Zolani Mahola is an artist – in every sense of the word. She sings, she dances, she acts, both onscreen and on stage. Art, quite simply, is the way she lives her life.
Mahola, perhaps best known as the singer of South African Afro-fusion band Freshlyground, has been busy lately. She’s just wrapped up a thrilling new theatrical venture, Calling Me Home, in which she plays the courageous Lindiwe. Now, after a rigorous rehearsal and performance schedule for the Magdalene Minnaar-directed production, Mahola is cooling down and spending time with family. But being on stage again is a feeling she says she’s missed. ‘The process has been challenging and that’s exactly what I needed in my life at the time this opportunity came along,’ explains Mahola. ‘I loved being part of a cast, I loved exploring my voice, singing every day and, of course,
I absolutely love being told what to do! Dreams!’ And Mohala’s dreams have been in the works for a good while. Long before she became a South African household name and headlined the 2010 FIFA World Cup, she was a Bisho-born girl who found her passion in the arts by way of a high school curriculum. It was in her matric year at Trinity High School that she knew she wanted to make a living with art. ‘I suddenly realised I was good at English, I liked history and I loved being onstage and that was kind of it; I was terrible at anything else,’ she explains. ‘My drama teacher convinced me to go for a degree in theatre and performance and that’s what I did.’
Mahola also sees her high school experience as a fortunate one, saying how too many South African pupils simply aren’t afforded access to arts-centred curriculums and as a result, never consider a career in the arts. ‘On the one hand, there are so many more opportunities for young people but I think we would really be doing the youth and ourselves a huge service if we could have arts of some kind be a mandatory part of the curriculum in our schools,’ explains Mahola. ‘You hear over and over again that there is so much talent in this country but we need more ways to discover and develop it and I think a large part should be institutionalised. We just need the political will to see arts as necessary and valuable.’ Having later studied drama at the University of Cape Town, Mahola was soon cast in her first major acting role, playing the part of Boniswa in the SABC1 show, Tsha Tsha. Around the same time, Freshlyground was really coming to life, making their way into the public eye and laying the foundations for what would soon become an internationally-renowned musical act. Being on stage, on television and performing to packed out venues takes its toll on a person, however, and Mahola soon learned that leading a balanced life was crucial.
Art can and should hit you right in the heart. There is power in it that is hard to quantify, but that is, at the same time, undeniable. South Africa is one of the most complicated places to live in on the planet and I think it always has been
‘Most things have become easier with age and balance or the quest for balance is one perfect example,’ she explains. ‘When I was younger I wanted to give it all away to audiences and the general public. I’ve learned that I need to keep some of me and my own life and loved ones closer to my chest, so to speak.’ It’s no easy task being an artist in contemporary South Africa. It can come with a lot of pressure. Artists are said to be facilitators of learning, unlearning, and even fostering a form of healing amongst their audiences. Mahola knows this. She considers it to be one of the most important facets of everyday life. ‘Art can and should hit you right in the heart. There is power in it that is hard to quantify, but that is, at the same time, undeniable. South Africa is one of the most complicated places to live in on the planet and I think it always has been. Through music, dance, the visual arts and theatre we can hold up a mirror to our society and look each other in the face saying things we can’t say in ordinary life,’ she says. So what’s next for Mahola? Well, a whole lot of travelling, she says. Both in the literal and figurative sense. ‘Freshlyground is about to release their sixth studio album and seventh release. We will tour that around the country and the world next year. Otherwise, I’m enjoying my kids and family life after Calling Me Home. It’s an amazing journey in itself to parent and be part of a family unit… a trip, one might say!’