed fine at rehearsals the day before. She went to her room on the Sunday night and the next day, when she didn’t arrive on set, someone went looking for her and made the tragic discovery.

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Shaleen portraying Fiela Komoetjie in a stage production of the acclaimed play Fiela se Kind. (PHOTO: Sonneblom Films)

Actor and TV presenter Hannes van Wyk is struggling to come to terms with it.

“Her health wasn’t great but that look in her eyes the last time I saw her – she was alive again. She blossomed, like she always did when she worked – work was her life.”

Shaun Mynhardt, founder of the South African Legends Museum, says her death is a huge tragedy for the arts world. “You wonder if there was something you could’ve done,” he says. “But there wasn’t. No one could’ve guessed she wouldn’t wake up.”

Shaleen’s family put out a statement that spoke volumes at their shock at her sudden death.

“It is with deep sorrow we inform you that Shaleen has passed away,” they said in a statement. “We will provide further details when we have more information.”

She’d had such high hopes for this year, Pedro says.

“The pandemic had left us all discouraged but she had a new spring in her step. Shaleen would get very down when she had no job prospects but there was work again.

“Many artists link their self-esteem to the work they do and if the work doesn’t come, you question yourself. You ask yourself, ‘is it me?’ But Shaleen wasn’t in that place anymore. She was hopeful.”

Shaleen, who was single and had no children, suffered her first stroke in 2012 and her second at the end of 2017. In early 2018 she told YOU she wanted to take full advantage of the fact she was alive – she’d stared death in the face but she was determined to turn things around and get her health back on track.

“I asked the Lord not to let anything like this happen again,” she said. “It really wasn’t fun.”

But her money troubles would weigh heavily on her. She was described as an icon in the entertainment industry, she said – why couldn’t she get regular work?

“It hurts,” she said. “I got standing ovations and sold-out houses. My work and reputation speak for themselves. I feel I don’t deserve this.

Hannes agrees – she didn’t deserve it. “I don’t think Shaleen ever worked steadily after Egoli. I could never understand it – she was a formidable actress who was highly regarded. It doesn’t make sense that a person like her couldn’t even provide for her own basic needs.”

Still, she regretted nothing. If she had to live her live over again, she said, she would change nothing.

“I’ve had a full and wonderful life. I’ve learned that love will overcome everything.”

Shaleen was born in Upington and studied to be a kindergarten teacher, a profession she held from 1974 to 1984 before focusing on acting full time.

Over a career spanning 40 years, she appeared at the Grahamstown and Edinburgh festivals, and starred in many TV shows, including 7de Laan, Generations and Broken Vows and hosted her own talk show, Shaleen, on M-Net for a while.

actors, arendsvlei, stars, celebs
Shaleen with her Arendsvlei co-stars Melanie Du Bois, Jody Abrahams and Crystal-Donna Roberts. (PHOTO: Instagram / shaleensurtie)

She took on the role of Fiela Komoetjie in a stage production of the acclaimed play Fiela se Kind. Over the years she won many awards, including for playing Hester in Athol Fugard’s Hallo en Koebaai and for her role in Shirley Valentine.

Tributes poured in as news of her death spread like a shockwave through the country.

“Shaleen was a natural talent,” comedian Casper de Vries, a friend and colleague, says. “She just had it – that X-factor. She was terribly funny but she could also move people to tears. I’ll miss her so much, even just calling her to find out how she’s doing.”

Actress and friend Lizz Meiring says Egoli not only made her famous in SA but in other countries in Africa where the soap was broadcast. “In Egypt, people adored her.”

But she’d been ill lately, she adds. “The owners of the guesthouse took her to the doctor and he wanted to admit her to hospital, but she said she couldn’t, she had to work.”

READ MORE | ‘My heart bleeds every day’: Patricia Lewis opens up about losing her mother to Alzheimer's

Lizz says the Theatre Assistance Fund, which helped struggling SA artists, maintained her as a beneficiary for years. “But when she got work, she said, ‘thank you, I don’t need help anymore’.

“Shaleen hated being sick, she hated complaining. She was an only child and she loved her parents – they’ve been dead a long time and she missed them terribly. Now she has a gig in heaven with hundreds of brilliant people like her.”

Playwright Saartjie Botha describes Shaleen as larger than life. “Her success as an actress had a lot to do with the sort of person she was – loving, warm, bubbly. The kind of person she was came through in the roles she played.”

Model, businesswoman and former Miss South Africa Jo-Ann Strauss paid homage to Shaleen too.

“Seeing her face on screen made me believe in the power of my own dreams,” she said. “She was an icon who will always be the guardian angel of arts for all.”

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