‘I used to sell dagga’ – Keeping Score’s Unathi Platyi tells his story
He’s the star of one of the most gripping stories playing
out on TV right now, which takes place in a world where dreams can be crushed
by revenge, greed and ambition.
As Mbazo in the SABC 2 telenovela Keeping Score, he plays a
Xhosa prince by blood, a boxer by training and a champion in the making – if he
can stay alive in the dog-eat-dog world of the African Sports Academy.
Mbaza’s fists are his ticket to the big time but many want
to tear him down. And bringing this character to life each week is a young man
who knows all about doing what it takes to keep his head above water.
Unathi Platyi has a past steeped in poverty and desperation.
Before he started making it in the entertainment world a few years ago, he was
dealing in dagga – just as his mother did before she passed away when Unathi
was 12 years old.
“I’d stock up on weed and I had a guy who sold it for me on
the streets. That got me by for months,” the 27-year-old says candidly. “I’d
make a minimum of R4 000 a month – R2 500 went towards my rent and I still had
enough money to go for castings.”
But after several months of illicit dealing, he’d had enough
and took a job as a personal trainer in a gym in Bedfordview instead. “I’m not
proud of what I did, which is why I quit selling dagga,” says Unathi, a fitness
enthusiast who grew up playing rugby and boxing – handy for his role as Mbaza.
He worked in the gym
for a year and used the money he earned to attend acting classes with veteran
actress Dorothy-Ann Gould. In 2014 he landed a three-month stint on Isidingo as
the prisoner 47, followed by a role in the e.tv series Heist.
“The acting went so well I decided to leave my gym job.” And
he hasn’t looked back. “Anything could have happened to me. I could’ve been
killed or spent years in jail but because I’ve been given so many chances, I
chose to make the most of my life and inspire people.”
Now the actor travels the country with other performers to
give acting and theatre workshops, as well as motivational talks, to
underprivileged children in rural and township schools.
He’s also signed to Boss Models, all of which he fits in
with his Keeping Score commitments. Not bad for a college dropout and one-time
Unathi was raised by his single mother, Mikkie Platyi, who
ran away from her parents’ house in Mdantsane in the Eastern Cape when she was
six months pregnant. She moved into a shack in Ziphunzana informal settlement
near East London and made sure she provided for her son – by any means
“The neighbourhood we lived in was dangerous and had a high
crime rate,” Unathi says. “There were lots of gangs but my mother was friends
with all the gangsters. Everyone knew her because she was street smart and
tough, and she could fight.”
Raising a baby on her own wasn’t easy so Mikkie, a domestic
worker, started selling dagga on the side to supplement her salary. “Not many
people can say their moms sold weed, but mine did. I saw many things a child
shouldn’t see: I witnessed people getting shot and stabbed. This is where I
learnt to fight and protect myself,” he adds.
When Unathi was 10 years old his mom decided he needed a
more stable environment, so they moved back to Mdantsane and stayed with his
aunt, Thobeka Maphumlo, and her daughter. Unathi was devastated when Mikkie passed
away from pneumonia two years later. “I have only fond memories of my mother.
She had a large influence on the person I am today.” Three years after his mother’s
death, he met his father and paternal grandfather for the first time.
“I don’t know why my father came to meet me because after that
he disappeared and I didn’t see him again until I was in my 20s. But I did manage
to have a good relationship with my grandfather,” he says. Unathi’s granddad attended
his ulwaluko (initiation) ceremony.
But, growing up, Unathi missed his dad. “I had a bad temper.
I was always angry and I got into a lot of fights.” To help manage his
emotions, he played rugby, took up boxing and also joined a local kwaito group
in a bid to stay out of trouble.
“Sports and music really helped me to use my anger in a
positive way,” he says.
After matriculating from Solomon Mahlangu High School in
Mdantsane, Unathi did three years of a course in mechatronics at Buffalo City
TVET College in East London but dropped out in his fourth year when he realised
he wanted to be an entertainer and not an engineer. He knew Joburg would be the
place to start his acting career, so in 2013 Unathi called a friend in the city
to ask for a place to stay while he looked for a job. Then he packed his bags
and headed north in search of fame and fortune.
“I found names of casting agencies and asked if I could join
them. I got a few modelling gigs and some TV roles but the money wasn’t enough
to pay my bills,” he says. That’s when he turned to selling dagga.
Unathi says he’s been
arrested more times than he chooses to count but he’s quick to point out his
criminal days are over. “I’m not proud of some of the things I’ve done,” he
says. “But today I can look back and say I’ve changed.” Which is why he shares his story with SA’s
youth when he can. Dream big, he tells them, but learn from your mistakes. “And
never forget – anything is possible.”