Obituary: Nyembezi Kunene, quiet TV star who loved theatre

12 June 2016 - 02:00 By Chris Barron

Nyembezi Kunene, who has died in Evaton at the age of 58, was an actor, playwright and director who was known to millions of South Africans through his roles in some of the most popular TV soaps and dramas. He played a senior, no-nonsense hostel security guard, Mcunu, in the popular comedy series Emzini Wezinsizwa, which he also directed, and the drunken uncle Jabulani Dlomo in the SABC soapie Generations.The character was controversial and frequently unattractive but this never rubbed off on Kunene, who was loved by his legions of fans regardless.Other TV shows he starred in included Ring of Lies, Umlilo, Isibaya and Scandal.Kunene's face was much better known than his name and the reason, ironically, was that his real life was so free of scandal.He was involved in no controversies and no illicit love affairs. He didn't feature in the gossip columns.He used to take a picture of his wife Phumelele to rehearsals with him, to remind himself in times of temptation that he was a happily married man with responsibilities and could not behave with the reckless abandon of his bachelor colleagues.Kunene was born in Meyerton on March 22 1958 and was bitten by the acting bug while at Phamehlo Primary School. He was living with his grandmother Khabonina at the time, who used to brew and sell alcohol.There were always people in the house, and often they would perform, sing a song, do a dance or act a role in some play. The young Kunene was smitten."It made me think that art was a beautiful thing and I wanted to be involved in it," he said.He wrote and produced his first play while a student at Jordan Secondary School in Evaton. By the time he had finished school he knew that theatre was all he wanted to do.There was no money for drama school, however. And, besides, he needed to help support the family. He got a job as a clerk at the old Vereeniging Hospital, where he met his future wife, who was a trainee nurse.After work he would sit in his tiny box house in Sebokeng and write plays, design, paint and then distribute his own posters and banners and put his plays on in church and community halls.There were fewer distractions in those days and a considerable hunger for live theatre. Attracted by his posters and his growing reputation, audiences would come in numbers which today would be unimaginable for an amateur production.His first play was a one-hander titled, simply, Nyembezi. He initiated community theatre projects and got other actors to perform their works.He believed strongly in community theatre as a vehicle for raising important social issues such as crime, drugs and illness, and expressing opposition to apartheid.Although later he was mostly associated with his TV work, his first love was always community theatre. He loved the sense of immediacy that being on stage allowed."Through community theatre one reaches out to the communities," he said. "The response is immediate."Apart from the money he got for it, this love of directly engaging with audiences kept him busy in the corporate world, where he was frequently commissioned to write and produce short plays for promotional and motivational purposes. He was also a popular motivational speaker and master of ceremonies.Although he had no formal training himself, he ran Dramatic Zone where many aspiring actors learnt their craft under his watchful eye.During a professional career that spanned 30 years - he was in his late 20s before he relinquished his day job as a hospital clerk to concentrate on acting and directing - he acted in numerous film and TV productions and won a South African Film and Television Award nomination for best director in a TV comedy for Family Bonds.Kunene used to go to great lengths as a director, discussing scenes with his actors a day before filming them so they could "go home knowing what I expect of them. When we translate the scene on screen it looks credible and viewers believe it," he said.Unusually for an actor brought up on stage work, his own TV acting was entirely credible.He avoided the trap of over-acting and conveyed a range of emotions with the most subtle facial expressions and physical movements. This, along with his marvellous sense of timing, was also what made him such a wonderful actor of comedy.Even when his role was not overtly comical, he was always aware of the comedy underlying most human activity. He would identify it unerringly and exploit it with just the right deftness of touch.Kunene, who died after battling diabetes for several years, is survived by his wife and four children.1958-2016..

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