Mxolisi Masango: venturing from Journalism to Acting

Born in Leandra in Mpumalanga, Mxolisi Masango (also know as the ‘Ice-Prince’) began his entertainment career as a dancer, joining Phly Boys at the age of 18. He then won an audition to be the puppeteer and manager of the 2010 FIFA World Cup mascot Zakumi.

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Mxolisi Masango

Since 2011, Mxolisi Masango has worked as a current affairs journalist and anchor, for such stations as Arise TV in London, the Turkish channel TRT, YFM and ANN7. The TV loved the Ice-Prince so much that he then shifted into a professional acting career, starring in shows like the SABC1 youth drama series Tshisaa and isiPantsula.

Today, Mxolisi Masango is better known for his role as Zach, a computer genius on Generations: The Legacy, as well as co-hosting the Expressions show on SABC 1. As a current affairs talk show, Expressions gave South Africa the opportunity to get to know Masango on a deeper level. His interest in youth, breaking the status quo and his willingness to ask the challenging questions that other people won’t is applaudable. When not seen on TV, he is out entertaining at an event or exploring what the world has to offer.

Welcome to TV Series Hub, Emcee, TV Presenter, Broadcast Journalist, Businessman, Dancer and Actor, a very wide range of skills in your belt like any South African actor. You also transition from journalism to acting. What do you get recognized as often?

I feel people here in South Africa consume a lot of art, so whenever people bump into me at the shopping mall and the streets, it is always “Hey here is the guy from the soapie” or “Hey here is the guy from the telenovela” so I think I get more recognized me as whatever character I play. South Africans really like to consume a lot of arts that come in the form of soaps and telenovelas.

Do people not recognize you as a news anchor?

They actually started to recognize that part of me. I have been very fortunate enough where I got the best of both worlds – to be able to be in the art space and the current affairs space. I am on South Africa’s number 1 current affairs show I present at – Expressions. It is part of the public broadcaster flagship current affairs show. I have realized people who actually follow my work as an actor has moved with me to that space where I am able to talk to them about current affairs where I can switch to politics after playing a character and they still listen and consume that.

I found that South Africans generally really are warming up to me in the different facets that I decided to be a part of.

At least people are watching the new now, right?

Yes, it is very important especially during this time.

You go by “Ice-Prince”, how did that come to be?

My friends gave me that name, it was a very playful conversation we had – I am a very good dancer. Someone said that I danced like Ice-Prince. Apparently, there is an Ice-Prince in Africa who does music and my friend said that I dance like him. So my friends came up with the name.

Going back to the Fifa World Cup 2010 in South Africa, you auditioned to be the puppeteer and manager of the mascot, “Zakumi”, how did you decide to go for it?

Do you know how that happened? I think it happened by mistake. I was accompanying my friend to an audition, we were 2nd year in varsity. This friend of mine says to me “Listen, there are these guys holding auditions for a guy who is going to be the Fifa mascot.” I had no clue who the Fifa mascot was but I was like “Since you are my friend, I will go to the auditions with you.” When we got to the audition, there was a line of guys waiting for their chance. One of the guys that facilitates the audition said to me “Listen, you got the height, we wonder if you have the moves because you have an almost animated look.” – I didn’t know whether to take that as a compliment or as an insult. Long story short, they wanted me to audition and I was happy to audition, a few minutes after that on my way to catch a cab back to varsity I got a call – “the job is yours if you want it.” I was with my friend who didn’t get the job and I didn’t know how to tell him that I got the job and he didn’t – I was only accompanying him *laughs*. But we are still good friends now.

So it is best to never let anyone accompany you to an audition *laughs*.

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Mxolisi Masango became the manager of Zakumi (Credit: Getty Images)

Since you started as a journalist in the news industry, how did acting happen? What is always a plan to be an actor? How did you get into the industry?

Acting has always been a passion of mine. Having spent lots of time in the corridors of the public broadcast – that is where I got exposed to actors. I had started hosting another current affair TV Show. Just walking around the corridors I got exposed to the studios where some of the main staple soaps of South Africa are being filmed at. I started approaching the right people, I got myself a good connect there that works at that show who said to me: “Whenever we have something we’d most likely have you come to audition.” Coincidentally, in 2015 that is when South Africa’s soap “Generations” axed a couple of actors and they had to start casting from scratch – so I went there to try out for one of the leads which I didn’t get, unfortunately – because apparently I didn’t have the look. Then I got a call a year or two after that saying “We have we think might be fit for you, just come through and shoot tomorrow, you don’t even have to audition.” That is when I started out with acting with the soap I was doing “Generations: Legacy” where I played a computer geek.

I thought was very exciting for me, I enjoyed playing that role and it was very very exciting. That is where I got exposed to the acting world in its essence and I haven’t looked back since then. I have really enjoyed it.

“Generations” is massive in South Africa, it comes with its own fan base. How has being on the show changed your life in terms of your acting career?

Apart from the part that I now had to start brushing my teeth and bathing to go and buy bread at the shopping centre *chuckles*, I learnt lots of things from the show. It is massive, it is the most-watched soap in the country – it changed my life to a certain extent I myself don’t think I was ready psychology to deal with everything that comes with being known at that time.

I was so overwhelmed because I didn’t understand how being on TV makes people go all cuckoo until I had a conversation with one of the show’s producers. He said “it happens gradually because when you are in someone’s lounge, it isn’t like they invited you to come to their lounge, you are there at 8 o’clock – that is where they focus, that is what they watch, that is the only thing they watch. So you invite yourself to their lounge hence the people feel entitled to you and owning you because you are in their lounge.” I thought that conversation was a light bulb to me, these are the people who watch what we do and most importantly celebrate the craft in its essence – that is how I got to understand.

It is interesting that you brought up handling fame since you do have experience now, how do you deal with it?

I appreciate the love and what is very exciting to me now is that since I also present, I get to act and play someone else but moments after that I can switch to being a journalist and I am Mxolisi – I am myself. For me to just be walking in a shopping mall and have a person that goes “Mxolisi” and not “hey Zach” or “hey Leo” – one of the roles I play, I really appreciate that and I really think it is a joint effort on how I take and consume the love from the people because I have a family of my own – I have a life outside television.

My family as well appreciate that they share me with the rest of the country. I have really learnt to embrace the love effect that people give me on the streets. Sometimes it is not easy, you might think that you aren’t allowed to have a bad day if you are on TV, you can’t be funny in a way or be moody ina way whilst you are human at the end of the day and you go through all emotions like anybody else.

When you are in a position you didn’t choose to be famous, people just know who you are, you have to embrace it because it comes from a place of love it comes from a place of them acknowledging what you do and enjoying it. For me, it is something I embrace wholeheartedly all the time.

What is similar to yourself and your characters so far?

I always try to go as far away from who I am, I try and get something to me is a challenge – something completely away from me. I know that Zach was a computer genius, luckily enough a brother of mine is a computer genius and work as a computer genius. Sometimes I would read a script and I had no idea what a hard reset is and I am reading all of this in a script and I would have to go tomorrow and read it out like I know exactly what I am talking about. A funny incident came out of it, as I walked into a retail store the other day, one of the ladies said to me: “I enjoyed your role so much, I would love for you to hack my husband’s WhatsApp because I think he is cheating on me.” I said to her *laughs*: “We will try to do that, we will see what how we can do” and at that time that is everything that Zach could do, so I had to be that convincing to say I know how to do this – this is what I can do.

I always try to get something that is furthest away from Mxolisi as possible. One of the other roles I played in Mzansi Magic’s Telenovela “Leo”, a very flamboyant character who embraces college life, to me that too was something far away from my personality, Leo is someone who is a go-getter, sometimes can be misinterpreted for a villain.

Every role that I get, I really do try to embrace, I feel like it isn’t just a role that I can do and get it done, it is also a learning curve that gives me the opportunity, space and time to go into someone who is not me – someone’s mind and find out how they think, tap into that and come back into myself. That is why I really like to embrace every role that is far from who Mxolisi is.

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Mxolisi Masango

Since you play roles far from yourself, do you have any rituals to get back to yourself/reality?

I am a very spiritual and religious person – I do a lot of mediation. I also do a lot of praying before getting into each and every role because ultimately sometimes the role that you play is someone’s reality. For me, it might just be an escape or a role, but the reality is it is someone’s reality so I have to make sure that I portray that role in the most accurate way possible – that is why I believe in meditation a lot. I like to meditate a lot, tap into my feelings like I said I have a brother of mine who is an IT specialist, so I consult with him first before getting into a scene just so I get into who Zach was or how a computer genius thinks – I take it very personally and seriously. After that, when I come back home, coming back home to my loved one I am able to tap back into reality because you have your loved ones to put you back to reality – that is where the switch for me comes.

Speaking of family, what kind of role have they played so far?

I cherish my family a lot, they mean the world to me – coming from a very small family like mine – my grandmother, mother, and my 2 brothers. Having lost my grandfather about 2 years ago – he was the backbone of my family, he is the guy that raised me, I looked up to the most – I had to deal with his loss and come back from all of that.

From that moment I have learned to cherish my family, sometimes they think I am over-bearing, I am this kid always checking up on everyone. I really believe as Africans, as much as it takes a village to raise a child, a family is a backbone that holds together our moral fibre.

I really believe family is the main strength for me. I talk to my mother and grandmother almost every single day at some point I feel lie I am going out of my mind if I don’t touch base with them. I really cherish my family and that is a lesson I am going to pay forward with moving towards having my own family. Those are some of the values I would love to have as a father in the future.

In fact, home is not that far, it is 1 hour and 15 minutes drive from where I am in Johannesburg. I haven’t been visiting them a lot lately because I have been so busy lately, but I try, even after this lockdown I am hoping to see them – sometimes it just feels I am losing my mind if I don’t see my family – I cherish them a lot.

What else have you been working on, what other projects do you have?

There is so much happening, after this lockdown, we are hoping to get a movie – we will, of course, talk about the movie when it happens, I am really hoping to clinch a movie. I am really hoping to further strengthen my footprint in the TV hosting sphere – I am enjoying television now. The show that I am doing “Expressions” has been renewed for another season so it is going to be exciting. We are going to be travelling around the country doing so many stories and other than that, I am looking forward to taking life as it comes this year. We have this pandemic that has just turned us into one global village and see us tread in unprecedented grounds we have ever seen before so it will be interesting to really see the projects I will be doing after this lockdown. When the dust settles are we going to get out of this as a country? There a couple of projects in the pipeline and of course keeping you guys updated.

You have been speaking “Expressions” quite a bit now, what is it about? What do you do in it?

“Expressions” is a youth current affair show, it is a show that I have been hosting with a young lady by the name of “Jacqui Maphala,” an amazing young lady, she has been my co-host. I have been doing this show since 2017. It is basically an agent of transformation a platform for young people to challenge the status quo – a chance for young people to call us about their stories and whatever they are going through.

It is a show that put me in a position to be able to document youth stories in the country because the youth go through a lot. I think it is one of the highlights of my career, to be put in a position where I can tell the stories of the young people of the country. It is the most-watched current affair show in the platform of SABC. It is one of the roles I have cherished thus far. Right now, we are busy filming some content that is line with the reality we are going through – lockdown and COVID-19 – going around speaking to some people talking about what testing is, the awareness around COVID-19. That is taking up most of my time right now and “Expressions” is exciting and I am having really fun.

The story that stands out to me which I covered in rural Eastern Cape last year. Some young people who were telling tales of some of the things they go through. Those young ladies having to travel a distance to get to a police station after they suffer things like rape or being brutalized by people in their communities. They were talking to us about how they felt hopeless because first of all, they are women and second of all no one really takes their story seriously As the show we were tasked to go there and have conversations and see how we can help them and ut their stories on a platform that we have been privileged to be given to have them tell their stories and get help.

I can tell you right now, we have had some authorities react tot that in a very positive light, some of their cases have been taken by authorities and it is one of those moments where my job is fulfilling where you become a voice to the voiceless and a helping hand to the helpless. For me, that is definitely one of the highlights of my career.

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Mxolisi Masango is the co-host of SABC’s Expressions

An important part of the industry is to bring awareness.

Absolutely, it is very important for us to not take the platforms we are granted for the fun of it. Sometimes we just focus on the aesthetics of them – having many followers on Instagram and all about the glamour. We forget that the platforms we are granted are platforms that can be used to mobilize change. I am sorry I am going all activist now but that is the reality that the little changes that we make to our lives are the difference in some people’s lives who are less privileged than we are.

I will get into this in the next few questions, still speaking about “Expressions”, how do you come up with content or topics to target?

What normally happens on the show, we are a very tight-knit team, we sometimes work on exactly what happens with people – so it isn’t us determining what happens on the show, it is the people who do. We are a team of about 3 producers that go out for the stories and make sure the show is what it is and with my partner in crime, Jacqui Maphala, an amazing co-host, that I work with. I think that is what the show the well-oiled machine as it – the agent of transformation. It’s Expressions, a platform for young people to express themselves. Essentially, I have been doing this since 2017, and I have been having so much fun, sometimes we play by ear, sometimes we really piggyback on the discourse that is happening at that time. Sometimes we might just decide that we are talking about something but moments before or days before the topic changes because something is happening in the country – we are current like that. That has been the modus operandum for the show and I guess that has been the winning formula for the show.

Let me just ask you this, do you consider yourself an activist?

No, I just have very strong opinions especially about things that I myself am very passionate about. I wouldn’t consider myself an activist, I consider myself as a young person who is in a time where things are changing and is very in touch with what is happening and really enjoys being a voice of the voiceless and enjoys using the platform that he is given to empower others and inform others – so I wouldn’t necessarily call myself an activist but once I am passionate about something I really go at it and show that I am passionate about it.

You mentioned Expressions is vital for bringing awareness but is considered more of a news segment, but in a film industry context, how important is it for the industry to empowering people and bringing in awareness?

I think in a way, as I mentioned earlier, I have had an opportunity to experience the best of both worlds, the best of arts and the best current affairs. If you put a closer look you would realise there is no current affairs without the art and there is no art sometimes without what is happening – the current discourse in its essence. So both of them in a way sometimes co-exist.

So for me, I feel like I really had a wave of young people that are really enlighted some of them call them the “Woke” young people. It is a good thing having young people that are really passionate about their country, a youth that knows what goes on in their country, what is really happening in their world and are keen to find out and watch shows such as Expressions – which is why I take them so personally, every topic and every show is a different topic but for me, I treat it as if it is the first and last time you are speaking about something that could be someone’s reality at that particular point in time. You cannot leave anything to chance you have to be particular in everything you speak about.

In a world where you have young people that think sometimes current affairs is not me or is boring it is all newsy, little do you know you need a wake-up call because current affairs affect you. You might be sitting there enjoying a good movie, but if you don’t know anything about current affairs you won’t know how that movie you are watching affects the economy, or how the people doing it were affected – those kinds of things.

I feel both industries to a certain extent are interdependent.

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Mxolisi Masango

Speaking of the pandemic, for example, a lot of artists are affected, especially since South Africa’s industry is a service industry to others for English series. How has it affected you in terms of your acting career?

Like I have said earlier, I think this pandemic has turned us into one global village, if you are not directly affected, you are probably living in a bubble. I think this speaks to a conversation I also had with a friend of mine yesterday, he was so frustrated and wondering if we are able to come out of this, he has already lost out on so many gigs and when the president came out to further extend our lockdown, he just thought there is no way he is going to come back from it. I said to him if we look at the short-term benefits, imagine if we have a country that will turn a blind eye to that and deal with the horrific effects of a government that turns a blind eye to such pandemics, I wouldn’t want to part of such a country because that would be a horror show on its entirety.

This pandemic has really affected everyone, it has affected every sphere of the economic sector, every sphere of society, it has affected the arts – I know most productions in the country have shut down. I think this also gives us an opportunity to really have some conversations we really haven’t been having. Some of those have been around the art sector itself. I know the South African government has come out to give aid to artists, but most artists have been saying that really doesn’t work for them as they believe there is just too much red tape around them getting the aid they are supposed to get. I really think as I have mentioned earlier on, this pandemic has turned us into one great global village because one way or another everyone has been affected by it.

The next couple of weeks how we as people behave towards the pandemic will determine whether or not we get out of the lockdown. It is really important that we really stick to the rules and regulations given to us as it is essentially about life and death and we really have to be listening not only focus of the short-term benefits of us going back to work and our daily lives but also thinking of the impact it would have if we were to simply go back to work right now – people would die, it would be catastrophic. I think listening right now is very important.

A friend of mine on Facebook yesterday jokes that we are dealing with a pandemic and stupid people who just decide to turn a blind eye to what is happening in the country – those are the people who think they are not affected by the pandemic which I think is bizarre.

There have been 2 sayings going around, one is human stupidity will finish us before Coronavirus will and the other one is not a joke, it is poverty will finish us before Coronavirus will.

Absolutely. That is very true, because when you have people who just want to turn a blind eye because they just want to – it is not going to work. I had this conversation as well on the show where there was jokes about South Africans, the conditions that we are placed on where people are not able to buy booze, alcohol sales have been shut down, we had people come out saying “I cannot buy alcohol.” I was like “Dude, your main concern is buying alcohol when we are dealing with a global pandemic, people are dying right now.” Ignorance really will the death of us, ignorance will kill us before coronavirus does kill us.

It is very important right now that we really listen and for me, I think it is a really sad picture that I have seen in some of the areas in the country in the rurally entrenched areas where we have some people go out during the lockdown, they don’t exercise social distancing not because they don’t want to but because time and their space don’t allow. It is the poorest of the poorest communities – for me I thought that was a very heartbreaking picture to look at in a time where those are the people in those rural communities can’t afford the bare necessities such as hand sanitizers.

I think this is a very trying time not just for the government but also for us as humans as well to really reflect and take stock of who we are as people. I know most Africans as I mentioned, it takes a village to raise a child, why can’t we as well be raising each other and taking care of one another at this time. Hopefully, we will have a lot of people come out to the aid of people who are not in a position to be helping themselves right now such as the elderly, the poor and the most vulnerable groups in deeply rurally entrenched areas. Those are the areas I am really passionate about because I feel they are mostly neglected most of the times and hopefully we can come out of this victorious.

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Mxolisi Masango

We will, we always do. Taking a break from Coronavirus now, what do you do for fun?

I have just started taking it upon me to do as much reading as possible. There are a few titles that I have got a keen eye on – I am still trying to finish this book that I got many years ago – it was the story of the blade runner, Oscar Pistorious, I covered it in my time as a foreign correspondent for a London TV Channel – so I just want to finish that. I have got a keen eye for reading books right now, if I can finish one of the many books I promised to finish, I think that will be a great achievement.

During the lockdown, gyming is a bit hard, first of all, to get the discipline itself because one moment you are headed straight to the refrigerator and one moment you are supposed to do a few reps on the floor in the lounge – for me, I have really been trying to be disciplined during this time which is really hard. You aren’t allowed to take walks, so I try to swim sometimes, I really try to get into that, I might actually go for a dip later on depending on how the temperature is outside.

I really try and relax my mind a lot. Work as well, during this time, current affair space doesn’t allow me to relax a lot – we have been filming some episodes so work has been keeping me very busy during this time. That is pretty much what I have been up to.

I work for fun, I try to do lots of fitness stuff and just got into doing some reading.

Coming with such a vast experience, as you mentioned, you have had a sip of both teas – acting and the news space. What advice would you give to the rest of upcoming South Africans in the industry? What is the secret formula?

You always need to follow your gut, I know there are some naysayers. At some point, I had people come out and say “He is an actor, how does he expect to be taken seriously?” Years later you find out those people who star in some other TV show as a journalist and you think “Oh, so you also wanted to do what I do?”, there will always be naysayers. It is very important to always follow your heart, your gut, and what you think works best for you.

There is no recipe to life, there is never an exact life secret success recipe, just follow your gut, make sure whatever it is you want to go into, you at least read about it and you understand how it works. Once you have it, you take it, you run with it and see what you can make out of it. For me, that has been the main way that I have managed to sustain myself in the industry for so long amongst the grace of God. I think for me, just really following my gut feeling and understanding what I am doing is not just a job but it is also a passion. We have these conversations all the time, sometimes people get into the business for the wrong reasons – we get into it for the Instagram followers, the twitter followers, the perks that come with being in the business. Once you realize that the task you have is greater than all of that, it should be the calling, it should be coming from within, something that you want to do – that is when you will realize that this is what you want to do and the money when you get paid for it will just be a cherry on top to you being able to do what you love so much and are passionate about.

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Mxolisi Masango

Thank you for taking your time, before we end our interview, going back to the South African film industry, a lot of it is either almost Afrikaans such as “Generations” & “7 de Laan” and the English part is mostly, M-Net started recently with “Trackers” and “Still Breathing” but otherwise it is either American or British productions filming here and they get South Africans as supporting or extras. Where do you see the industry in a few years where we move out from providing for other industries and start creating ourselves?

It will have to start with the powers that be, it will start with small efforts. An example, people hate it when people speak the truth, but you have international productions who want to do a movie on a certain figure. They bring in an international star to come to play a South African figure. You have an international star playing a South African figure – that is bizarre, that is rubbish.

If we don’t take telling our stories seriously and guard them fiercely, I think our industry will be doomed. But of course, it starts with those in power, it also trickles down to us as artists and people in the art sector – the writers, producers, people who are able to adjust the narrative to give first preferences to Africans telling African stories because that is where the authenticity of the stories lie. It will begin with us as Africans to say, it is time for us to take telling our stories seriously. Many people get victimized for that, many artists get victimized in the country thus end up not getting jobs and remain jobless for a while.

But it really takes the entire film community, we all need to stand up. This is not something that will happen overnight, we all need to reflect and look at where we are right now and where we see ourselves in the next 5 to 10 years and we also need reflect whom we see telling out stories – do we see the global community coming here to tell our stories not with our people but at our people or do we see our people telling our stories to the global community?

Those are some of the questions we need to ask ourselves and those are the questions perhaps we need to pose to the people in power – it is time we took our industry serious as South Africans and it is time we told our stories because that is the only way to it and the only way to see the South African film and television industry blossom into what it can be. I really think it can be really awesome, we are on to something as small as it is.

The fact that they come all the way here shows you the potential we have.

Absolutely, it does show potential. In South Africa, we have initiatives such as #OpenUpTheIndustry, which means they are trying to give new and upcoming talent the opportunity to show the greater South African community what they have. With that kind of mentality that is open-minded, that is able to listen to the stories that your Joe from the street corner is giving – I think then the industry will be in very safe hands because the very truest, realist and raw stories come from the streets and from the people who understand their reality.

Would you consider the industry open and very easy to get into? A lot of English productions are foreign, and the local ones we do have are quite a few such as “Knuckle City” or “Cut-Out Girls.”

Sorry to interrupt you, I saw Knuckle City, that movie is flipping genius. I saw it three times and I thought it was very fascinating.

It was South Africa’s submission to the Oscars and it did well in the Toronto Film Festival. If you think about it, that is one movie you are excited about, we should be having more than one movie, hopefully in time.

Oh wow. Yeah, it goes back to what I said, it all starts with the powers that be, taking artists, South Africans and Africans seriously and making sure that Africans tell African stories. I mean, Knuckle City, phenomenal, Bongile is amazing on that movie. I had to watch it 3 times and I had to keep on reflecting on some of the scenes that I saw in the movie. Those are the kind of stories we should be telling, stories from the townships, who else imagine having some global figure coming to Knuckle City to play a guy from Mdantsane, I think that is where the problem lies where we have other people come through and adjust our narrative and tell our narrative and that is where the message ends up getting blurred along the lines. It is very important for us to be telling our stories – it begins with the power that will be deciding that we will be taking Africans seriously, trust Africans to tell their own stories.

We can end here and maybe have another one when your movie comes out. Thank you very much for your time, before we end do you have final words?

I am keen on that! Not really, I am not a man of many words, I keep it short. I just want to thank you for the platform, for having this conversation especially during this time where we are dealing with lockdown and essentially everyone is at home and they are dealing with so many things at home. The little bit that we can do to get a platform such as yours means a lot especially at this point in time where we have people are treading on unprecedented grounds we have never seen such a pandemic sweep over the global community – so the mere fact we have been able to have this conversation to me has been an absolute very therapeutic and I have to thank you for giving me the platform as well. Thank you so much.