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The irreverence of Shaleen Surtie-Richards

“She could disarm you in seconds,” says writer-director Quanita Adams, who worked closely with Shaleen Surtie-Richards on her recently released movie, Swirl: A Letter to Hair on the Cape Flats

Surtie-Richards died on Monday morning at 66 years old at a guesthouse in Cape Town. 

In the public outpouring of love, where everybody grieves differently, it can be almost invasive to those who are particularly close to the deceased. For all the attempts at immortalising an icon, there’s no elegant way to sum up someone’s life. Not the life of Shaleen Surtie-Richards. 

Surtie-Richards’ rise started with her award-winning role as Fiela in the film Fiela se Kind (1988). She then graced the screens of most of our childhood homes as Nenna in M-Net’s soapie, Egoli: Place of Gold. Her career extended beyond television to theatre with the one-woman show Shirley Valentyn (2008), for which she won a Fleur du Cap award. 

My experience of her artistry started on my granny’s old-school TV when she used to watch her programme, Egoli, at the same time every evening. It was Nenna’s boldness, her love, her rings, her laugh, her effusiveness that made that time-slot a sacred and warm place for me. 

“There were two things that she would never stop doing; she would never stop smoking and she would never stop swearing,” laughs actress Vinette Ebrahim. 

Having bonded over years in the industry through shows, festivals and award ceremonies, Ebrahim focuses on the fun moments in her long-standing friendship with Surtie-Richards.

“She loved dropping the F-bomb, and the P-word. And, of course, she just always had a joke and some of them were really, really filthy. I couldn’t repeat some of the jokes that she told.” 

With Egoli reruns and Surtie-Richards’ life documentary, I Am Who I Am, currently screening on M-Net, Adams is still in mourning. She says, “This idea of future nostalgia” was not a thought. “She was constant, she was going to be there.”

Reflecting on a bygone festival, Ebrahim recalls the two of them driving from Springbok to Upington to meet Surtie-Richards’ family for breakfast. 

“The birds were diving in front of the car to pick up the road-kill from the previous night. It was quite frightening because there were birds of all sizes and eventually Shaleen rolled down the window and put up her hand as a megaphone and shouted, ‘Sal alle fokken voeltjies nou fokken ophou’’,” says Ebrahim, “And we were killing ourselves laughing.”

“It brings you to the coal face of mortality, this idea of legacy,” Adams sighs. “I don’t know if she was necessarily about that. She was very clear about what she represented, but at the same time she was also quite irreverent about it.” 

Surtie-Richards had two states, Adams says. “You’re the golden circle or you buy the DVD at Game. And once you were in, you were in.”

Calibre and star quality off-screen

Surtie-Richards’ star quality was innate and effortless. Adams reflects that she was not deliberately trying to forward discourse and be politically disruptive. “She was just, like, well I’m going to barrel ahead. It was so unselfconscious, it was so unmannered, it was not premeditated. And that’s what made her such a genuine fucking star, in the true sense of it.” 

Just sometimes fans can get into your space a little bit, says Ebrahim. “I will never forget her words to me when I started on 7de Laan. she’d been on Egoli for a good couple of years and she said to me, ‘My darling. Die dag gaan kom wanner jy nie eers by jou voordeur wil uitgaan om te gaan shop nie’.” 

Ebrahim says Surtie-Richards would always say, “Be gracious.”  

The two acted in the original production of Fiela se Kind, on 7de laan and most recently in Swirl. “Look, like me she had no formal training,” says Ebrahim. “We honed our craft in other ways.” 

Ebrahim played her daughter in Fiela se Kind. “She was just a natural and I was entranced.”

Actresses in apartheid  

Richards and Ebrahim came from an era before women of colour held legacy names in the industry. They came up as actresses in apartheid and they escalated to our stages and screens despite staggering oppression and odds. 

“When she won the award for Fiela se Kind, it was in the time of apartheid in 1986,” says Ebrahim. “There were still those people who wanted to hold the reins. This was being done at the Nico Malan and, yes, things were changing but there were still people, those who ran the production, the type of people who were saying ‘we will still make sure that you know your place’. They belittled her at every turn.

“And she stood tall and she stood strong. It gave us the leeway to say we will stand with her and we will stand next to her and we will have our say. When she won the award, I remember feeling just, ‘Thank you Shaleen, for you, for all of us.’ She opened doors for many of us because she just barged her way in. And she was so right in doing what she did.”

Ebrahim is frank about those days, “The only roles that were available to us were those of the maids, the bediende in die huis tiepe ding.” 

She is pleased to say that she and Richards played more robust characters than those stereotypical narrative props written to facilitate noninclusive storylines. 

Swirl and the interplay between actress and character

In Swirl, Surtie-Richards delivered her swan song. “I’d written that part for her specifically,” says Adams, “I mean, the joke of it is that the character was initially a chain-smoker, which she was very excited about.”

Her character of Ouma is one we know. She’s almost everyone’s aunty, our collective ma. You get the feeling that her character’s warmth is synonymous with Surtie-Richards’ own warmth, and that the interplay between the actress and the character is intensely and naturally intimate. 

“Fuck the lines, tell the story,” is what Adams got from Surtie-Richards. Having written that part with her voice in Adams’ head, and having worked with her before as an actor, the script was never about the lines. “You script in pictures and in ideas and if she buys it, she will transform whatever you’ve put on the page and she’ll make magic.” 

“The love just trickled in from the top down,” says her co-star Ebrahim, “We as so-called coloured actresses were given the freedom to just be. I think what you saw in Swirl was very much Shaleen herself.”

Older actors mistreated 

As a senior actor in South Africa, Ebrahim laments how actors died as paupers after entertaining a country.

“For me, the sad part about Shaleen’s passing is the way she passed. She was busy on Arendsvlei, [a KykNet telenovela] and she was put into a guesthouse where she was there on her own. She was ill. They knew she was ill. And she died alone.” Ebrahim says.

“There’s more to it than meets the eye. Older actors in this country are not well-looked after. We are not a priority in this country. We have nothing. We don’t have the luxury of pension or medical aid; it’s all got to come out of our own pockets, and by the time the tax man claims, we get half of what it is.” 

Constance was the name of Surtie-Richard’s character in Swirl. Adams reflects that that is who she is — for the industry — whether Nenna, Fiela or Shirley Valentyn. “She’s the genesis and the exodus, where it started for so many of us.”

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Mia Arderne
Mia Arderne is a Cape Town-based writer with bylines at Cosmopolitan, the Mail & Guardian, Marie Claire, GQ, City Press and more. Her writing explores the politics of gender, race, identity, sexuality and mental health. She works as a journalist at Viewfinder, Accountability Journalism. Her debut novel Mermaid Fillet is published by Kwela, NB Publishers.

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