City Press goes behind the scenes on Mzansi Magic's sinister drama, The Herd

2018-08-05 00:00
 

Johannesburg - Way back in time, 28 years ago to be precise, an upstanding and hardworking man called Bhekisizwe Mthethwa is let go from his job at a butchery because of a leg injury. He remains unemployed and his wife also begins to take strain.

With weary wife and barren home, our impoverished leading man seeks the help of a witch named MaMngadi. Using her considerable powers, she tells him that his circumstances can be changed for the better, and he can even prosper and grow wealthy. However, this can only be his life if he makes an unthinkable sacrifice – Bheki must kill his wife.

Decades later, we return to the life of Bheki (Sello Maake Ka-Ncube) and he is now married to the powerful MaMngadi (Winnie Ntshaba). They’re raising his daughter Kayise (Sihle Ndaba) from his first marriage together, and have three more children – Muzi (Sparky Xulu), Nkosana (Paballo Mavundla) and Dumazile (Cindy Mahlangu).

But the weight of his sacrifice begins to eat at Bheki’s conscience, especially when the time comes for him to choose the child who will take over his empire, which was built on blood.

THE PRODUCER

When I visit, it feels like old money going down at the relaxed but opulent country manor in Kyalami that is today’s location for the shoot. Members of the crew move around the generous space, placing lights and cameras, prepping the perfect shot. Despite the hustle and bustle, there’s a sense of calm on set. Outside, all is serene, the sun is shining and golden retrievers trot about the large plot of land.

It’s deceptive, says laid-back producer Kutlwano Ditsele. In fact, things have been hectic – drama shoots on local TV budgets are stressful and the early winter mornings are freezing.

He takes us through the vast house where the Mthethwa family lives as they finally attain the dream of intergenerational wealth.

Actress Ndaba walks past on her way to lunch, and greets the photographer and I with a smile that could light up a loadshedded suburb. All we manage is a friendly stammer in response.


Ditsele and I retire to a rusty iron lapa in the large back garden and our conversation roams as he shares the journey of this latest TV drama, The Herd.

He dreamt of making a show with a tinge of a Western in it and met with his writing partners to discuss where to set such a show. They looked in the south of Joburg, Eikenhof to be exact, and while they were scouting locations, they heard stories of cattle theft and decided to inject this into their drama. This is where the dark tale begins, the theft of cattle ...

“The ratings have been very positive. We have surpassed our targets and the channel seems happy,” he says.

He is particularly enthused about the actors he has assembled and praises each of them individually. His ultimate goal is for the viewer to be engrossed in the story.

“My first objective would be for you to be entertained. I don’t do role model TV, I’m not trying to change your life. I want you to be entertained.”

Yet there are deep elements, as it were, that come out almost organically in the script. Like the monologue in episode three, where Bheki speaks about how black people would rather go and work to erect another person’s legacy instead of creating one of their own.

Ditsele lights up and says: “If I could make everyone watch that episode, I would. It’s a hell of a monologue. That is a really important conversation.”

THE HEAD WRITER


The story of The Herd was crafted by several talented minds. One of them is head writer Lebogang Mogashoa, who has delivered a riveting plot.

“The idea of duty is one of the most important themes we wanted to target in this story,” he says.

Bheki’s daughter Kayise, for example, “represents so many young black people who are sent out to get the best education they can possibly get. And then, after that, what do we do with our lives? How do we include our families in our successes without abandoning them? And what does success mean for young black people today?”

He shares Ditsele’s insistence on a strong cast to bring his complex characters to life, yet admits that the art of acting is a mystery to him – but it is the main reason this show has gained so much traction within just a month on air.

“The most exciting thing for me is to watch an actor take charge of a character and bring something out that you didn’t even see in the words. They bring life. I may have seen the story through so many stages on the page, but watching an episode is exciting because the story feels new again through the performances.”

THE AWKWARD SON

The reserved Xulu finishes a cigarette in between takes and he joins me on the stoep of his character’s family home. It’s time to meet some of the actors the creators are so pleased with.

The role of Kayise’s step-brother and Bheki’s son is his first lead and he felt a good bit of weight on his shoulders when the producers placed their faith in him.

His fears were unwarranted as his performance as Muzi is one of the many highlights of the show.

“My character transforms in different spaces. At home, he almost takes a back seat to his father, who doesn’t really like him a lot,” he says, which ties in to the guilt that his father feels for striking that deadly deal with Muzi’s mother.

“Then, when he’s with the herdsmen on the farm, the dynamic shifts and he’s more in charge. Learning how to navigate these spaces has been great ... and tough.”

Xulu’s career has predominantly played out in the theatre. Shooting TV, with its complex schedules and continuity issues, has been a learning curve.

“It is obviously a great launch pad for my career. Also, I get to learn from those around me and get to grips with how my role can affect the others.”

If you ask Ditsele, he’ll tell you that this role may very well lead to Xulu being one of the most in-demand actors in the country.

I mention this comment to the actor and he blushes a little and produces a chuffed grin.

“I didn’t know that. I think it’s a testimonial to the work. Behind the scenes, I’ve put in lots of work to make sure the [pure rural] Zulu in the script is up there.”

THE SELFLESS DAUGHTER

I interviewed Golden Horn Award-winner and rising star Zethu Dlomo at a screening of the acclaimed local feature film Five Fingers for Marseilles.

She was intrigued while reading the script for The Herd, which is full of plot twists and challenges for the characters.

“I remember thinking that it was a cool concept, where fantasy meets reality. It’s always fun when we play a character and suspend our disbelief.”

She plays Lwandle, the daughter of a struggling alcoholic called Magubane, who is Bheki’s former brother-in-law.

“She was raised by Magubane and it’s always just been the two of them. They have their struggles, but they love each other very much and share a very special bond.”

When Magubane’s liver failure becomes evident, Lwandle goes to extremes to save her father’s life, and even risks her own life and her freedom.

But let us not spoil the story!I ask her about life on the set.

“It’s awesome to work on!” she enthuses. “The passion and professionalism from everyone involved is on point. And when that is in place, work becomes enjoyable. There’s a lot of laughter on set, which makes the cold early mornings and late shoots endurable and enjoyable.”

With its supernatural elements, The Herd is similar to other shows on the box, especially the soapies. But Dlomo says it clearly stands apart.

All aspects of the production “come together to create this beautiful Western-inspired fantastical world set in current South Africa. It shows Johannesburg in a way that it is not commonly portrayed, moving away from the usual fast-paced metropolis to the open, beautiful, golden Highveld that is perfect for the world of the show.”

Just then, I hear the clicking of heels on the pathway as the actress who plays the sinister witch approaches.

ENTER THE WITCH

The famous Ntshaba daintily approaches the small garden lapa in full costume – a salmon coloured dress, a black silk doek, matching high heels and all the poise of a seasoned professional.

“It’s been amazing so far. I wasn’t certain I would be able to pull this off. This role is so much darker and more sinister than anything else I’ve done,” she says.

She talks up the creative outlook of the directors and writing team, who offer her and the rest of the cast direction.

There were no casting favours as even Ntshaba, with her years of TV experience, had to audition for what some consider to be the role of her career. With The Herd, she has made a thunderous return to the screen after a break from the spotlight.

“I was missing it so much and I’m so grateful to come back in this fashion,” she says.

She needed time to grow and focus on other things, which have, in turn, aided her craft.

“This thing is like a calling. Once you’ve been away for too long, you start to crave things like receiving direction and being able to tell a story, which is what it boils down to.”

Ntshaba praises the show’s solid script. She knew from the moment the cast met for the first read through of the script that everything would fall into place magically, and it has.

The grand dame also commends the first-time efforts of TV newcomers Mavundla and Mahlangu: “They just throw themselves at the roles and it actually makes me want to up my game. These kids are not playing. The energy is beautiful; everyone is there for you when you do your scenes.”

CITY PRESS REVIEW: The Herd brings life to Sunday nights

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