Baby Cele currently plays Gabisile Mtshali, the strict aunt in 'Uzalo'. Picture: Supplied

I thought that the story of the musical that immortalised the tragic events of June 16, 1976, would be appropriate to welcome Youth Month.

Baby Cele was barely 14 years old when she met Mbongeni Ngema on the streets of uMlazi, the township near Durban where she lived. She was running an errand for her parents and certainly didn’t have time for strange men stopping young girls on the streets - but the actor, musician and director, who had already made a name for himself as the creator of stage productions such as Woza Albert (1981) and Asinamali (1983), was scouting for young performers for his forthcoming play.

Even before Cele could audition for the part, Ngema instinctively knew that she was one of the performers he was looking for. When, later that afternoon, he visited her parents to obtain permission for her to join the cast, they agreed - on condition that he would make sure that she completed her high school studies while on tour.

That was the beginning of life as a Sarafina! star for Cele, who played the part of Mistress, a history schoolteacher who inspired her pupils to rebel against the injustices of apartheid. The country’s most popular musical premiered at the Market Theatre in 1987, took Cele to Broadway, and subsequently other world stages.

Ngema kept his word and enrolled his young charges at the local Martin Luther King Jr High School in Manhattan, New York. Unfortunately, when plans were under way to make the movie version of Sarafina!, the producers decided that she could no longer continue with her role. According to Hollywood philosophy, only an American star was suitable for the big part of telling the South African story.

She found the offer to appear in the movie as one of the extras unsatisfactory and turned it down. It was a decision she never regretted, as this offered her the opportunity to explore new options in acting.

Also, Cele was homesick and was dying to return to South Africa. An encounter with the late Ben Nomoyi and Vuyisile Bojana - two remarkable thespians who have played pioneering roles in the creation of Xhosa dramas as producers, directors and screenwriters - landed her the memorable role of Nomsa in the drama series Winile (1993). In those years, this part would have been offered to a native Xhosa speaker, but although Cele's first language was Zulu an exception was made in her case. Such was the confidence these two legendary film-makers had in her - and she never disappointed them.

Her current role as Gabisile Mtshali, the strict aunt in Uzalo, has added a new dimension to the exciting and gripping Zulu series.

Her character is the antithesis of the moral decadence rife in a community where the villains include immoral churchmen and crooked cops. 

Petty crooks such as whoonga boys have already tasted her wrath and brand of jungle justice. I’m also certain that viewers can’t wait for a showdown with arch-villain Nkunzi (Masoja Msiza). Cele has demonstrated, 30 years after Sarafina!, that she has great staying power - and it’s all thanks to Ngema.