When Thoko Ntshinga was bestowed with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the South African Film and Television Awards last month, it was a long overdue confirmation of an epic career spanning four decades - an artistic journey that left indelible footprints on stage and screen.
In 1976 the Cape Town-born performer was just in her mid-twenties when she left the health profession to pursue acting - a passion which didn’t guarantee a secure and comfortable life compared to her job as a nurse.
South African television was only few months old, having being launched in January of that year.
But it was primarily for white audiences. Black artists were mainly exposed to what was popularly referred to as “township theatre”. As disenfranchised people, they found a voice on stage and young aspiring performers like Ntshinga were attracted to it precisely because it gave them a platform to express their hopes, dreams and frustrations about the political establishment.
Her first professional play was The Sacrifice of Kreli (1976), written by Fatima Dike, at 28 already a seasoned actress, director and resident playwright at the Space Theatre in Cape Town.
Although theatre was segregated at the time, The Space Theatre somehow ignored the laws and brought together actors from different backgrounds.
Directed by Rob Amato and Makwedini Mtsaka, The Sacrifice of Kreli was a moving drama about the wars of resistance in the Eastern Cape. It was also a springboard that launched a number of careers and proved its artistic worth when it was voted Best New Play in 1976 after another successful run at The Market Theatre, where resident director Barney Simon took over the reins.
Fellow Cape Town natives and other members of the cast, such as Mzwandile Ngxangane, Nathi Rula and Sam Phillips, later became - like Ntshinga - household television faces.
When some of these performers, like Rula, were cast in the groundbreaking Generations (1994), Ntshinga was already a familiar face in the country’s first soapie, Egoli - Place of Gold. She was with the predominantly Afrikaans drama from the first episodes on M-Net in 1992.
Her character as Donna Makaula, a powerful business executive, was a novelty for a black actress - an aspirational role and definitely a far cry from the stereotypical portrayal of Joyce, a switchboard operator in the Xhosa sitcom, Velaphi! (1991).
Ntshinga will also be remembered as Christine, the housekeeper in Yael Farber’s Mies Julie, a powerful character that took her around the world stages and touched many theatre lovers.
It earned her a Fleur du Cap Theatre Award for a best supporting role.
Her latest Safta is the apex of a string of honours for her excellent and celebrated works, not only as an actress but for her all-round contribution as director, teacher, translator and the like - in short, someone who has expressed her passion by ploughing back her expertise to the community.
Ntshinga is currently in The River, a new telenovela on channel 103. It airs weekdays at 8pm.