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Vinette Ebrahim - Legend and Icon

Ingrid Jones asked the award-winning actor about her komvandaan (where she comes from) and got a few cheeky answers.


Vinette Ebrahim now seen in the movie Barakat on Showmax, has many words that can go as an epitaph on her gravestone: motormouth, firecracker, activist, actor, playwright, mother, grandmother, daughter. We, the public, will add legend and icon


Ingrid Jones: What are the smells and aromas you remember from your childhood kitchen, and how did it manifest in your own kitchen?


Vinette Ebrahim as Mercia in Skemerdans.


Vinette Ebrahim: As a young family, my parents as well as my two brothers and I, lived with my grandparents. That was the start-up place for all of my uncles and my aunt. Glamorgan was a big house, or so it seemed to me. The kitchen was always a hive of activity, but there was only one cook, my ouma. My childhood sensory memory takes me back to pumpkin bredie and fritters for the kids, “oumense onder die kombers”, soup with dumplings, sago pudding, chocolate cakes (I was the only one to lick the bowl). The comforting aroma of ginger biscuits filled the kitchen. All the cooking was done on the coal stove, which was “gestook” at 4.30 a.m.


I’ve been a single mother for most of my life, and although it wasn’t fun and games, I had my parents’ support for a large part of it. My children were well fed – when they came to live with me, things changed. Quick fixes – I tried to get at least one veg in. The girls had fun, though – cake for breakfast, because it’s made of eggs, milk, etc. Carrots and tomatoes with a little bit of mayonnaise in the lunchbox, because that’s what struggling artists eat. “Adventurous” soup contained a potato, an onion, a carrot, and a tomato all cut in big chunks with water, salt and pepper added. It was the best ever, according to my daughter Talia. We had no money, but we sure had fun.


The moment I get to Cape Town, I head for places like Olympia Cafe in Kalk Bay for a beautiful seafood linguini, or Goldblatt’s for a snoek parcel – any excuse for oysters, of course. Not forgetting a lekker Cape Town samoosa, koe’sister or dhaltjie – few things can equal these.

IJ: How would you describe your relationship with food?


VE: I love food. I really have to control myself. I have champagne taste on a vrotwyn budget. Recently, since Covid-19, we all started cooking by making things out of nothing and realising our hidden talents. My stove’s oven died, as did my convection microwave oven, so necessity became the flame that lit the other means of baking – baking literally everything in a pot on the stovetop, from bread to biscuits…


I’ve noticed though that the older I get, the less I’m able to eat. I’ve regulated myself to smaller meals and less meat. Now here’s the thing… I’m also a crazy fish eater, but don’t get the chance to, because Ivan, my life partner, doesn’t eat fish. The moment I get to Cape Town, I head for places like Olympia Cafe in Kalk Bay for a beautiful seafood linguini, or Goldblatt’s for a snoek parcel – any excuse for oysters, of course. Not forgetting a lekker Cape Town samoosa, koe’sister or dhaltjie – few things can equal these.



IJ: What happens in the kitchen when your grandchildren come to visit you?


VE: It’s more likely to happen in my daughter Aaliyah’s kitchen, because I live in Johannesburg and they in Cape Town. My favourite dish that she makes is roti and chicken curry, or akhni. It’s either that or, when Gran comes to town, we all go out for

a nice meal. They don’t get to do it often, so I tend to spoil my granddaughters. They’re allowed the chaos of dessert before the meal if they want to – and being twelve and nine years of age, I allow them to order from the grown-up’s menu. Sometimes it’s at a really posh place, and sometimes at the Spur. We share, we talk, we laugh, and all secrets are unbundled. A good time is had by all, and love is (unashamedly) bought by food.


Vinette Ebrahim as Aisha in Barakat.

IJ: You are a natural nurturer, and it also comes across in the roles that you play. How do you balance life and work in this sense?


VE: I love what I do because I never wanted to do anything else. Truth be told, there is no real balance in my life. I have to be so focused and balanced in my work that I shy away from all sense of normality when I’m not working. I tend to withdraw, to become almost reclusive. I do have spurts of needing to see other people; to be with them and touch them, so I do so. And then it’s over and I even tell myself “back to my normal”. I do have a deep sense of nurturing, though – be it people or animals, I always feel the need to know that they’re okay… Is it well with your soul, your mind, your stomach and your heart? Those are my concerns – I can only be at peace if I know that others are too.



IJ: But you can also raise hell when you sense any form of injustice. What makes you go from zero to volcanic eruption in a split second?


VE: Exactly that, injustice in any shape or form. I will always speak out when it is needed. Discrimination of any sort gets me going. I realise I don’t always pick my battles well and go feet first into something that I will never see the benefit of, like Pro-Palestine or Syria, or Yemen, but it satisfies me to be a lonely squeak in the cacophony of voices.


Closer to home, I will always be on the anti-racist bandwagon. I will not stop until I’ve uncovered the mystery of why right-wingers still think they are superior, when all they have is a non-pigmented skin to hide behind, nothing else.


I will not stop until all schools are equally equipped and education is on an equal level for all. I will not stop until this government has been replaced with one that is reliable and has the interests of the people at heart. I will not stop until women and children are treated with the respect and love that they deserve. Until this country turns a corner for the better I will always be a watchdog with a nasty snarl.



Mercia Fortune, the powerful matriarch who runs things in Skemerdans.

IJ: Describe your rise in the theatre and movie industry. Do you have a preference?


VE: I have to smile when confronted with this question, because I suddenly had to ask myself that! When did it happen? When did I become a veteran? I still feel 30! I wish I had done more theatre. My career on the stage is measly in comparison to most actors.


Maybe I’m selling myself short. Starting at The Space in 1974 as stage manager, ticket seller, props beggar (because you had to, due to lack of budget), and also attending classes was no mean feat. I was incredibly blessed to be working with, for, under and alongside some of the country’s top names at the age of 17 – Pieter Dirk-Uys, John Kani, my mentors Yvonne Bryceland and Brian Astbury who passed away recently. What happened after was a whirlwind of tours, auditions, people like Fred Abrahamse, The Baxter, Fiela, KKNK, Lizz Meiring, Christo Davids, Amsterdam and Den Haag. So maybe my theatre career is not that bad after all? I have a couple of awards to attest to that. I love theatre more than I can describe.


As old as I am, and as much as I love camera work, it still fills me with anxiety. It’s the preparation in very little time, and you have to make it look easy. I’ve had it drilled into me for almost 20 years on the soapies: “Know your lines word for word”. With a movie or telenovela, they go easier on you – if you make a mistake and it makes sense, you carry on. It’s such luxury! I still try for all the lines though, and at my age it creates a bit of stress, but I love it, nonetheless.


Listen, we live in a technological world now – that’s how we relax, with visually appealing stuff. I’m part of it and am not going anywhere for a while.


I will always speak out when it is needed. Discrimination of any sort gets me going.

IJ: You are an all-rounder – behind and in front of the camera. What advice can you give youngsters starting off in the business?


VE: Surround yourself with good people. People who will help and support you to further and better yourself, and connect you with like-minded people in the industry. It’s a tough industry that swallows you up, chews on you, and when it had enough of you, it spits you out – it’s as fickle as that. I’m not joking when I say you must build a strong network. Stay focused, make a name for yourself as being reliable.


Remember, not all of us are meant to be in front of the camera – there are many aspects to this industry. It doesn’t matter that you’re an actor on the set or in the production, always be helpful. Our industry is small and word spreads – if you are an actor on a set or production, be kind and polite. Those crew members are there to assist you, make them feel appreciated.




IJ: Job security is a difficult thing in the media and entertainment industry. How do you stay relevant and on top of your game?


VE: Here’s the blatant, harsh truth… There is no job security in this business. Not even if you have a signed contract for a year, because that’s for how long they normally sign you up on a soap. Anything can happen – there are some horror stories out there. Mine is a horror story which I’m tired of telling. Most importantly, part of staying relevant is having a brilliant agent, and I have one. Also, in this industry, you’re only as good and relevant as your last job. I thank God that I’ve worked with good people so far – they seem to want me as much as I need them. Let me just warn, though, unless you’re single with no commitments, this can end up being a paycheque-to-paycheque existence. Work wisely and frugally with your money. Don’t be fooled by the glitzy stuff – it doesn’t happen here.


Blessing… Barakat was die salf op my seer. I cried the day we finished shooting because I realised I had found a group of people who blessed me every moment of that shoot – from the top down. It was made with sabr, shukr and barakah: endurance, patience and blessings, and loads of laughter and respect.

IJ: Barakat is a word so embedded in our food komvandaan. What is the meaning of barakat in the movie, and how does it translate in our ordinary everyday lives?


VE: Shukran for Barakat. It will remain embedded in my heart for as long as I live. Blessing… Barakat was die salf op my seer. I cried the day we finished shooting because I realised I had found a group of people who blessed me every moment of that shoot – from the top down. That is why the movie is still getting such a positive reaction to it, because it was made with sabr, shukr and barakah: endurance, patience and blessings, and loads of laughter and respect. I think what comes across very clearly in the movie is how important those underlying values are. No matter what, we all have a role to play in our family circle. No matter how complicated or dysfunctional our families are, you have a role to play.


IJ: What is needed to tell our stories on a broader platform than what we are currently doing? Are we still not comfortable at the table?


VE: We need more writers, more production companies, braver people heading up the channels; people who are truly invested in putting more chairs at the table! For so many years, it’s been a very closed dining room! We’ve had the state-run channels, M-Net, and kykNET... Money was given to a chosen few production houses, and people were scrambling for work.


Now there’s Showmax and Netflix, and I think a couple of new channels are starting up soon. The circle is getting wider, but the sharks are still circling closer, leaving the bakvissies jumping up and down shouting, “What about me, what about me?”. There is money; there has to be… For most of the time we do have work, and some favoured producers get batches of content to shoot. We need to pull ourselves together and get a good few chairs at the table. Perhaps it’s time to kick down the door to the dining room?


We need more writers, more production companies, braver people heading up the channels; people who are truly invested in putting more chairs at the table. For so many years, it’s been a very closed dining room!

IJ: When you look at hunger and access to food resources, what would you like to see happening in the sphere of food security?


VE: I think we’ve started the process already through home subsistence and vegetable patches in each backyard. It sounds simple, but I’ve seen it work in Zimbabwe before Mugabe stuffed it up. Every corner in the rural areas had a little fruit-and-veg stand. What they didn’t sell by late afternoon, they would barter or trade. Kibbutz-type farming – going back to the basics. I think we should create more subsistence farming and local trading on a national level.


IJ: How can the Koe’sister komvandaan community play a bigger role in giving people access to fresh produce?


VE: We need to lead by example… Although we already are, I think we can do more. I think I’m sticking my neck out here, because it’s very difficult to be involved in community projects. How do you go into impoverished communities without creating an “us and them” situation? Soup kitchens are necessary because it may be the only meal a man, woman or child sees for the day. But how do you help someone without trampling on their dignity or making that person unknowingly reliant? For the community, outside of community? It’s a tough one, but how about sowing seeds of love? Let’s literally give seeds to plant…


IJ: When are you writing your memoir?


VE: It will be a while. I will have to think about certain things a hundred times before I expose it. Some of it will be funny, some of it heart-breaking. Then there are those things that I … I’m not sure.



 

UPDATE

Vinette’s life partner, Ivan Lucas , passed away on 28 March 2023. She wrote the following in a Facebook post in the Food Fairies (Koe'sister magazine) group.



The taste of grief

Vinette Ebrahim


Cooking has been the last thing on my agenda recently [after my life partner Ivan’s passing]. Who wants to cook for one? I’m really stuck between a rock and a hard place. One doesn’t feel like cooking, but you have to eat. I’ve been snacking on fruit, toast and cheese since Monday. Before that, it was finger food, memorial kos, kifiatkos which my sister-in-law Rene Braat made. She made sure that I ate. She even made sure that the dogs ate. So tonight, I decided to make pan-fried chicken (Ivan’s recipe) and cauliflower au gratin which I have been craving for all day.


I took my time, and really made an effort to relish the making of the meal. I made a side salad of sweet melon, feta and basil. It smelled so good.


It tasted like.... nothing. I thought the second forkful will be different. Nothing. I actually tasted the emptiness of the chair opposite me. The nothingness of the state I’m in. The sorrow slid down my throat as if to fill my belly. I tasted my grief.


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