Quiet activist Khaya Dladla won’t be a stereotype

The actor, who is playing another gay character in his latest role on television, speaks about being typecast and the significance of realistically representing members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

It is 10am and Khaya Dladla, 32, has just wrapped up his breakfast radio show for Durban-based Gagasi FM, which he records from Johannesburg. Dladla juggles many roles: actor, radio presenter, casting director and entrepreneur. After this interview, he is due to drive to Soweto to film e.tv’s latest telenovela, House of Zwide, in which he stars as Lazarus, a queer fashion designer. 

Dladla’s breakthrough acting role was as GC, which initially stood for Gay Character, in South Africa’s most-watched telenovela, Uzalo, on SABC1. The character was a stereotype: somewhat promiscuous, flamboyantly dressed with colourful scarves and speaking poor English. Although Dladla is grateful for what the role meant for his career, he says he wouldn’t want to play another like it. He feels the portrayal of queer characters as “comic relief, fluff, impoverished and uneducated” is overdone and is not an authentic reflection of the LGBTQIA+ community.

“I felt like I had done everything I could do with the character and the offers I got after GC were the same, they just had different names. I decided to not take them because I wanted something different,” says Dladla.

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As a casting director himself, he is wary of being typecast. “Male actors are extremely typecast in South Africa. If you speak a certain kind of isiZulu, you will play that rural boy from KwaZulu-Natal for all your life. If you look like you could be a thug, you will be the thug and that’s your life. That is not challenging or fun. I want to play roles outside of what I know and who I am. That is when I can get excited.”

The first role he took after GC was as a gangster-affiliated police officer for the show eHostela on Mzansi Magic. The character, Nxebale Ndoda, is a hardcore killer who has a huge scar on his face and a single eye. He is terrifying, powerful and intense. Dladla says he mostly played him to remind people of his range as a performer and step out of the stereotypes imposed on him. 

“It was a flex, it was a physically taxing role as well, so I couldn’t wait for Nxebale Ndoda to be written off the show. We also shot in a real hostel, so I’d be there in my Brentwood pants, holding a gun with a huge scar across my face and screaming like a girl when a rat crossed my path,” Dladla says.

Changing the script

He has had a hand in how his characters have been shaped and how their storylines unfolded because of his own experiences. “Homophobia starts at home sometimes,” he says. “I have had instances where a friend would completely change when they get home and they would tell me to tone it down around their parents, and I would ask what should I tone down? Should I just stop breathing? And so this is why I collaborated with writers to create that storyline on Uzalo, which shot up to 10 million viewers from nine million during that time.”

The storyline he is referring to traced GC’s background as a young child raised in a rural area by conservative parents and a father who was an outright homophobe. It gave GC more depth as the viewers journeyed with him to his parental home, where he acted like the stereotypical heterosexual male to hide his homosexuality from his father. Viewers found out that GC actually stands for Gamakhulu Cetshwayo and that he had only been able to be the truest expression of himself when he was away from home in the township of KwaMashu.

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In his current role as Lazarus in the fashion industry-inspired House of Zwide, Dladla says he made it clear that he wanted the character to have depth. “I said we are done showing gay characters as fluff, we are done showing them as poor. Can we have them be smart and in power because they are in power in real life.” 

As a result of this decision, Lazarus is a leader in the fashion industry and Dladla plays him as classy, calm, spicy and knowledgeable. Lazarus is also the best friend of the fashion house’s head, who is a straight married man. This, Dladla says, is important for people to see. 

He adds that future episodes of House of Zwide will touch on the infringement of transgender women’s rights as well as their abuse. “Things as basic as using the ladies’ toilet as a transgender woman and being told you can’t,” he explains. “I’m very excited that more issues in the LGBTQ+ community are being explored. I can’t wait for everyone to see some familiar transgender women and how gently and sincerely the story is told.”

An energetic start

Growing up in Umlazi township in Durban, Dladla was an energetic child and his parents got him started in acting classes as an outlet for all that energy. He has been acting professionally since he was eight years old, but says he only realised in grade 8 that he was getting paid for his favourite pastime. 

“I remember after a theatre production, a friend asked which agent I was with. I told her and she said she heard that one negotiates really good pay for his actors. I was confused, thinking wait, we get paid? I went home and asked my parents. Like, Mom, I heard I’m rich?” 

Now, as a casting director, Dladla gets to further shape the industry from behind the scenes through nurturing upcoming talent. He says South African performers are “up there with the best in the world”. 

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“I am enjoying being a casting director. I have found talent in weird ways, even through social media. A few shows are coming up that I can’t wait to cast for. We have so much talent in South Africa and I am that person that always connects people to opportunities.”

Asked whether he thinks he is an activist for queer people, he says he didn’t even realise he was representing them, only discerning the impact when he met people who would thank him. “I now realise that I am representing the LGBTQ+ community, and I do my best where I am to ask that some of our stories are properly told. I think writers can become ‘type’ writers, same as actors being typecast, and they can also step out of that and do something new. 

“What is lacking in media representations of the LGBTQ+ community is the story of everyone in the community. We only ever focus on the G and a bit of the L, but there is a whole spectrum which is ignored.”

Naledi Sikhakhane is the 2022 Eugene Saldanha Fellow in social justice journalism.

Correction, 24 May 2022: The Eugene Saldanha Memorial fellowship is supported by the SET. It was incorrectly referred to as a fund.

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