Legendary stage, film, and television actress, Shaleen Surtie-Richards, was born on 7 May 1955 in Upington, Cape Province (now Northern Cape). She attended school in both Upington and Cape Town, Cape Province (now Western Cape). Both of her parents were in education – her mother was a teacher and her father was a principal – and their love for education inspired their daughter to follow in their career paths. Subsequently, Surtie-Richards obtained her teaching qualification and worked as a kindergarten teacher between 1974 and 1984.
While growing up, the young Surtie-Richards caught the theatre bug and joined a drama group. Between 1974 and 1981, she played several roles in numerous amateur stage productions and also participated in the Department of Education’s Theatre-in-Education productions from 1982 until 1984.
It was actor, Royston Stoffels, who encouraged Surtie-Richards to give up her job as a teacher in order to pursue her acting career full-time. Although this proved to be a difficult decision for her as she enjoyed working with children, her love for performance ultimately compelled her to take the plunge and she became a professional actress in 1984. She would soon become a household name through her appearances in various stage, television, and film productions.
Surtie-Richards was best known for her roles as Ester ‘Nenna’ Willemse in M-Net’s Egoli: Place of Gold, South Africa’s first soap opera; as Mattie in SABC1’s (the South African Broadcasting Corporation) Generations, and her iconic title role as Fiela in the 1988 feature film, Fiela se Kind (Fiela’s Child), when she broke through the South African film industry as a woman of colour. Her other film roles include Nag van die 19de (1992), Leon Schuster’s Panic Mechanic (1996) and Mama Jack (2005), where she played the mayor. She also appeared in Halfmanspunt (1986), Susanna van Biljon (2010), Jimmy in Pink (2013), Agent 2000: Die Laksman (2014), Knysna (2014), Treurgrond (2015), Twee Grade van Moord (2016), Funny Enough (2016), Draadloos (2019), and most recently, Showmax’s Swirl: A Letter to Hair on the Cape Flats (2021) and Slay (2021) as Delilah.
In addition to Egoli and Generations, Surtie-Richards also appeared in other soapies, namely, 7de Laan and Villa Rosa. She also starred as Judy in the Mzanzi Magic drama series, Rockville, Tina in the SABC2 sitcom, Fishy Fêshuns, Gasspeler in Die Uwe Pottie Potgieter, It’s Ok We’re Family, Galery, Ou Grote, Rugby Motors, and as Charmaine, a starring role on e.tv’s telenovela, Brocken Vows.
In 2001, she hosted her own television talk show called Shaleen, which aired on M-Net, and from 2006 to 2010, she was a judge on the reality competition television series, Supersterre. Furthermore, she worked in radio as a narrator and actress, for example, in the radio drama, Kanna hy ko Hystoe (1994).
On stage, her work included productions by some of the country’s leading directors, like Athol Fugard. Her stage work ranged from The Comedy of Errors (1986), Die Proponentjie (1986), Kyk Hoe Hol Hulle (1986), Blomtyd is Bloeityd (1987), to Romeo and Juliet (1988), Aap in die Mou (1988), Legends! (1988), Just Like Home (1989), Juno and the Paycock (1990), Selle Ou Storie (1991), Buckingham Palace, District Six (2001), the pantomime RooiKoppitjie (2001), The Vagina Monologues (2002), Janice Honeyman’s Cinderella (2005), Shirley Valentyn (2008 – the Afrikaans translation of the Willy Russell play, Shirley Valentine), As Ek Maar Geweet Het (2011), Lara Foot’s adaptation of Scrooge (2013), Rondomskrik (2014), and Siener in die Suburbs, where she played Ma.
Surtie-Richards performed on the main stages across the country, as well as in London, United Kingdom (UK). She also participated in many festivals, such as the Grahamstown and Edinburgh Festivals.
Surtie-Richards won a litany of awards throughout her career, including a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Royalty Soapie Awards (RSAs) in Durban in 2014. Her first professional acting role as Hester in Fugard’s Hallo en Koebaai earned her a Fleur du Cap Theatre Award in 1985. She won this award again in 2009 for her role in Shirley Valentine.
Although she had no training as an actress, Surtie-Richards became one of the most loved and well-known actresses in South Africa, doing what she loved the most for close to four decades. Asked on one occasion what she considered her career highlight to be, Surtie-Richards responded by saying that she could not single out one thing, as everything she had done was a highlight. This is a sentiment arguably shared by many of her friends, colleagues, and the many South Africans whom she entertained over the years.
Unfortunately, Surtie-Richards had to contend with serious health issues throughout her later years, such as diabetes, heart problems and complications with her lungs. In 2012, while playing Fiela Komoetie in the stage production of Fiela se Kind as well as working on Brocken Vows, she collapsed and had to be rushed to the hospital where doctors confirmed she had suffered a stroke.
Surtie-Richards died on 7 June 2021 at the age of 66 in Cape Town, Western Cape, while filming the television series, Arendsvlei, where she had a recurring role as Muriel Foster from 2019. An overwhelming outpouring of tributes have flooded in from all over the world – a testament to how Surtie-Richards inspired so many through her work. President Cyril Ramaphosa also expressed his sadness at the passing of the veteran educator-turned performer, paying tribute to her contribution to the industry.
Sadly, towards the end of her life, Surtie-Richards often struggled to find work, a tragic ending to a career worthy of the highest praise. Nonetheless, she will be remembered for her memorable performances and her ability to inspire so many people across different backgrounds.
In honour and celebration of her life, M-Net will air a never-before-seen documentary on her life and career titled, Shaleen Surtie-Richards: I Am Who I Am.
- Birjalal, A. (2021). ‘Shaleen Surtie-Richards: I am who I am’ documentary to air on DStv platforms. [online]. Available at: https://www.iol.co.za/entertainment/tv/local/shaleen-surtie-richards-i-am-who-i-am-documentary-to-air-on-dstv-platforms-e534ef09-4220-415c-8aec-8f81d507c585. (Accessed on 09 June 2021)
- Blackburn, C. (2021). ‘No one could’ve guessed she wouldn’t wake up’: heartbreak after Shaleen Surtie-Richards dies. [online]. Available at: https://www.news24.com/you/news/local/no-one-couldve-guessed-she-wouldnt-wake-up-heartbreak-after-shaleen-surtie-richards-dies-20210607. (Accessed on 08 June 2021)
- De Villiers, B. (2014). ‘What you see is what you get; I cannot be pretentious,’ says Shaleen Surtie-Richards. [online]. Available at: https://www.thesouthafrican.com/lifestyle/what-you-see-is-what-you-get-i-cannot-be-pretentious-says-shaleen-surtie-richards/. (Accessed on 08 June 2021)
- Ferreira, T. (2021). Actress Shaleen-Surtie-Richards found dead in a Cape Town gust house. She was 66. [online]. Available at: https://teeveetee.blogspot.com/2021/06/actress-shaleen-surtie-richards-found.html. (Accessed on 09 June 2021)
- Lottering, M. (2021). My Shaleen Surtie-Richards, an iconic star who had gravitas that could not be taught. [online]. Available at: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-06-08-my-shaleen-surtie-richards-an-iconic-star-who-had-gravitas-that-could-not-be-taught/. (Accessed on 08 June 2021)
- Maromo, J. (2021). Surtie-Richards remembered for humility and versatility. [online]. Available at: https://www.iol.co.za/amp/news/cyril-ramaphosa-mourns-household-performer-shaleen-surtie-richards-034d305e-b597-53a3-b2fa-2440bbacb015. (Accessed on 08 June 2021)
- Morkel, G. Iconic SA star Shaleen Surtie-Richards, 66, has died. [online]. Available at: https://www.news24.com/channel/the-juice/news/iconic-sa-star-shaleen-surtie-richards-66-dies-20210607. (Accessed on 08 June 2021)
- TVSA. (n.d.). Shaleen Surtie-Richards. [online]. Available at: https://www.tvsa.co.za/actors/viewactor.aspx?actorid=2654. (Accessed on 08 June 2021)