Actor Israel Makoe is the star of new TV crime drama Z’bondiwe and Local film turned drama series – iNumber Number has received a number of thumbs up since it aired on our small screens a few weeks ago. Apart from the action packed content, the drama has provided it also has a few of its viewers scratching their heads when it comes to Israel’s character. Some call him the Ghetto Professor, or GP for short, a nod to his TV role in Gaz’lam. Others just call him Ma-Orange, after the prison uniform he’s so often seen wearing.
His mom, though, calls him Dumisani, a thanks to God.
Born in Alexandra 42 years ago, Israel Makoe still hangs out in the hood, where #Trending met him for a photoshoot this week. In his 16-year acting career, he has become the most archetypal bad guy of his generation.
In fact, apart from a brief stint as a deranged prophet, Uncle Israel on Zone 14, he’s played only baddies.
On the big screen, he was Tsotsi’s father in Tsotsi. In Four Corners, he was a gangster called Joburg. Last year, he had a badass double whammy when he played gang leader Skroef in the award-winning heist thriller iNumber Number, which he followed up with Mugza, the village villain, in Hard To Get, where he hunts down the couple who stole his beloved BMW gusheshe.
But Makoe doesn’t just play bad guys, he helps create them. If you chat with producers, they tell you he often suggests his names in scripts. In iNumber Number and in his latest TV series, Z’bondiwe, he officially worked as script consultant and role developer.
‘A product of his life story’
It’s easy to say that Makoe’s mastery of gangsters is a product of his life story. When he landed his breakthrough role as prison gang boss Boyza in Yizo Yizo 2, he had just been released from prison, where he served an eight-year sentence for housebreaking.
Makoe tells me his earliest memories are of an Alex in turmoil during apartheid. He recalls tear gas, school disruptions and the detention of schoolchildren.
Raised by a single mom in a household of mostly women, Makoe says he never knew his father, but his grandfather played the paternal role in his life.
“During those days, we survived on the principles of ubuntu. Money was not as important as it is today. The church played a big role in shaping my acting career, as I took part in many activities there, though at times it was difficult to choose the right path. I would participate in the political activities of the day, like any other young man growing up at the height of the struggle.”
Makoe didn’t land his Yizo role just because he had a criminal past. It was also because he had always been drawn to acting. In prison, in fact, he wrote and directed his own play, called Hayi Kabi Magenge, which featured some of the inmates and members of the Victory Sonqoba Theatre Company. The Alex-based company was headed by his mentor, Bongani Linda.
“I remember watching the show in prison, and thinking to myself, I’m the next Yizo Yizo star. I could feel it.”
Makoe formed his own theatre group in prison, Abanqobi Drama Group.
He was discovered by the producers of Yizo Yizo during one of the first season’s many prison road shows. He made such a good impression that the role of the Nongoloza gang leader was created for him.
Nongoloza, the villain he played in the series, was not a guy you wanted to mess with. Just looking at him on screen, intimidating the other prisoners, scared even the toughest cookie. Since then, Makoe has played more villainous characters in series and films like, Gaz’lam, Izulu Lami, iNumber Number, Tsotsi, Four Corners and now, Hard To Get.
“I was always around guys who had made it in the township and were feared and respected. I have been to jail; that is where my life changed. My time in jail made me realise that I was going to be in and out of jail for the rest of my life if I did not change my ways.”
So, 16 years later, has Makoe given up all hope of playing the hero? He shakes his head with a smile.
“I don’t choose these roles for myself, but producers and directors seem satisfied that I do better playing a villain than I do a good guy,” he says in his gravelly voice.
iNumber Number writer-director Donovan Marsh says Makoe is “certainly one of the most interesting and colourful people I have ever worked with”.
Makoe, he says, is one of those rare actors who has a way of motivating fellow cast members, and says his insights and input are valuable on set.
The term iNumber Number is also closely linked to jail and it was Makoe who suggested the title to Marsh. Wits PhD candidate Xolani Tembu is writing a thesis titled, “The Performative Nature Of Tsotsi Taals post-Sophiatown: An Observation Of The Evolution Of A Grand ‘Stylect’”. He explains the origin of the term.
“iNumber Number comes from prison creole called shalambombo, which is now known as iscamtho,” says Tembu.
“It originated from Nongoloza Mathebula, the originator of the numbers gangs, whose first gang known as the Ninevites, evolved into the 26s, 27s and 28s. So iNumber Number came to refer to an order. In this case, it refers to the planned details of a mission that is about to take place.”
Actors who have worked with him say there is never a dull moment when Makoe is around. Yet he describes himself as “a shy, simple and organised man” who loves his music, keeping fit and working with young actors when he is not rehearsing or researching.
Despite being warned by friends and family to stop accepting roles that typecast him, Makoe is unfazed.
“I do not feel typecast. For me, no role is too small or too big. The level of preparation that goes into every role is the same. I always try to make each villain or bad-guy character different from the last one. I rehearse four times a week, research each character to the fullest and keep things fresh by being with the people, listening to music and visiting my mother in Alex.”
South Africa’s baddest baddie says playing the role of the villain is also another way of educating people because, as experience has shown, “crime doesn’t pay”.