When you look at – or remember – footage of Lindiwe Ndlovu, be it in the context of the terrifying Sharon in the prison series Lockdown, Sponono, an ex-convict with her convictions close to her heart in Zabalaza, or the inimitable Patjutju in Uzalo, among other characters, you see a rich and unique combination of strength and empathy, which, even in a tiny role, had a compelling magnetism. Ndlovu’s face and presence were unforgettable, whether she was performing a villain or a hero, a victim or a saviour. She unequivocally left a mark of authenticity on the stories to which she committed herself. She died in her sleep on 11 January 2021 at the age of 45.
The elder daughter of popular community playwright Stanford Ngidi, Ndlovu was born on 8 January 1976 in Dube, Soweto, but was raised in the eThekwini town of Hammarsdale from babyhood. She matriculated at Wingen Heights Secondary school in Shallcross, Durban in 1995. And while joining the police service was a career option she considered, the magic and the mystery of the theatre held her tighter and excited her more. In 1997, she enrolled at the Market Theatre Laboratory for a two-year training stint.
Studying drama in Johannesburg for a young woman from an impoverished town in KwaZulu-Natal was not a given nor an easy option. But she was not alone. Her family encouraged her and gave her the moral and financial support she needed to get though. During the time she was studying, she stayed with her mother’s sister, Teresa Msimang, in Pimville, Soweto. It was a brand-new world for her on so many important levels, and the buzz and thrust of Johannesburg was infectious.
Melting pot of the Lab
But more than that, emerging into the theatre industry in the late 1990s was like leaping into a melting pot of exciting possibilities. She studied alongside the generation of performers including Nomathamsanqa Baleka, who also went into soapies, Nicodemus Moremi, who went on to study at the Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris and Dudu Yende, who earned her fame in Robyn Orlin’s off-the-wall conceptual performance work. Ndlovu was nurtured by colleagues and peers to hone her craft and polish her talent. The Lab was, at the time, headed by Vanessa Cooke and Ndlovu was taught by facilitators of the incomparable stamp of Orlin, Dan Robbertse and Ramaloa Makhene, among others – people who were theatre and performance practitioners as well as seasoned teachers.
Upon graduating, Ndlovu found herself a theatre professional in a country that was a few years into its democracy, with the understanding of a nation at its peak of unbridled, uncynical optimism. It was a time when there were many jobs to be found in every aspect of performance culture in this country and where the arts was financially supported. Ndlovu quickly integrated into the populist sphere of TV soapies, which were entertaining a wide sweep of South Africans thirsty for local stories and contemporary humour in their own languages. The importance of this form of entertainment cannot be overestimated. In many ways, her various roles gave voice to the legacy her father – who died in 2015 – had left.
Ndlovu took on life with all its complexities, with a full heart and courage. And she could laugh. And hug. Lynne Higgins of the Gaenor Artiste Management, which represented Ndlovu, remembers the enormous hugs she gave and the unstinting generosity of her spirit. Actors Warren Masemola and Sello Motloung commented on Facebook on the potency of the unforgettable impact Ndlovu made on their personal and professional lives.
Fellow TV actor Charmaine Mtinta, a close friend of Ndlovu’s, in a heartbreaking post on Facebook described her as “my Shakespeare, SmaLindi, Gogo, Saint Thembekani, Mama ka Manzodidi … I am hurt … I love you Gogo …”, while expressing her devastation at the loss of a good friend and beloved colleague.
Triumph as Pauline
Highly skilled in performance and articulate in several languages – including Setswana, isiZulu and Afrikaans – Ndlovu rapidly found work on the small screen and her face and persona became known to millions of viewers all over the country. Her litany of roles in soapies, TV dramas and theatrical productions is long. But it was in her role as Pauline in Darrell Roodt’s Little One (2012), a heartbreaking film about child abuse – and child rape – in urban South Africa that earned Ndlovu her richest and most valued accolades.
Her interpretation of Pauline, the middle-aged shack dweller who discovers a profoundly mutilated six-year-old and fights for the integrity of the child, won her best actress in the coveted South African Film and Television Awards that year. It was in this performance that Ndlovu articulated the wisdom, deep hurt and passions of a woman with a heart and soul she was not afraid to show. In interpreting Pauline, Ndlovu gave this woman supreme dignity, but not in a stand-offish or crude way. In several haunting scenes, Pauline comes across as a woman of valour and integrity who will fight for what she believes in with all she has, despite everything. In casting Ndlovu for this pivotal role, Roodt and his creative team on the film gave the character stature that was nothing less than biblical.
Ndlovu played cameo roles in several other local films, including Roodt’s Winnie Mandela (2011) and Safari (2013), and she also performed in eHostela (2019), the made-for-television series about the dark world of the professional assassin. After a dire year with little work in 2020, Ndlovu was excited to tackle the new year, having secured a role on Isono, a new drama series released by BET Africa which screens on DStv, premised on the greed and immorality of a money-oiled society.
A humble, down-to-earth person, who knew how to charm the camera, she enjoyed an intimate coterie of close friends and an indelible reputation for being helpful, loyal and kind. Ndlovu leaves her mother, Gervasia Thandazile, her younger sister Nobuhle, close family and friends, and a fan base of millions of grieving South Africans.