9 must-see performances by South African stars

By Stephen Aspeling14 June 2024

9 must-see performances by South African stars

The National Arts Festival, the largest arts festival on the African continent, takes place in the town of Makhanda (formerly known as Grahamstown) every winter (in 2024, that’s from 20 to 30 June). One of the biggest performing arts festivals in the world by visitor numbers, the festival has been an annual attraction since 1974. 

An influential showcase for the performing arts, film and theatre has been a major proponent of the festival, serving as a platform for budding to established acting talents over the last 50 years. Having hosted many of South Africa’s best actors, now’s the perfect time to catch some of their finest film performances on Showmax. Here’s our pick of 9 of the best – in no particular order.

1. Toorbos – Ira Blanckenberg (Meliena) 

Toorbos on Showmax

Toorbos is somewhere between My Fair Lady and The Grapes of Wrath, a romance drama set against the backdrop of Knysna in the 1930s where a young “bosmens” woman is uprooted and struggles to give up her innate independence in the face of high society expectations.  

The film stars Elani Dekker and Stiaan Smith in excellent co-lead performances, but it’s Ira Blanckenberg who plays Karoliena’s mother to perfection. A luscious production, the immersive quality is accentuated by Blanckenberg’s gritty turn whose performance is so convincing, it seems real.  

2. Vir die Voëls – Simoné Pretorius (Irma Humpel) 

Vir die Voels on Showmax

Based on a Huisgenoot reader’s true story, Vir die Voëls is the tale of plucky nurse Irma Humpel who falls in love with her childhood sweetheart, Sampie de Klerk. Set in South Africa during the 1970s, this comedy drama romance pivots from a defiant woman’s perspective as she teaches a small town and a charming suitor what it means to be an independent woman. 

Simoné Pretorius is perfectly cast as the spirited young Irma, who weaves a spell from the moment she breaks the fourth wall in a wedding dress. In a star-making performance, Pretorius harnesses some of the same pixie dream girl pizzazz that made Zoe Kazan so magical in Ruby Sparks.  

3. Noem My Skollie – David Manuel (Gums)  

Noem My Skollie is on Showmax

Based on a true story, Noem My Skollie or Call Me Thief journeys with a young man who becomes a storyteller in jail. Set against the ganglands of Cape Town in the 1960s, the hard-knocks crime drama captures the highs and lows of a young gangster’s path from petty crime to prison and beyond. 

Noem My Skollie stars Dann Jaques Mouton in a fine performance as AB but it’s David Manuel who steals the show as the intimidating inmate Gums. Commanding an unsettling performance that bristles with intensity, Manuel is always captivating and elevates the underlying tension in every scene. 

4. Kanarie – Schalk Bezuidenhout (Johan Niemand) 

Kanarie is on Showmax

Christiaan Olwagen is a visionary director who assembles some of the finest casts for his array of critically acclaimed dramas. In the war musical drama Kanarie, a young conscript is drafted into the army’s travelling choir during the apartheid era, where he discovers his sexual identity.  

Famed and prolific stand-up comedian Schalk Bezuidenhout honours an inspired casting decision in a dramatic role playing Johan Niemand. He owns a challenging, demanding and iconic lead performance as a young man in the throes of a sexual awakening.   

5. iNumber Number – Israel Matseke-Zulu (Skroef) 

Israel Matseke-Zulu in iNumber Number

Regularly cast as a gangster, Israel Matseke-Zulu must be one of the most recognisable South African actors. A livewire performer, he draws from his personal experience having served time. This experiential insight enriches his intense performances, giving it his all and creating memorable characters in the process. 

While it was refreshing to see Matseke-Zulu playing an unconventional and inspirational coach in sports drama Beyond the River, he’s in his element as criminal kingpins. One of his most electric performances is as the crazed Skroef in the gritty and relentless Reservoir Dogs-style crime drama thriller, iNumber Number. 

6. Wonderlus – Edwin van der Walt & Lea Vivier (Pieter & Waitress)

Wonderlus on Showmax

In the style of The Big Chill and The Hangover comes the wistful ensemble romance comedy drama Wonderlus. Friends try to piece together what happened after a wedding goes awry as the groom, bride and a waitress look ahead to the next chapter.   

Edwin van der Walt is an unassumingly charming actor who injects warmth and soul into his performances whether it be Hollywood in My Huis or My Father’s War. In Wonderlus, he unlocks new territory opposite the allure and brimming talent of Lea Vivier, whose enigmatic character sets the co-leads on a hope-filled and intoxicating romantic escapade after their worlds collide. 

7. Nommer 37 – Monique Rockwell (Pam Ismael) 

Nommer 37 is on Showmax

Nommer 37 is based on Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Rear Window, taking the story to a crime-riddled suburb in South Africa. This gritty gangland reimagining is dark, intense and suspenseful as a tricky power play spirals out of control. 

Instead of Jimmy Stewart, it’s Irshaad Ally who plays the role of a paraplegic and homebound man. When he witnesses a powerful lawyer commit a crime from the safety of his apartment, he attempts to blackmail him for profit. Playing opposite him in the place of Grace Kelly is Monique Rockman, who bursts onto the scene with an emotionally engaging and star-making performance as Pam Ismael. A bold and beautiful actor with strong screen presence, they make a formidable pairing.  

8. Griekwastad – Arnold Vosloo (Colonel Dick de Waal) 

Arno Vosloo in Griekwastad

A grisly family murder riddled with question marks transforms into a game of cat and mouse when the lone survivor’s testimony is picked apart during a high profile investigation. Marred by tragedy and based on the true crime story, the small town of Griekwastad now shares its name with a dark crime drama starring Arnold Vosloo. 

Best known for playing the iconic and titular role in The Mummy, Vosloo has strong dramatic roots in his homeland, South Africa. Griekwastad marks his return as Colonel Dick de Waal, playing opposite rising stars in Alex van Dyk and Jane de Wet. Vosloo brings his screen presence, international experience and natural gravitas to an intense murder mystery.  

9. Die Seemeeu – Rolanda Marais (Nina) 

Die Seemeeu is on Showmax

Die Seemeeu is based on the classic Russian play by Anton Chekhov and redressed from an Afrikaans perspective in the 1990s by Christiaan Olwagen. Originally conceived as a stage play, the stellar cast have largely reprised their roles for this meditation on the nature of fame, unrealised dreams and toxic envy. Through organic camera movement, the stage production is brought to life with a sense of spontaneity from the auspices of a lakeside farm estate. 

Screen legends Sandra Prinsloo and Marius Weyers anchor a cast bolstered by Albert Pretorius, Deon Lotz and Rolanda Marais. While Prinsloo is a force as the self-absorbed Irene, it’s Marais who activates this community character portrait as the naive, reckless and starstruck Nina. An unsung hero, Marais impressed in Johnny is Nie Dood Nie and drives home another haunting performance in Die Seemeeu.