Before they were famous: how 8 South African stars got their start

By Michelle Randall12 June 2024

Before they were famous: how 8 South African stars got their start

South Africa has produced a line-up of dazzling talents that have taken our screens — and the world — by storm. But before they won our hearts bringing our favourite characters to life, these stars had to get their start somewhere, and it wasn’t always glamorous! In celebration of Youth Day, let’s dive into the humble beginnings of some of South Africa’s brightest stars.

1. Nomzamo Mbatha: from accountant to Hollywood actress

Nomzamo Mbatha as Alexa in Assassin on Showmax

Did you know that Nomzamo Mbatha is a qualified accountant? Who’d have thought that the celebrated actress, who beat more than 600 contestants to win a spot in Isibaya, and then went on to score Hollywood roles in Coming 2 America and Assassin, is actually a numbers person! Turns out her business acumen has put her in good stead. Today, she is not only an acclaimed actress but also an executive producer of Shaka iLembe.

2. Thembinkosi Mthembu: from dancer to acclaimed actor

Thembinkosi Mthembu as Bonga in Adulting

Before captivating audiences in shows like Adulting, Thembinkosi Mthembu worked at Checkers and was a dancer for Cell C. The KZN-born actor got his start with a minor role in The Republic and a notable appearance in The River, but it’s his portrayal of King Dingiswayo in Shaka iLembe that solidified his status as one of South Africa’s top actors. 

3. Lemogang Tsipa: from a tough choice to a starring role

Lemogang Tsipa in The Republic Season 2

Before he was King of the Zulus, Lemogang Tsipa faced a tough choice between pursuing music, property development, or acting as a future career. After a gap year, he enrolled at AFDA to study acting. His decision paid off when he landed his first international feature film, Alien Outpost, in 2013. His roles in Eye in the Sky and Beyond The River showcased his range, but it was his role as King Shaka Zulu in Shaka iLembe that established him as South African screen royalty.

4. Nambitha Ben-Mazwi: from business science to global stardom

Nambitha Ben-Mazwi stars as Ndoni in Empini

Nambitha Ben-Mazwi, affectionately known as Lady Nam, was hand-picked by Beyoncé for Black Is King, and has captivated audiences in local hits like The Queen, The Estate and more recently Showmax Original Empini. But did you know she also holds an Honours degree in Business Science from the University of Cape Town? This business science graduate has not only conquered the classroom and the screen, but also advocates for women’s empowerment through her #SheSpeaksByLadyNam movement.

5. Brendon Daniels: from hospital cleaner to award-winning actor

Brendon Daniels in Spinners

Cape Town’s very own Brendon Daniels first dipped his toes into the arts through eisteddfods and church productions. His big break came in 1992 with a role in the opera Il Trovatore, but to pay the bills while he pursued his passion, Daniels worked as a hospital cleaner. Today he’s a familiar face in numerous TV shows and films, including Spinners, the acclaimed Four Corners and Die Boland Moorde.

6. Beáta Bena Green: from Miss Teen to screen queen

Beata Bena Green as Shay in Wyfie

Beáta Bena Green’s journey to stardom began with her being crowned Miss Teen South Africa in 2013. She took her talents from the catwalk to Stellenbosch University, but instead of majoring in acting, she studied the technical aspects of the entertainment industry, such as lighting and editing. But it wasn’t long until she transitioned to acting with roles in Arendsvlei, Die Spreeus and her latest portrayal of first-year student Shay, in the Showmax Original Wyfie

7. Kristen Raath: from cheerleader to leading lady

Kristen Raath as Kyla in Wyfie on Showmax

As a teenager, Nelspruit-born Kristen Raath was awarded provincial colours in artistic gymnastics, and led her high school cheerleading squad to win several inter-high competitions. Before finding her passion for acting, she earned a BSc degree in computer science. Since then, she’s become a rising star on South African TV, known for her roles in 7de Laan and Showmax Original, Wyfie.

8. Thuso Mbedu: from Pietermaritzburg to Hollywood

Thuso Mbedus is on Is'Thunzi on Showmax

Thuso Mbedu was raised by her grandmother in Pietermaritzburg, and got her start early with small parts in shows like Isibaya before landing her first starring role in the teen drama Is’Thunzi, which scored her two iEmmy nominations. She followed her passion and studied acting at the University of the Witwatersrand as well as the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York City, and became the first South African actress to lead an American series when she played Cora in The Underground Railroad. She continued her rise in Hollywood with her feature film debut as Nawi in the 2022 historical epic The Woman King. Now a celebrated Hollywood star, Mbedu has a Hollywood Critics Association Award, an Independent Spirit Award, and a Gotham Award under her belt.

From accountants and dancers to beauty queens and cleaners, these South African stars prove that with talent and determination, you can achieve greatness.