Nursing a cold, Bongi Ndaba wasn’t about to call in sick. Apologising in advance for the uncontrollable coughs, Ndaba tells me she started out as an actress.
“My background is in theatre. I started at The Playhouse as a trainee. I’m from Margate, I went through for auditions and Themi Venturas selected a few kids and I was one of them. But I was tired of being called an amateur. I wanted to be known as a professional and that’s when I decided to study. After I graduated in performing arts at Technikon Natal (now Durban University of Technology) I did my degree in education at the University of Natal (now UKZN) just as a fall-back option.”
The promise held in the mecca of the SA television industry – Jo’burg – saw Ndaba migrate the city.
“This is the hub of where everything is,” she says. “I wanted to expand. Also, with theatre basically dying and the funding drying up, it made sense.”
Having worked behind the scenes in movies, doing continuity, Ndaba says writing has always been the cornerstone of her life.
“Even when I was a student, I used to write plays. One of my plays, much later, went to the Grahamstown festival. I guess I just never thought it would be a career.”
But her writing proved good enough to get her a nod for the Market Theatre’s New Writers’ Festival, where she worked with her hero Zakes Mda, and for an internship on Generations.
Ndaba recalls: “It was in 2003 and Generations called for black writers. We had to write test scripts. It was a long process. Out of the 230 people who participated, they selected eight after six months.”
Starting at the bottom of the writing rung was nerve-wracking but she says her passion as a writer saw her soldier through the anxiety.
“It was new territory for me. But it isn’t difficult when it is something you are passionate about. I just wanted to soak it all up.”
As an intern she helped develop the characterisations for Cleo Khuzwayo (Linda Sokhulu) and Khetiwe Buthelezi (Winnie Ntshaba). “I co-wrote with Sibongile. We were clueless when we started out. But it has turned into some of the biggest stories here,” she smiles.
After graduating to fully-fledged scriptwriter, Ndaba took over the head writer reins from Christian Blomkamp last year. And now Generations has announced her additional appointment as co-producer of the series.
Recalling the challenges she faced when she took over from Blomkamp, she says: “Menzi Ngubane (Sibusiso) got ill. All of a sudden there were all these challenges with major leads also leaving the show. We had to do something fast. I went back to my team and said, ‘Let’s rethink this – go back to the DNA of the show as Mfundi Vundla created it’. He intended Generations to be a show about family.
“There were many things that happened after the Mthembu and Moroko families were created. I said, let’s just go back to that. That formula works. “Mfundi’s vision, I felt, throughout the years – intentionally or unintentionally – was lost. Of course, we had to create new families, so we brought in the Dlomos and the Memela family.”
Ndaba says, despite the lagging in storyline during the numerous cast changes, the new strategy put them back on track.
”I wouldn’t say the departures were a heavy blow,” she says. “Yes, Connie Ferguson has been here from the beginning.
“But as writers we viewed it as an opportunity. I know it seems cruel. Even when Seputla Sebogodi (Kenneth) left, yes, viewers loved him and he brought something bigger to the show, but we are writers.
“We kill people off, make them reappear or disappear. I’m not saying that in an arrogant way. But I can’t sit and cry about it – the show has to go on.”
Of juggling her roles, she says: “If you do something you like, it doesn’t feel like a job. The co-producer thing is new. I’m still learning, going to meetings. It is more about making major decisions about the show and the budget.”
Freshening up the storyline with new faces is key. “As much as we created excitement with characters in 2006, maybe they don’t work in 2013 or 2014 – that’s something we have to be conscious of.
Whether it is bringing in a new actor or story, we have to keep reinventing. We’re not the number one soap for no reason.”
Ndaba says twists in the pipeline include “an awesome surprise for Mawande and Sibusiso”. Oh, and a wedding. And a baby.