Nelson Ntombela. Picture: Supplied

Nelson Ntombela is an actor with an X factor. It’s a quality that has been evident from day one when he appeared in a prison scene on "Scandal!" 

He has a particular face and speech that set him apart from the rest. It’s a battle-scarred face of a hardened criminal. 

As a character his lines are hardly the stuff of a quintessential soapie script. He uses township jargon that’s informed by prison slang. In fact, his language blurs the lines between the actor and the character. Ntombela is a reformed gangster who portrays what he knows and understands.

In this regard, he is a perfect example of acting’s redemptive qualities. South African television has a number of such cases. 

Alexandra-born Israel Matseke Zulu (previously Makoe), for instance, has played a number of gangsta roles on television dramas and in reality, he has served time in jail for violent crimes such as armed robbery. 

He discovered his passion for the performing arts while inside. Another noteworthy example is Bongani Maseko, a Soweto-born ex-convict who was arrested at 17 for car theft. 

After his release, he was motivated and trained to be an actor by the late theatre practitioner, Bongani Linda. Maseko gained fame – or notoriety – as Sledge Moloi, a gunman and enforcer in Zone 14 and has since become one of the famous faces that portray gangsters on the small screen. 

Ntombela began life as a criminal from an early age. At sixteen he was arrested and sent to a juvenile prison after he was found guilty of armed robbery. The willingness to please friends and the desire for a materialistic lifestyle that didn’t match the size of his wallet were his undoing.

He would pay a price for his life of easy money, fast cars and expensive labels. In jail he continued walking on a criminal course and becoming one of the leaders of a prison gang he had joined. 

But the 33-year-old Kagiso-born thespian would experience his road-to-Damascus moment when his mother passed away. After his loss he resolved to leave behind his criminal ways and walk on the straight and narrow path. Acting would be his salvation. 

So his Scandal! character of Chicken, an ex-convict who was recently released from prison and now leads a gang named the 68s can be defined as a classic case of art imitating life.

Even his screen name is derived from a nickname he was given by township folks for his unusual habit of carrying around a live chicken in public. Since his character was introduced to the popular etv soapie late last year, it has gained more prominence and currently dominates one of the main storylines.

It’s a role that gives a face to the criminal underworld that’s harassing our communities and one that illustrates the severity of the scourge. In prison Chicken was a feared gangster whose word was the law of the jungle.

He protected Sabelo (Ishmael Songo), a young and vulnerable inmate, from prison bullies and now he’s out and wants his pound of flesh. 

As avid viewers of the soapie can attest, the terms and conditions of this payback was in the form of recruiting Dumisani (Siyabonga Mtshali), Sabelo’s young cousin and 13-year-old orphan into the gang. At first it seemed as if the new gang member was fine with his new role as a young gunman. At the behest of Chicken, he was sent on dangerous missions in the interest of the gang.

However, with the passage of time Dumi has realised that being on the beck and call of a criminal enterprise as an enforcer and assassin was not a child’s play. On the other hand, his family, particularly Sabelo, has been pressuring him to part ways with Chicken. 

But Dumi soon realised that leaving a gang like the 68s is as dangerous as jumping out of a speeding getaway car. Once you join you have signed an oath of loyalty for life. There’s no turning back. However, after he saw Chicken shooting a young girl to death in cold blood during a car hijacking incident, Dumi resolved to leave the gang, oblivious to the danger he was inviting into his life and the lives of his family – with tragic consequences.

IOL