THREE of the actors from Kalushi – The Story of Solomon Mahlangu talk about their roles:
• Thabo Remetsi as Solomon Mahlangu, or Kalushi, as he is fondly remembered:
“I didn’t know who he was,” says the young actor who was selected to capture the heroic yet unassuming freedom fighter who was the youngest man to be executed by the apartheid government – at the age of 23.
Solomon was described by his brother, Lucas, as a very “unemotional child” which initially had Remetsi scratching around for a way to portray the young soldier.
“But then I thought of what he represented,” Remetsi says. “What he tried was to establish the youth of that time. That’s the voice I feel.
It’s the generation of 1976 and I am inspired by thousands.”
What he wishes his portrayal to bring to the story is the determination, the courage and the fearlessness of the youth who stepped up at a time when it was asked of them.
Remetsi describes his entry into the acting profession as uninspired and self-driven. “I did an Elvis impersonation when I was very young and the way people responded thrilled me. I liked the attention,” he confesses. In the past few years he has been trained by actress Dorothy Ann Gould, one of the best in the business.
And he agrees. “If I had a religion, she’s my church,” says the actor, who is thrilled to show what he can do in what has been the biggest role of his young life.
The auditions were tough and while Remetsi wasn’t initially picked for the Mahlangu role, that’s what he had his eye on. For him it was all about this man who had greatness thrust upon him – and was ready for the task.
“I was very attracted to the story of a young man who was forced and dragged into a world, which has become his legacy. It’s both a story of the past and the future,” he says. He wants everyone to get to know this remarkable young man.
• Gcina Mhlophe as Martha Mahlangu, Solomon’s mother:
“It’s about forgetting certain people,” muses Mhlophe, one of our foremost storytellers, who travels the world as an African ambassador.
“This boy gave his life. He was hardly ready but his life as a soldier was set on fast-forward. They were sent out before they were strong enough or seasoned fighters. But the full story should be told, or we would be robbing our people of their authentic history.”
When looking at Solomon’s life, his innocence about the life he was living stands out, she notes.
“Parents protected their children,” she says. “I was going through my own personal traumas in those years and often didn’t know what was happening in the world around me. For me, it was a personal struggle when I was young.”
But it is the mother’s life that interests her and the fact that not many talk about her. She went about her life quite silently, not making a noise and supporting her children during harsh and extreme times – as a single mother. “I think her life revolved around protecting her sons,” says Mhlophe, herself a mother.
“They laughed about the harsh world and told their children what they wanted them to hear.”
She admires Martha’s quiet strength. “She was very poor and a single mother in those tough years, but she tried to make something of her family.” She was also told about Martha’s strong religious beliefs and that, Mhlophe believes, is where people found their therapy in those dark times. “We had communities who sang together,” she says. “Those were the bandages to wounds.”
She believes women had to be strong, they had no choice, that’s how they survived – with their children. “Those are the women of Africa,” she says proudly. “They are the backbone. It’s such an honour and privilege to represent one of them.”
As a storyteller, Mhlophe feels it is her time to come home. “I’m tired of travelling the world,” she says.
Nothing makes her happier than pottering around her kitchen in Durban. But her biggest dream is to open an oral history museum, “a memory museum”, she says. “I want ordinary folk to tell their stories and I want to run that memory house.
“I want people to know that their stories matter,” she says, and plans to start the real work next year.
• Fumani Shilubana as Solomon’s older brother, Lucas:
“I think they were very close,” says Shilubana, an actor who cut his teeth with Paul Grootboom and Aubrey Sekhabi at the State Theatre.
“Solomon looked up to his brother, who was a prison warder. They even built a back room in their mom’s yard where they lived together,” he notes.
He was the guiding light in Solomon’s young life, says the actor, and that is how he plays Lucas in the movie. Even when his younger brother was caught, Lucas, who was part of the prison system, was there to help out. “At one point, he even tried to break the brother out of prison, but Solomon didn’t want that helping hand,” he says.
What intrigued the actor about this story is the lives of these two brothers that couldn’t have been more different. “The one worked in the system and the other not because he wished it so. Because he was maltreated, he fought the system and eventually gave his life for freedom. Solomon could have run away, he had the chance,” says Shilubana.
It’s this resolute character that he felt also affected Lucas, the brother.
“I don’t easily cry in roles because I don’t think people cry that easily but, in a certain scene, I thought the brother would break down because he was working for the system that brutalised his brother.”
Solomon was sodomised while working as a hawker on the trains, and that is what turned him against the system. Before the brutalisation by the authorities, he was simply trying to help his single mother survive.
But it was his resolute spirit that Shilubana thinks would most have influenced his brother’s life.