Cast of 'Mafanato' from top to bottom: Siyasanga Papu, Lavani Shikwambana, Zigi Ndlhovu, Koketso Mojela, Mathabo Bila, Fumani Shilubana, Mandla Gaduka. PHOTO: Supplied
The actor and director Fumani Shilubana (Kalushi, Isibaya, Generations), found himself in a precarious position a few years ago. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, he had some tough decisions to make. But more on that later. The thespian from ka-Shiluvana, a sprawling village of resplendent greenery, 36km from Tzaneen, cut his teeth under the tutelage of Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom, the famed playwright and director, back in 2003.
A multilingual artist, Shilubana soon realised that he could not express himself in Xitsonga, his language of birth, ririmi ra manana. While the television landscape was awash with every South African language and iteration thereof, Xitsonga remained in the doldrums. Unseen and disregarded.
After establishing himself as a capable actor on various television dramas, performing in languages other than his own, he made a decision that could limit his burgeoning career. Hence the aforementioned precarity. He decided that he would only act in Xitsonga. He was tired of being unseen as a Tsonga person, and the rampant marginalisation of the language on television.
So how did the industry react?
“Well, the jobs became scarce at the beginning,” Shilubana says.
“But I was determined and willing to face the consequences of my decision. Later on, however, it became a matter of not being cast at all, or they would cast me if they were looking for a Tsonga character. I was the go-to guy for any Tsonga-related work.”
Shilubana would star in the seminal Giyani telenovela, and would later produce, star, and direct Mafanato, a Tsonga-language series streaming on Showmax. The show set in a lodge, ala The Wild, is about a complex woman whose heart is in the right place but who possesses a questionable moral code.
“I am hoping that through Mafanato and Giyani, people are starting to realise that good stories are not solely dependent on language,” Shilubana says.
“A good story is a good story and will appeal to people who don’t necessarily belong to that language group. My goal is to put on other Tsonga actors, so I don’t remain the only one they think of when casting for Tsonga roles.”
In the past few years, the tide has been slowly turning with regard to the language and its people in the imagination of South African popular culture. This is largely due to the first Tsonga telenovela, Giyani, which ran for one season. The popular Papa Penny Ahee reality show on Mzansi Magic cast the spotlight back on the flamboyant superstar, and the international exploits of Sho Madjozi is very intentional and deliberate about speaking the language on television interviews and in her music, and has helped to stir conversations about the language.
Unfortunately, Tsonga people remain the target of ridicule and derision in some quarters. On the extreme end of the spectrum, this has resulted in death during the xenophobic attacks in Alex a few years ago.
In her book, The Art of the South African Insult, Sarah Britten writes, “to call a non-Shangaan a Shangaan is considered a grave insult because Shangaans are viewed as country bumpkins, if not actually subhuman. A substandard type of wors in the township is known as Shangaan wors”.
Shilubana believes that the arts are central in changing stereotypes about Tsonga people in South Africa.
“It is very important for us to have more representation so that the language and those who speak it become normalised in South Africa,” he says.
“Sho Madjozi is a great example of this and Mafanato is also a step in the right direction. There is still a lot of work to be done, but things are finally happening and through the arts, we can change society.”
- Mafanato is available to stream on Showmax