Rape story mirrors actress’s past
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Actress Nompilo Gwala speaks about how her role on ‘Saint and Sinners’ mirrors her troubled past, writes Munya Vomo
Nompilo Gwala strutted through our offices just like any other 20-something would. Only she isn’t any young lady; she is the lead actress on Mzansi Magic’s Saints and Sinners.
She plays the gorgeous Phindi who has been abducted by Gibson Mosia (Tumisho Masha) and from what we saw last week, he is about to have his way with her.
While I was happy to chat with Gwala about the show, I wasn’t sure how to handle the story she wanted to tell. The story of Kamo Peterson that The Star had published and later found out was fake, popped up in our conversation.
“I read the Kamo story and cried throughout. The Department of Women even tweeted that although the story turned out to be fictitious, the reason that it pulled at our heartstrings is because many of us have that story to tell,” she said.
“The problem thereafter was that some people started raising points along the lines of how many people have been unfairly charged as rapists and are in prison today? While that is true, the last time I checked, less than 2 percent of rape cases are false, more than 60 percent go unreported and 97 percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail,” she pointed out.
As I formulated the dreadful question, she must have realised this and made it easy for me.
“I haven’t reported what happened to me. Although Kamo’s was a fake story, I am living testimony that these things happen.”
The hows, whens and whys flew threw mind and I mumbled something before she cut me short.
“I had two incidents. The first one happened when I was 6 years old. I went to buy a packet of chips, but because I was so young I think the brain blocked out some of the details. I was raped on someone’s kitchen floor. I know who it was and for my entire childhood he taunted me about it. He called me a ‘whore’ afterwards whenever I walked past their house in my school uniform. He’d say how good I was to have sex with,” she recalled, her eyes watering.
So Phindi (her character on Saints and Sinners) is actually living this young woman’s real-life nightmare.
“I think making television that is socially educating is important to me because I figured out what had happened to me through watching Soul City back then. There was an episode when Sister Bettina (Lillian Dube) was dealing with a little girl who had been sexually abused. She gave her a teddy bear and asked her to point where on the teddy where she was touched.
“For the first time in my life I was like, ‘that’s what happened to me’. In the mid-’90s, when it happened, kids were not as advanced as they are today so I really didn’t know that I was wronged,” she added.
The enlightenment was only good for a moment before she realised she did not know what to do with the knowledge she now had.
“Even though I had figured out what had happened to me, I didn’t know what to do. What do you say? Who do you say it to? Which words do you use? So I carried on with my life. Primary school was horrible. I was bullied and made fun of. At 12 or 13, I attempted suicide. I had the rape in my head and the school was not safe for me so I had no place and I think I wanted to quieten down things and next thing I woke up at Pretoria Academic Hospital. I had to have my stomach pumped free of the painkillers. My mother found me and saved me.”
For a preteen, that was obviously too much to take, but more was in store.
“The next time happened when I was about 18 and it was with a guy I was dating. I was honest, while we were dating, about not being ready to have sex yet and he was okay with it. (But) clearly, he was not because there was one day that he simply didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. So I was pinned down and couldn’t move. All I could say was ‘no’ and I remember thinking, ‘this cannot be happening again’. I remember crying and at some point he stopped, looked at me and went to the bathroom and returned with a towel. I was bleeding because there was no consent. For the longest time I didn’t know what to call that. When someone shows concern after an act like that, is it still rape?” she paused.
“At 21 I had to step out of my denial and admit to myself, what I already knew, that where there is penetration without consent that is rape,” she said.
In time she had to break the silence and talk to someone and the natural person to turn to was her mother.
“It was only when I was 23 that I decided to open up and talk to my mother. That’s what started my journey to dealing with this and I found myself at a rape crisis centre,” she said.
So is she still angry?
“To respond to cruelty with cruelty is succumbing to a negative force that started it all in the first place. I will never be cruel to a human being because I know what it feels like. My name is Nompilo, meaning ‘she who brings life’. I am proud of my younger self for keeping us both alive. I know I will never get justice, but that hasn’t left me with bitterness, but rather my belief that the suffering doesn’t compare to the glory that shall be revealed in me.”
Enter Saints and Sinners season 2 in which Gwala plays a character who is brutally raped.
“I am dealing with theme that has haunted me all my life. When your destiny, which is my job, and your victory, come hand in hand, that’s God’s doing. When I found out that Phindi was going to go through what I went through, I said: ‘Okay God, I get it, you don’t want me to go to the grave with this. You want me to help other people with my experiences’. That’s why I am speaking out,” she said.
“I would like to do things through my acting that teach people. I really want to make a difference though my acting.”
Saints and Sinners, 8pm, Sundays on Mzansi Magic (DStv channel 161).