THE BIG INTERVIEW with Aphiwe Mkefe: Ambitious, passionate dreamer


“AMBITIOUS, passionate and driven.” That is how up and coming actor Aphiwe Mkefe describes himself. The 23 year old says much like his lead character on the hit TV show Nkululeko, he has always wanted to push his passion and his talent. He has very big dreams. Mkefe plays Nkululeko Zwai, a 17-year-old boy from Khayelitsha, Cape Town.

He is a mathematics and science whiz who is raised by a single father. He faces a lot of challenges and has to deal with peer pressure, as well as the influences of his father, both positive and negative. One fateful night Zwai and his friends find themselves entangled in a situation that unravels a turbulent sequence of events. “There are a lot of similarities between Nkululeko and myself – he is obviously younger than I, so I can resonate with a lot of things that he is going through and has gone through,” Mkefe said. “Nkululeko has grown up in a Cape Town township. I can resonate with that and also with his experiences, positive and negative influences in his life coming from friends, family and his surroundings. He is an ambitious kid and I can really resonate with that because I have always wanted to be out there and push my passion and talent. He’s someone with a very big dream, much like me.” Nkululeko is Mkefe’s first major commercial role and for him the experience has been “surreal”. He said getting the role was like something written in the stars as he heard about the audition by chance. “I found out about it from a friend’s friend who randomly mentioned it and I followed up on it.

Bomb Productions was coming to Cape Town and I knew the company pretty well as someone who studied directing and writing, who had become familiar with the industry. “I knew that they were a really trusted production company so I sent in my pictures and my information and then they called me back. I went in for one audition and from then on it was quite fluid until the end,” he said. “It was quite unreal, to be honest. In the beginning I wasn’t even too sure if they were being for real, if I was really going to get in, because it was really a very short process. I only auditioned for one character, Nkululeko, so it should’ve been clear to me that I was going get this part but honestly it wasn’t. “Even the day we started shooting I was like, is this really real? Is this happening? It was quite surreal.” The reception of his character has also been something he never anticipated. People are very excited, he said, more excited than he had imagined. “I never expected a lot of people to watch (the show). I don’t know why, considering the channel that it’s on (Mzansi Magic).

The reception has been amazing. It’s really motivating to see how many people are watching the show.” Mkefe, who was raised by his mother after his parents divorced when he was in Grade 3, values family more than anything else. His aunt is his manager. Having family support in the industry is important to him. “It is important to keep it in the family because people get exploited.” Despite his parents’ divorce, Mkefe has a good relationship with his father who has been a great influence in his love for the arts. “I had a relationship with my father and he was quite an influence on me getting into the arts and me actually seeing the industry because he used to be on radio and I used to see what he would do when he was ‘MCing’ and when he was on radio. “That never left me so much so that when I was in matric, I went through a radio programme in Kwalanga through loveLife and through the programme I got to go to UCT radio but because I was in matric at the time, I could never follow through with it.” He admitted, though, that the family setup was somewhat confusing for a child his age, especially having to live between two worlds. “I faced a lot of challenges, coming from a broken home. Knowing the experience of living with both parents and then being in-between homes, in-between two different socio-economic levels. It was quite challenging. On weekdays I’d be in the township and on weekends in the suburbs. It created a lot of confusion.

I didn’t actually come to terms with it until I was much older.” Mkefe said while growing up, he was “quite a reserved child” who, although he knew he had dreams and passion, never followed up on them. “I’d always go to auditions but I’d never go to callbacks, I don’t know why. I think I was very shy or nervous or I had not quite come into my own, to understand and realise what dreams I had and what I wanted to do in life.” Mkefe said he never saw acting coming his way even though he had always known that someday he would be in the industry, either as a director or a writer. “Radio is also something I’ve always wanted to push. I knew I’d be within the industry, I just never knew as what or how I’d get in.” Through his character Nkululeko, Mkefe hopes to inspire young children to pursue their dreams as Nkululeko has an uncommon dream for someone from the township – he wants to be a rocket scientist. “That is quite uncommon especially for a kid from a township. So I would really just want kids to follow their dreams, to work hard and be consistent in what they do. And also to never give up, to never listen to (negative) things other people have to say trying to bring them down and to actually follow what they really want to do.” Nkululeko is a star-studded show, featuring the likes of Tina Jaxa, Andile Mxakaza and Abongile Matsai.

Mkefe has learned plenty from the acting heavyweights. “Knowing who they are and what they have done and achieved, I knew for a fact that I had to absorb as much as I could from this experience. So from day one I was bombarding them with questions on how to prepare for characters, how it was for them their first time, the differences between the industry then and today,” Mkefe said. “And honestly I have learnt quite a lot from them. A lot of things I would have otherwise not known and it’s been really invaluable, all the things I have learnt from them because they have really been in the industry for long. “Jet Novuka (fellow Nkululeko actor) especially was someone who sat down with me every day and actually went through scripts with me and showed me proper processes on how to prepare, how to understand subtext, which was very important.” Being in the show has offered Mkefe a number of profound moments, including meeting his favourite director, Zeno Petersen and producer, Kutlwano Ditsele. He said he was a fan of a number of people who he never imagined he would one day meet. “Another great moment for me was when it actually aired and my little cousins and my family were very proud and also just children in general.

It kinda scared me but at the same time I understood the responsibility that I now had to younger children that were looking up to me.” Mkefe advocates opening up the industry for fresh young talent to also tell their stories. This mostly because he is proof that given the opportunity, young artists can do great things. “We do need to give other people a chance to be in front of the screen. We do need new directors, new writers because how else are we going to grow in telling our stories? A lot of people are saying that TV is becoming stagnant; we are seeing the same thing over and over again. But why is that? “I think it’s because of the same people doing the same thing. I think we need to open up the space for new people, younger people to come in. New artists with fresh ideas, with innovative ideas to come in so we can showcase a lot more,” he says. “We’ve come into a space now where we’ve got new stories to tell. As much as apartheid did happen, we’ve got new stories to tell. Even about that; different perspective from younger people. We can give fresh, new ideas and give them life.” Among the challenges that Mkefe says young artists face is the difficulty to make a breakthrough in the industry.

He says it was not easy for him to finally get his big break and that he had to go through countless auditions before he landed the character of Nkululeko. “And it’s difficult because as much as people say they want new faces, once there are new people, they sort of bring them down. Funding is another major challenge. Young people do try to produce shows and low budget films they don’t get the time of day to be put on major platforms,” he says. Mkefe says that the South African film and television industry has the potential to compete at an international level if it moves away from catering to a preconceived idea of what audiences want. “I believe people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.

If we can get away from making moments for memes and tell real stories, then we can compete. The world is watching South Africa right now. We are producing really great movies.” Offering some advice to young aspiring actors, Mkefe says they need to be aware that acting is not as glamorous as it may seem after the finished product. “The end result may seem really great but no one tells you how exhausting it is; the 12-hour day and preparing at home, long nights and early mornings. Nkululeko has a lot of emotional scenes, too, and that is draining and it actually goes home with you. You’re exhausted at home,” Mkefe says. He has big plans for his future. While he wants to continue with his acting career, he also wants to be on radio and one day produce a film. “I have a production company with my friends and I believe that we will definitely produce a film and definitely get into a space where we are the ones telling the stories and showing new innovative ways to showcase the stories.”