OkayAfrica's 100 Women
Photo courtesy of Pearl Thusi.

100 Women: Pearl Thusi Is the Fierce South African Actor Who Does It All

We sit down with "The Real Black Pearl" to hear her journey to stardom.

Pearl Thusi is ready to be Africa's "Khaleesi." It was a given after tackling the lead role in the upcoming fifth edition of the action movie franchise, Scorpion King. "I learned that I'm actually good at action movies and I didn't know it until this film," she says. "I have never in my life [been able to declare myself as something], apart from saying I'm a really good mom or that I'm something I can prove. It's hard to say I'm a good actress, because I haven't played every person in the world." Not yet, at least. She seeks to tell the stories she would have loved to see as a child. "I could cry, actually," she says, reflecting on her childhood in Durban. "I didn't think the dreams I had [while there] were valid. They weren't ever possible—so it was much easier to [just] dream."

Sithembile Xola Pearl Thusi was born in the Durban township of KwaNdengezi, where she grew up speaking Zulu and loving animals. Her first name, Sithembile, means, "we hope." The name came from her father, she says, who was at the time actively hoping for a boy child—a fact she claims gives her a kind of masculine strength. The given names of Pearl and her sisters read like a three-act play about her father's longing for a son. After Sithembile, meaning "we hope [for a boy]," came Silinde, meaning "we're waiting [still for the boy]" and finally Sanilisiwe—"We are happy, it's enough. We are satisfied."

Thusi has been performing since she was in high school, first as a drum major and then as a model in the township. "There I started doing local pageants, you'd win a pack of glasses, or you'd win a little plastic crown. You know? Very much like what is still happening here, where pageants are very popular," she says. At her integrated high school, which she notes was still predominantly white, a model agent discovered her and took her through training to model professionally. Thusi came in second place at Miss SA Teen at 15, where she was the youngest contestant. She continued to model in commercials, and after falling in love with storytelling in high school decided to study drama.

Working in the entertainment industry at a young age helped Thusi financially support her family and herself after her mother passed away. Thusi then enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg to study speech and drama. All the while she maintained her modeling career, pushing her agent to get her acting roles.

Photo courtesy

However, Thusi's life drastically shifted when she discovered she was pregnant. She eventually had to leave school. "They wouldn't let me work and study at the same time," she recalls. "They essentially were saying to me, get educated or feed my child. I tried to survive but I couldn't. And at the time, I didn't want to depend anymore than what I already did on my daughter's father." Although her circumstance drove her to focus solely on her career, she did so with grace and fervent determination—a combination which subsequently brought her to where she is now.

Thusi feels lucky to be able to make a living doing what she enjoys. Her first big gig was her role as Patricia Kopong on the 2009 show, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, starring Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose. From there, her television and film appearances have been consistent, from starring on SABC's popular soap opera Isidingo as Palesa Mataung, to co-hosting Live Amp with DJ Warras. Her first major crossover moment was in 2016, where she was cast as a regular on season two of Quantico, a thriller series on ABC. "It was absolutely incredible; I had a really good time shooting the second season." she says. "I got the email that said, 'Please send us an audition, we want to see you.' It wasn't even through my agent. They googled me trying to find me, which is crazy." Thusi also starred in South African romantic comedy, Catching Feelings, alongside comedian Kagiso Lediga, and played Brenda Riviera in 2017 film Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu, which recently showed at this year's Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles.

"Don't ever share your dream before you've actually covered the seed and watered it."

As the host of Lip Sync Battle Africa, Thusi has been able to meet and collaborate with a good number of creatives from other African countries, including Nigerian artists Patoranking, D'Banj and Tiwa Savage. The weekly show is shot in Johannesburg, and for Thusi, shows like this are a prime opportunity to show South Africans the world outside their bubble. "We had some really bad xenophobic attacks in South Africa not too long ago, which was sad. For me, music and entertainment have a big role to play in educating people, informing people and exposing people," she says. "Lip Sync Battle allows me to collaborate with people, but it also helps me expose South African people to our brothers and sisters from other African countries. I think once they see more of them in music, there'll be less fear. There'll be less anxiety and hopefully, we can stop that problem. I just look forward to an Africa without borders, in entertainment and maybe even one day, in politics."

When she's not in front of the camera, Thusi co-owns a natural hair care line, Black Pearl Hair, and plans to continue to give back to her community through Black Halo, her charity that will focus on women, children and education. Thusi has her first associate producer credit in the works and receiving such a credit has been long overdue. She won't say much about it, though, until things are set in stone. "I think there's a lot of jobs I've done where I should've gotten a producer credit, now that I think about it. I contribute a lot more than what I'm paid for. So I'm gonna start asking for my credit," she affirms. "I'm excited to see where I go with producing films. I've got some ideas—the game is to be sold not told. So if it hasn't happened, I don't like to talk about it. Show people results, and maybe show them preparation later, but don't ever share your dream before you've actually covered the seed and watered it."

This article appears as part of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March, we will be publishing a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women. Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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