Her bun of brown dreads nestled under an official’s hat is one of the first things we see. She walks confidently down corridors and, though she wears white stockings, she still has a sense of authority about her. People are shook.
She takes off her hat, adjusts her tie and cocks her head to the side. This is Debora Banda and one thing is clear: she means business.
The newest character on the groundbreaking prison drama Lockdown is going to shake things up at the Thabazimbi Women’s Correctional Facility. And not everyone is happy about it.
South African audiences, though, are ecstatic. The main reason is because Banda is played by the inimitable Pamela Nomvete. After becoming a household name as the bitchy Ntsiki Lukhele on Generations in the 1990s, Nomvete developed a challenging relationship with the fame this character brought her.
In her memoir, Dancing to the Beat of the Drum, Nomvete wrote extensively about the highs and lows she experienced as a result of being intent on nurturing and growing in her craft, only to be met by the vapid energy caused by her most famous character.
She left the country and acted in series such as Coronation Street in Britain. Then in 2014, she returned to Mzansi, but Banda is her first big TV role since her return, and Nomvete has not skipped a beat.
Pamela Nomvete. Picture: Supplied
“My sister in the UK introduced me to Nicheren Buddism and that religious philosophy is about empowerment,” Nomvete tells me. “But you have to do the work. So it really is about looking at your stuff, realising you are responsible for it and then piecing yourself together and taking responsibility for your life – which is empowering.”
“So when I said ‘peace out, South Africa,’ I said it knowing that, if I survived – because at that point I was ready to take myself out – then part of my mission would be back in this country. Because I was going to come back. I really wanted to come back and pass on the experiences I had to the younger artists so they could be empowered and not go down that road of self-destruction.”
But at times, she began to feel like she was teaching and not doing, and wondered what effect that would have on her students. Then she saw the first season of Lockdown and that changed everything.
Nomvete reached out to Lorcia Cooper, who plays Tyson, and Cooper told the director, Mandla N, that Nomvete was interested in getting back in the game.
Linda Sebezo and Pamela Nomvete. Picture: Supplied
Nomvete was convinced she’d just come into the story for an episode or two, but always had the character she wanted to play in mind. “It’s so funny,” she says. “I told a friend I'd like to do some kind of cop series. And because I knew that South Africa knew me a certain way, I was like, I can be the boss and run the place.
“When I saw Lockdown, I saw that they had a prison governor, Beauty. But I was, like: 'Don’t these prisons have people who are above that?’ I thought I could come in as whatever the governing body of prisons is, shake it up a bit and then walk out. And when I read that Lockdown script, I was…” Her jaw drops.
Banda is exactly that. In a way, it feels like she called the role into her life. What she didn't expect was to be on the receiving end of the love she always felt was missing in the industry back when she began to loathe it.
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“It really is wonderful to be in a place where you've made a commitment. I made the commitment and South Africa opened itself up to me.
“It’s extraordinary to have walked on to that set, where there’s this dynamic director (Mandla N) and this extraordinary black, female director of photography. I was like, wow, this is fantastic. The incredible acting talent covers the different generations. For the young ones to come to me and say what a privilege it is to be sharing the set with me means a lot,” she says.
“In the UK, I used to watch when young actors ended up on screen or on stage with the actors who informed their careers, and you could see the joy on their faces when that happened.
“I used to be very envious of that because I thought I didn’t come from a place like that… And guess what? It happened. I tell them that they don’t get it. They are my dream come true.”
We can’t wait to see what Debora Banda has in store.
* Lockdown season 2 premieres on Mzansi Magic (DStv channel 161) tonight at 8pm.