He cuts a smart figure in immaculately ironed trousers and a crisp shirt – worlds away from the cowardly and disheveled cop he plays on TV.
Infact, Mlamli Mangcala is so different to Captain Radebe on Mzansi Magic’s The Queen it’s hard to believe he slips so easily into the rumpled character viewers love so much. But it’s no effort playing the bewildered captain, he tells us, because he has the ideal role model to refer to.
He borrows all the cop’s quirky gestures, nuances and speech patterns from his late Uncle Fikile.
“My uncle was hilarious,” Mlamli says. “He had a lot to say and when he entered the room you’d think he’s someone important – but he was just a fool!”
The role of Captain Radebe was initially intended as a one-off appearance in 2016, but the guy was such a hit with viewers the bosses knew they needed to make the part permanent. And Mlamli (44) is hardly complaining.
“I really enjoy playing the guy because I get to relive my uncle’s life. I sit and think of how he would react in certain situations and bring him back to life.
Mlamli, who started his acting career playing a cop in the Xhosa drama series Unyana Womntu while he was in Grade 11, has played a string of diverse characters – from the slimy German Jale always blinged up with gold watches and rings on 90 Plein Street to Lazarus on the drama Intersexions and Ntsumpa in the series Matatiele.
But acting isn’t all Mlamli does for a living – he’s also a qualified diagnostic radiographer and owns Mlamli Diagnostics in Khayelitsha , Cape Town.
“My journey has been long and hard but it’s been worth it,” he says.
Mlamli comes from the town of Ashton in the Western Cape, a tiny, poverty-plagued place he describes as “more of a farm than a town”.
“Everyone is poor there but my family was the poorest of all. When I was growing up I vowed to get a qualification because where I come from the biggest achievement you could get was not to smoke.”
Many of the town’s residents relied on seasonal work at a fruit canning factory and would often find themselves jobless between February and November when the apricot season ended.
Mlamli is the fourth of five children. His mother, Maki Somdala Mkhethwane, worked as a nanny in Paarl and his late father, Mzingisi Mangcala, was a farm worker.
After his parents divorced in 1980 he was raised by his maternal grandmother, Mtiti. His mom would return to Ashton during the apricot season to work in the fruit factory.
“My mom would often send us money for school and food,” he recalls.
Mlamli lived in a two-bedroom house with eight relatives and was determined to break what he calls “the curse of poverty”. Convinced that education was the way to go, he did odd jobs on weekends to pay for his school fees.
Mlamli was good at writing poetry and enjoyed taking part in school plays and public speaking. One of his biggest supporters was his cousin, veteran actress Amanda Quwe, who helped with his school fees and “believed in me”.
The school in Ashton only went up to Grade 10 so Mlamli moved to Khayelitsha and enrolled at Matthew Goniwe Memorial High School.
“I couldn’t afford a train ticket so I surfed the train to get to school,” he recalls. He persevered though, working as a supermarket packer and a petrol attendant at weekends to pay his fees and put food in his belly. He also took on the occasional MC job and landed his first acting role in Unyana Womntu.
Mlamli went for auditions after that but usually left empty-handed.
“Luckily I had really great older friends who worked in factories and they would bail me out when I was really broke,” he says.
After matriculating in 1996 Mlamli hung around the township with no plans to study.
“My life was a big hustle within the community and at school. I was an average student, so I didn’t pass matric well.”
After seven years of uncertainty and odd jobs a friend suggested he write some of his matric subjects again at Headstart College. He heeded the advice, studied hard and, with his improved results, was accepted to study mechanical engineering at Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT).
But without career guidance he couldn’t decide if he wanted to stick with mechanical engineering or switch to studying medicine. Another friend suggested he join the Access Programme at CPUT for students who wanted to improve their marks and enter different fields of study.
“I joined the programme because I’d decided I wanted to do medicine, but I couldn’t afford the tuition so the next best course was radiography.”
He fell in love with the course, but it was also a blessing that radiography students at that time were paid a monthly R2 000 stipend. The money was a great boost for his family and helped his mother build a decent family home in Ashton. When Mlamli’s dad died in 1998 the money he earned also helped pay for the burial.
Life was good until his final year when Mlamli had “an altercation”, as he calls it, with a lecturer who he claims failed him on purpose.
“The lecturer was out to make my life difficult and didn’t want me to graduate. I packed my bags and left for England.” His friends helped him with money for the flights. In England he lived with a family friend until he found his feet and got a job as an intern, then as an assistant radiographer.
“I was trained in England to use the lithotripsy machine to remove kidney stones, to treat erectile dysfunction and conditions like tennis elbow and other sports injuries.”
But five years later he had to return home when a job in England he’d applied for – which included a bursary to finish his studies – fell through because of a bad report they received from CPUT.
So he came home and set up a meeting with the dean at his old campus, who took pity on him and helped him complete his course – and Mlamli finally achieved his dream when he graduated with a national diploma in diagnostic radiography.
Meanwhile, Mlamli started going to auditions but says he never considered quitting radiography for acting as he’s passionate about both careers, especially as he can help people from disadvantaged backgrounds as a radiographer.
Mlamli, who’s married to Thotyelwa Mangcala (38) and is a father to Iyasithanda (10) and Uvile (6), is grateful he can juggle both careers and make a difference at the same time.
“I love both my jobs,” he says. “And I’m gifted at them both too.”