Siya “Siyabonga” Sepotokele, has starred in several popular TV shows, currently on “Lingashoni”(1Magic), but despite his star-power, the actor still prefers to keep away from the public eye. We get acquainted with the man and learn more about his rise to prominence.
By: Thanduxolo ‘Thandz’ Buti
Before his famous role on the popular show, The River (1 Magic), where he played Njabulo, Siya had appeared in several TV shows. He got his big break in 2016, starring on Keeping Score (SABC 2) and went on to star on Grassroots, Impilo: The Scam, and Muvhango.
The singer-turned-actor is now ruffling feathers as Donald on the telenovela, Lingashoni. Speaking to Blacklight during a Zoom interview, the laid-back star says he loves playing the character because they are polar opposites.
“What I like about Donald is that even though he is self-centered, he is trying to be a better person,” he explains. “The reason he is the way he is, he wants to be somebody. He wants to make his parents and his partner proud. Because he is busy, he doesn’t realise that he is neglecting the people that love him.
The actor reveals that he had initially auditioned for a different role and was surprised to learn that they thought he was more suitable for the Donald role. “The reason I was excited about playing him is that he is Xhosa. As a multi-lingual person, I have always wanted to play a Xhosa role. I have played many different characters before but never played a Xhosa [man] on TV and stage. I loved the challenge of having to dig deep and learn more about the culture – and so far, it’s been great. I love challenges when it comes to my work. I never want to be comfortable.”
The new family drama (produced by Stained Glass TV), led by veteran actors Patrick Mofokeng and Thuli Thabethe, explores family dynamics, polygamy, corruption and crime. Siya says the show is relevant because it strikes a balance between melodrama and reality.
“We are living in new times, and societies are progressing in a big way,” says Siya. “Just the other day, we were debating the new polyandry law. And I believe that the polygamy storyline on our show is interesting to follow. I am keen to see how far they are going to push it. There also many other sub-stories that people can relate to. We explore things that happen – it’s reality. The beautiful thing about storytelling is that it’s not about reaching. Despite the melodrama, it’s all linked to our reality.”
Despite his steady ascendance as an actor, Siya is still a mysterious man. One popular publication even referred to him as the “quiet talent”. In this social media era, being an enigmatic entertainer is something considered unusual and frowned upon. However, the actor says he does not feel the need to be constantly in the public eye.
I am not really out there, as a person, in terms of the limelight. I am not part of the ‘lifestyle’ outside of work. I prefer being in my own space with my closest people. To put it plain and simple: I don’t like fame and attention.
“I love my work, but outside of work, I prefer a laid-back and quiet life. I don’t think my being laid-back is going to pose much of a challenge in my career. From the beginning, my work has been speaking for itself. In terms of social media: I do struggle a bit there. I love what it can do for one’s career, but I am also not a fan. I would rather focus on my work (the craft) instead of selling myself in those spaces.
“I take nothing away from the people who use social media as a stream of income. But I would rather focus on delivering quality work than spend time on social media. I don’t think me not being out there is a train smash. I feel like I can be in people’s faces without being too much in people’s faces. My job is to focus on the craft.”
When he is not fiercely taking a character on TV or stage, the actor says he likes to take some out for himself, away from the prying eyes. However, this year he has been inundated with work to take time out for self-care. For the six past months, he was shooting two shows concurrently.
“The type of lifestyle that I live allows me some time off for myself. Some entertainers fall into this trap of believing that they always have to be in the public eye – keeping up appearances. Thank God, I laid that foundation from the beginning, and I don’t have to put myself out there, and that’s okay.
He continues: “I do go out now and then, but I don’t feel the pressure to keep up appearances. That takes a lot of energy, and it also takes away from what I am here for. I am not here to be in people’s faces all the time – and to always look picture-perfect; I am here to tell stories and touch people’s lives.”
The Orlando East (Soweto) born star’s journey to becoming an actor was not clear cut. His dream as a young man was to be an opera singer. He was also book-smart, and many thought he would go towards a more academic career. By the age of 15, he attained a full scholarship to study at St David’s Marist Inanda private school. There he was exposed to the arts and explored music and drama. After high school, he enrolled for a Bachelor in music at Wits University.
“I enrolled at Wits, and I dropped out after a year,” he shares. “I remember when I dropped out, I had a lot of people who distanced themselves from me. That made me realise that people always want to associate themselves with people with the potential to ‘make it big’ or are destined for great things. They stick around because they hope to gain something.
“I am an opera singer, and I was doing quite well, so I had people who wanted to be associated with me because I was that black boy who was excelling at his craft. Everybody wants to be part of a success story. So as soon as I dropped out, people saw that as a failure. After that, I was determined to make my acting dream happen – take it more seriously. However, I didn’t know how, but I knew that I was going to make it. I know that when I set my mind on something, I achieve it.”
During that time, Siya says he recalled an encounter with veteran actor Florence Masebe during a visit to his high school. He told her he wanted to be a singer and she said he was “an actor”. The words stuck with him and inspired him to try out acting.
When I eventually allowed myself to pursue acting fully, I unlocked another part of myself that I was not aware of.
“I have always been an entertainer, but because of where I come from, when you say that one day you will become a household name, sometimes people don’t take you seriously. I never studied drama, but I fully applied myself to it. I remember I heard about an open call audition from Mama Flo, and she was motivating me to attend more auditions, and I went. Fortunately, I got cast for my first big TV gig, Keeping Score. That role affirmed, to me, that acting was my path, and I was going to prove to myself that I could make it. And I have never looked back.”
Shortly after scoring his big break, Siya lost his grandmother and mother in just a month. His grandmother passed away in December 2016, and his mother in January 2017. The experience saw him plunge into a state of gloom.
“They saw a bit of my rise as an actor, but they left too soon,” he says sullenly. “After that, I went through a dark phase. I drank quite excessively, which resulted in me putting on a lot of weight. All of this was happening subconsciously, and I kept telling myself that everything was good. I realised later that I never got to deal with that loss. That period showed me that I am quite resilient. I remember telling myself that I cannot let this break me because those people would be disappointed if I threw in the towel. So I just kept on going, and I am where I am now.”
Siya says he is looking forward to the world witnessing more of his acting chops and wants to be that actor that everyone wants to experience in their lifetime. He defines success as peace and financial freedom.
“It’s about being at peace with your life. It’s reaching a state of nirvana. I don’t think many people ever reach that space, but I would like to. That point where you look at everything you have achieved, the people around you, and the impact you have had in society, and beam with pride.”