“Don’t compromise yourself, you are all you got” were the words Zoleka Helesi wrote on social media as a hook to her strongest beliefs. A giant of South African theatre, who took roles by their heart and guts allowed them to grab at immortality, Helesi believed implicitly in the value of children’s theatre in this country.
Described by Baxter Theatre chief executive Lara Foot as “a lion of a woman”, both in how she took on life and the intensity with which she addressed her illness, Helesi succumbed to cervical and lung cancer on 11 December. She was 48 years old.
Fondly known as MaZo, Helesi was deeply loved for, in theatre practitioner Yaël Farber’s words, having a “spirit tender as a child’s but tough as boots. The required grace and grit for telling the big stories; the ones that change things.”
Born on 26 February 1972 in Mdantsane, a large township between King William’s Town and East London in the Eastern Cape, Helesi studied theatre at the Community Arts Project (CAP) in 1998. It was in the context of this institution, which a collective of private individuals established in 1977 under the pall of apartheid to maintain cultural life in Cape Town, that she honed her organisational muscles and became the project director of Iliso Theatre Company in Khayelitsha.
The CAP is remembered for the printmaking and theatre initiatives that gave protest art from the 1970s its skills and clout. By 1994, the CAP had been converted into a formal non-governmental organisation for unemployed youth and adults. Veering between theatre management and performing, Helesi embraced all that theatre was and could be.
Fierce, rare artist
Describing her as a “rare, fierce artist” with “soft burning eyes, a proudly raised chin and a singing voice that could awaken spirits”, Farber cast her as Christine in her play Mies Julie. Christine was the spiritual compass of a tale twisted with Eastern Cape values and a spot of Strindberg. August Strindberg was the Swedish playwright who wrote Miss Julie in 1888, on which Farber based her play. It was a performance and a production that took Helesi all over the world.
As a performer, she was endowed with the depth of focus that could take a supporting role in a work and render it with such care, grace and empathy that it became the glue that bound the whole production together, and her interpretation of Christine was memorable for this reason.
But Helesi’s litany of works performed is long, ranging from Marc Lottering’s Auntie Merle, It’s a Girl to Foot’s Woyzeck. Not partial to safe work, similar to Jaco Bouwer, the director of the Peter Weiss play Marat/Sade in which she performed in 2016, Helesi had cut her theatre teeth in Brett Bailey’s controversial Third World Bunfight company, and performed in his iMumbo Jumbo in 1997 and The House of Holy Afro from 2004.
Theatre for children
Helesi also directed the children’s theatre piece Memory by Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, a tale about contemporary elephants and how we treat them, Scrooge, reworked for the stage by Foot in 2013, and Ambabali Ethu, an isiXhosa translation of Janice Honeyman’s Bangalory’s Back in 2015, an anthology of classic tales in a South African idiom.
Her passionate belief in the value of children’s theatre was not just about making the works, however. Helesi was almost single-handedly responsible for making the theatre environment friendly for very young visitors. Believing completely in how the reality of theatre touches young sensibilities and plants seeds in them, she gave her all to make it possible for thousands of children to discover the hallowed space of the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town.
It was at this sacred theatre space that she started working in 2007, and where she had the opportunity to give community theatre a powerful boost with the Zabalaza Festival, one of the Baxter’s pillars that is now in its eighth year.
The idiom of community theatre carries a veneer of perceived amateurism among elites. Under Helesi’s hand, though, the work that came through Zabalaza was strong and gritty, startling and brave, superseding all stereotypes. One of the founding co-ordinators of this festival, which was an iteration of the Ikhwezi Theatre Festival, Helesi didn’t soften what being a professional on stage means. But she did make the access points possible; she did listen to others with her whole being and she was recognised – and will be remembered – for her ability to “give the best hugs”. Indeed, she was a person onstage and backstage whom people loved with all their hearts, because of the courage she gave them as they reached for their biggest dreams.
A hole in the Baxter
“I feel like a small part of my soul has died with her,” said Foot in a moving tribute, “and a terrific era at the Baxter Theatre has now ended, and I can only hope and pray that the memory of her indomitable spirit will heal all who loved her so very much.”
Those sentiments are deeply concurred with by performer Chuma Sopotela, with whom Helesi worked in the award-winning Karoo Moose. A production by Foot, it effectively turned established South African theatre values on their heads and redefined the possibilities of theatre with bold wisdom.
Helesi lost her brother ‘Pankie’ earlier this year. She leaves her son, Lazola, and her sisters, Tembisa Helesi, Xoliswa Vellem Mntuwomlambo, Zaza Vellem, Akhanye Nomawethu Mahala and Nombini Margaret Helesi and their families, as well as a devastated Western Cape theatre fraternity. She was the kind of individual whose empathy had the power to spill beyond the borders of restraint, and she touched the lives of so many professionals, dreamers and audience members with her guttural energy, husky laugh and penchant for gossip, unequivocal beauty, poise and neverending empathy and courage to be.