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Lesego Motsepe, the TV actress, singer and poet found dead at her Randburg home on Monday, was described by colleagues and friends as a feisty, irrepressible character who always challenged decisions she wasn’t happy with.
The 39-year-old talented actress’s body was discovered on the floor of her kitchen by her brother after she failed to answer her phone during the weekend.
A bright spark with a big smile that lit a room, she was lauded for her courage, honesty and determination to lead a happy life despite the health challenges she faced.
Headstrong and highly opinionated, her loving character earned her the pet name of Leeba - Setswana for turtle dove - from her family. In her own words she was both a wasp and a butterfly, gentle and beautiful but tough and feisty when necessary.
A typical township girl with a pleasant, easygoing character, friends and colleagues have also remembered her as someone with a heart of gold who put the needs of others above her own; a devout church-goer, an energetic spirit who loved company, hosting friends and giving them fashion tips that she insisted they follow through.
And while most of her fans thought she was living a happy Hollywood-type lifestyle, in December 2011, on World Aids Day, she stunned them when she revealed that she had being living with the Aids virus for 13 years.
It was not an easy decision, but true to her outspoken personality and celebrity, she felt a sense of responsibility to disclose her status. And she was praised for her courage and social involvement as an Aids ambassador.
But that was not the end of the story. She left fans and Aids activists speechless with shock when in February 2012 she announced that she was weaning herself from antiretroviral drugs for a lifestyle of holistic garlic and beetroot, a controversial “treatment” advocated by the late health minister Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimango and generally associated with Aids denialism.
“Yes, garlic, beetroot and ginger, just like Dr Manto said,” she told a TV talk show host. “ARVs are not the only way to fight this disease. I’m praying, meditating, eating and leading a healthy lifestyle.”
Dr Marlin McKay, her personal physician and resident medic on SABC3’s Three Talk With Noeleen, said he admired her for her bravery and vast knowledge of medical issues -”with Lesego you really had to know your story” - but said he was disappointed by her decision to stop taking ARVs, although he respected her decision.
“If anyone wants to stop taking ARVs, it’s their decision, but you can’t start with ARVs, stop taking them and use other methods,” McKay said. “However, it was wonderful seeing her working so diligently as an Aids ambassador and role model for HIV-positive people.”
As one of the celebrities who spoke out in the fight against the Aids pandemic, she provided hope to HIV-positive people when she declared that “the virus lives in my blood, not in my soul. Our society had made this virus a monster and all it is is a virus.”
The family has been coy about the causes of her death, preferring instead to appeal to people to wait for the autopsy results instead of jumping to conclusions.
But those who are concerned about the destigmatisation of HIV and Aids are not impressed that the official word was that she died of natural causes. Her former boyfriend and fellow actor, Tshepo Maseko, who played her brother Parsons Matabane in the SABC3 drama Isidingo, said she was remarkably stoical about her status for so many years. “My girlfriend Nandipha played the role of an HIV-positive character in the series and interacted a lot with Lettie, but Lesego handled that theme so well she never showed emotions,” he said.
The two knew each other from childhood and shared a desk at primary school in Meadowlands, the biggest township of Soweto, famous for having produced generations of talented television stars.
The two met again at the Pretoria Technikon (now Tshwane University of Technology), where Motsepe obtained a national diploma in speech and drama.
“She had a larger-than-life and forthright personality. She was my senior at technikon and instructed me to date her. When she completed her studies she explained that she was breaking the relationship because she was joining the job market and I was still a student,” added Maseko.
He added he felt like he had lost her for the second time. “While we are familiar with the notion of art imitating life, Lesego’s untimely departure was a case of life imitating art, because Lettie Matabane dies in the series. I spoke at her funeral as her brother, Parsons Matabane. Today I speak about her death again, this time for real. It is an eerie feeling and definitely heart-breaking. The last time I saw her she was wearing a long, white dress. When I asked her whether it was a latest fashion trend, she replied, ‘I’m an angel’.”
As a performance artist there is no doubt that Motsepe has left a proud legacy. Many young actresses who are now household names in television have spoken about how she had inspired them to follow their dreams. So it would be unfair and unfortunate if she had to be remembered as an Aids victim instead of a brilliant artist who brought class and natural sophistication to her craft.
A starry-eyed child star, she started her TV acting career at the age of 5 when she starred in a mutton commercial, a role which earned her a childhood nickname of Nama Ya Nku - Setswana for mutton. Other delectable roles followed, culminating in the Isidingo role of the tragic Lettie Matabane. But the stage - not the screen - was her first love and it brought out her phenomenal acting skills.
Motsepe’s stage credits include Martin Koboekae’s Biko - Where the Soul Resides, in which she played the charismatic black consciousness leader’s lover. Her trail-blazing portrayal of late pop icon Brenda Fassie in the State Theatre musical, Mabrr, convinced sceptics that she was a vocal powerhouse in her own right.
She was blessed with a high-pitched, melodic voice that commanded attention. Her spoken word exploits were equally breathtaking.
In a short video titled My Journey, her emotionally powerful, poetic voice is accompanied by versatile musician Pops Mohamed’s hauntingly beautiful sounds of the kora. Her poem, I Lived in Fear, reduces audiences to tears with a poignant message of spousal abuse. And indeed, as a social and gender activist she wrote prodigiously about issues that affected women.
A journalist once asked her who her role models were. Her response reflected the egalitarian world view that she was famous as a person who didn’t distinguish between actors and crew. Everybody was equal and deserved similar treatment and respect.
“I have found wisdom anywhere and everywhere - from the tea lady, the cleaner, the petrol attendant, the waiter or waitress,” she replied.
Lesego’s father died a few years ago. She is survived by her mother, Ivy, and brothers.
She was cremated on Saturday at a private ceremony after a funeral service at Bryanston Methodist Church, Johannesburg.
Lesego Leeba Motsepe
April 28, 1974 - January 20, 2014 -
- Sunday Independent