Shaleen Surtie-Richards. Inset: The rose named in her honour. Picture: Supplied

Shaleen Surtie-Richards is blessed with the knack of completely losing her personality in front of the cameras to become her characters. Perhaps it is a natural gift or a combination of talent and experience. After all, she turned 63 on Monday and has been a professional of the stage and screen for a solid 34 years.

Born in a coloured family in Upington, Northern Cape, she was raised by parents who taught her that merit and respect for all humanity were more important than the colour of one’s skin.

These values have come to define her outlook. In her previous life she was a kindergarten teacher who did her best to instil these values of mutual respect in her young charges. 

However, in 1984 she quit to pursue her calling as a stage and screen performer. Fiela Se Kind was a defining moment in her artistic journey. Cast in the lead role of Fiela Komoetie, the 1988 movie set in the forests of Knysna is about a Cape Coloured woman who discovers an abandoned white child on her doorsteps. She decides to raise him as her own.

Nine years later the authorities find out about the boy’s race and take him away. He is forced to live with a white family of woodcutters who claim him as their lost child. But he’s unhappy and yearns to return to his adoptive parents. 

Directed by Katinka Heyns, the award-winning feature film is based on Afrikaans author Dalene Matthee’s best-selling novel of the same name about the psychosis of racism in the 19th century Cape.

Movie lovers who remember Surtie-Richards from those years have come to regard Fiela and the actress as one and the same person - such was her powerful portrayal.

At the same, she has moved on to embrace other memorable roles - notably Nenna in M-Net’s Egoli - Place of Gold (1992), the country’s first soapie that cast the cream of Afrikaans thespians and introduced young black talents such as Macks Papo and Nthati Moshesh. It graced our screens for 18 years while Surtie-Richards’s character, Ester “Nenna” Willemse, was with the show for a record eight years. 

Nenna witnessed international guest stars such as Joan Collins and Samantha Fox. Soapie lovers will also remember her as the loquacious Mattie in Generations, SA’s longest-running soapie.

With over 40 accolades including three Lifetime Achievement awards, the ebullient, larger-than-life actress is the grand dame of the South African screen and stage.

A rose named in her honour by Ludwig’s Roses underscores her status as a national treasure. 

The accolade resonates with her latest role on e.tv’s telenovela Broken Vows, portraying Charmaine, the talkative florist involved in a wedding planning business - a firecracker woman who speaks her truth in unvarnished terms but with a well-meaning heart - just like Surtie-Richards in real life.

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