Sunday Times – Travel section 22 February 2004
I love my beautiful country – says South African actor Sello Maake ka Ncube, who is appearing as Othello with the Royal Shakespeare Company
I came to holidays late in life – I think it had to do with growing up in South Africa and being black. Holidays seemed like a luxury, leisure for those who have – and I fell into the category of the have-nots. The only sort of holidays we would have was when my mother took us to stay with my grandmother. We grew up in Pretoria and we would go and spend our holidays with our grandmother who lived in Soweto, Johannesburg. Those who had relatives in the rural areas were fortunate.
It wasn’t until I became an actor and started touring that I saw anything of my country. Even then there were huge restrictions, because there were certain places you could see and not experience – exquisite beaches that were reserved for white people. So the splendour of the country was hidden from us. When things began to open up I could see what a beautiful country South Africa was. You go to the eastern side, and see the wonderful landscape of Natal, just south of the Kruger National Park. It is such lush land and the sights are mind-blowing. There’s a place called God’s Window. You climb up a hill and the view that you get is just breathtaking.
Near the Zimbabwe border, just south of the Limpopo River, there’s an area called Vendaland, which is inhabited by the Venda people. I am fascinated by their culture. The last time I went there, I stayed in a holiday guest house called the Lando, which is surrounded by grand mountain ranges. We went to see the ceremony of young girls dancing the snake dance in an undulating line to resemble their sacred animal, the python, associated with fertility. Zululand in Natal is my heritage. Though I’m really a city boy, I’m on the fringes of Zulu culture and there is something so strong in its ethos of warriorship that it lives in my blood. You feel a surge inside, a simmering of the spirit, and you know that somehow you relate to it. Then there’s Transkei on the south eastern coast, and Cape Town, the pinnacle of beauty in the world. It is the only city that has two oceans meeting in front of it, and a magnificent backdrop of the mountain. I love my country!
I have always been more fascinated in meeting people than seeing places. When I travel I like to make contact with people rather than just see the sights. I enjoy the landscape of a country by getting acquainted with the lifestyle of the people. When I was in New York, I spent some time in Harlem, just meeting friends and hanging out with them on a street corner, getting their view of the world, and going to a jazz club called, I think, the Village Vanguard. Woza Albert was the play that got me out of South Africa, and it took me to Canada, Switzerland, and London. For someone who had been living under apartheid, I had my first culture shock in London, when we got out of the subway to go to the hotel, and I saw white men digging a trench in the street. It was 1986, and I had never seen a white man working on the roads before. Apartheid made you feel that you didn’t belong and you didn’t have space, because even when you went outside you felt restricted, in your mind if nothing else – you had to think about where you were allowed to go all the time.
I’m still enjoying exploring Britain. I went to Brighton last summer, and I know it sounds stupid, but I’d never thought of Britain having beaches. It wasn’t like a South African beach, but it was OK. I was in good company, I had fun, and that’s what matters. I haven’t been to Europe, and I’m making plans to do so, between the different seasons at the RSC. I would like to go to France and Italy, and I’m planning a tour there. But just being in London, I’m fascinated to see the preservation of heritage, something we don’t have much of in South Africa. You go into certain buildings and there’s a smell of history about them, and you see churches which were built hundreds of years ago. One of the worst things that colonization has done to Africa is that whatever should be your heritage, you see only in museums. When you see the history in England, you realize you are walking around without a past and you live with constant envy!
I’m also planning to go to the Caribbean – to Jamaica. Having been a Bob Marley fan for many years I have a romanticized view of Jamaica. I want to see where the origins are of the music that so fascinated me. Trinidad is another place I would like to visit. I would also like to go to Ghana, Senegal and Mali, again because I am drawn by the musicians and the artists that come out of a place. My only visit so far to West Africa was to Nigeria, which doesn’t bring back pleasant memories. I was being awarded the equivalent of the Oscars of Africa in Abuja, and had to get back to South Africa quickly. When I tried to get on an early flight back and pay for myself, there were problems paying by credit card, and there had also been problems at the hotel, and even when trying to get cash out of a bank machine. I asked the airline assistant why it was so hard to use credit cards in Nigeria and she said, “We’re too smart for our own good.”
Wherever I go, I like to tap into the music and culture of the people. I’m not very good at travelling light, because I always have to have music with me. I used to take CDs and a portable disc-player, but now it’s getting easier because you can compact music into mini discs and Ipods. Not being a very good traveller has also to do with growing up with apartheid for my generation and the one after. Travelling was something that never fell in with our plan of life, but it’s changing now with the younger generations, the 20 year olds who come to Britain.
I try to get back to South Africa whenever I can. Recently on one of my trips I visited the Kruger National Park. As a city boy, you get the fascinating experience of being in the wild, and watching wild animals you usually only see in pictures. We saw a lion hunting and capturing a springbok, which was an amazing sight. The most interesting thing we observed was that the lion never attacked while the animal was still, it always waited for it to move first. Then it would identify its prey and attack. I have also stayed in a game park north of Botswana, a place called Kasane, along the riverside. That was my very first real holiday in my entire life, before I came to London to do The Lion King. I even bought a sun hat to show I was on holiday, and wore safari khakis as well – so I really felt like a tourist.