The name Muzi Mthabela comes with many associations. To some, he is Duma; star of now cult-classic TV show Isibaya. To others, on and off screen, he is a serious heartthrob – the quintessential tall, dark and handsome trope. In a past life, he also held the titles of model and behind-the-scenes editor. Now, Muzi Mthabela is stepping back, stripping his many incarnations and channeling his energies into being a good husband, a good man, and a devoted follower of God. For this issue of thebar. Magazine, we got a chance to sit down with the unmistakable, inimitable actor, whose dream roles include two prolific figures of history: Jesus Christ and Shaka Zulu.
It’s easy to see why Mthabela would aspire to such. Barring his towering physical size, he has the kind of voice fit for Zeus proclaiming his words over Mount Olympus, and despite his obvious physical stature, he has a talent which matches it directly. However, Mthabela is not caught up in the image of being a deity- instead, he has chosen to humble himself in his roles as TV and theatre actor, and the fast-gained position as hotshot celebrity.
“There are roles that I wouldn’t play because of my relationship with God,” he says, “but there are also roles that wouldn’t be described as elevating The Kingdom, but I would do those to show the other side of life.”
A man of God, and man of today’s world: Balancing the eternal with the ever-changing.
Steadfast in his faith and led entirely by “the Word”, Mthabela seems to have developed a clear set of boundaries and responsibilities which guide him both on and off screen. When asked about his idea of manhood, his answer echoed devotion rather than dogma.
“A man is a protector. A man has to give guidance… he is someone whose life is guided by principle,” explains Mthabela, with the kind of fervour that reflects a practised commitment to these ideals. So when it comes to the interplay between personal principle and a patriarchal world, how does Mthabela strike a balance? For him, the answer is simple, equal and does not require complication.
“We are living in interesting times. We keep redefining our roles and who we are… But if I treat my wife as a queen, then it wouldn’t even matter if she is making ten times more money than I make. When she gets home, she knows that this is my king, because of the way I treat her… The moment I feel threatened, it would be because I have forgotten who I am,” explains Mthabela.
Publicly and privately, Mthabela is known for his deep rootedness in his faith and his pride in being a Zulu man. However, despite holding onto the traditional, his interpretation is nuanced, socially aware, and an important interpretation of the ways in which men and women can co-exist. And despite his apparent hard exterior, he believes firmly in the place of softer, less threatening (threatened) forms of masculinity.
Mthabela admits that this and other lessons have been derived from his relationship with his wife- from the spiritual all the way to the financial. Once again, despite often being presented as an unflinching warrior, his journey in the world is one which is enhanced by the strength of his wife.
“For example, I can’t be wearing a R7000 pair of shoes when we don’t have a functioning microwave. Before, I would do that. Who cares about a microwave instead of me looking dapper?” he says, almost shaking his head at his pre-marriage logic. He seems to have learnt more about himself in the process of being married.
“Marriage is a university of growth. You either swim or sink. Marriage is not for boys. So even if you come into it as a boy, you need to become a man”.
The seen and unseen hours: Preparing behind the scenes for the spotlight
Although Mthabela is best-known by his fans for his work as a TV actor, he has always and continues to, shapeshift effortlessly between multiple roles. Some, like his 12 year career as an editor, are less well known, even though he swept up a SAFTA in 2014 for ‘Best Achievement in Post Production and Editing” for his off-camera work on Isibaya. It’s a heavy responsibility, living between roles, but Mthabela believes all are linked. In an interview he has once expressed that his work as an editor allowed him to figure out what kind of acting works best for various audiences. But a short concentration span meant that acting was an inevitable path.
“For TV now, I do a role and they’re episodes which are shot over 3 months. So I can’t possibly get bored in the space of three months… You find ways of re-inventing the character… You give them their lingo, their style, the nuances. So there’s freedom that comes with using words as you see fit,” explains Mthabela.
But the love of words does not lie solely in the domain of acting. Growing up as a Catholic, Mthabela wanted to be a priest, to make an impact and impart wisdom on the world. And while TV acting has, in his case, allowed for a similar position, it is not his only avenue. Mthabela is a well-versed thespian, having been part of productions like The Voice of Maskandi and Jobe. He has also found ways to create new opportunities to connect with audiences. Drawing on childhood dreams of the pulpit, and his strong resonance with South African audiences, Mthabela is also an accomplished motivational speaker, and besides his deep well of wisdom, there is no doubt that his voice is one of those that shakes the room and its participants to action.
It is well-known that Mthabela is an enthusiastic and varied reader. On one hand, the intention is to increase knowledge. He admires leaders such as Bill Gates, who consumes up to 50 books a year. However, it’s not simply about topping the information tank or making a grand tally- it’s also about making sure that he is influenced correctly, in order to influence others correctly too.
“I’ve realised that I haven’t started to scratch the surface of what I’m possibly able to do. For me, it’s a matter of always digging. Always trying to figure out how to do more, how to be more… It’s about figuring out what life and the journey is about.”
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Location: L Ron Hubbard House