Who can forget that kiss? Back in 2001 when South Africa was a much younger democracy, viewers were shocked when suave mine manager Derek Nyathi locked lips with his love interest, Phillipa de Villiers.
The first interracial kiss to air on local TV certainly got tongues wagging. “It felt like the country was hungry for that kind of relationship,” says Hlomla Dandala, who played Derek.
It’s been almost two decades since Derek and Philippa, brought to life by Bianca Amato, served us serious relationship goals in Isidingo. And now the pair are teaming up for another powerful performance on prime-time TV – but this time the relationship is purely professional . . . at least for now.
We meet the former on-screen spouses on the set of 1Magic’s The River, a picturesque house tucked away on the beautiful grounds of Ruimsig on the outskirts of the West Rand in Gauteng.
The telenovela, created by Tshedza Pictures, is set in Pretoria and follows the lives of two families on opposite ends of the economic spectrum.
The discovery of a diamond in Cullinan, near Pretoria, pits them against each other.
Hlomla’s character, Zweli Dikana, is a police commissioner who is married to powerful and conniving mining magnate Lindiwe. Bianca joined the show on 7 September as Julia Hargreaves, a detective who helps Zweli crack down on a spate of cash-in-transit hi-jackings.
Bianca and Hlomla (both 43) are kitted out in their characters’ blue uniforms ahead of our photoshoot. Gone are the signature dreadlocks Derek used to sport – these days Hlomla rocks a chiskop, and he beams as he bends to embrace Bianca.
The police officers they play have a purely platonic relationship but according to The River’s head writer and executive producer, Phathutshedzo Makwarela, “the chemistry [Bianca and Hlomla] had almost two decades ago is still very palpable to this day when you watch Julia and Zweli”.
“It’s so familiar,” Bianca says about their reunion. “Hlomla is still the same,” she adds. “Just without the hair,” Hlomla jokes.
The actor is in pain from shooting the previous day’s action scenes but Bianca brings a smile to his face as the pair whisper and chuckle during our shoot about the good old days.
“It’s like stepping right back [to] where we left off. It doesn’t feel like a minute has passed,” Bianca says.
She’s thrilled to be reunited with Hlomla, and reveals she had to dig deep for her new character.
Julia’s career is everything to her, Bianca says. “She’s alone and wants it that way, whereas I have a family now. She’s a little tactless because she doesn’t waste time with other people’s feelings when there’s a case to be solved, whereas I’m very conscious of being kind first and foremost.”
“Julia is fiercely courageous and risks her life regularly. I try to be safe above all. She’s super sharp, smart and analytical, whereas I’m more creative,” Bianca notes.
After joining the cast in January, Hlomla has settled into playing Zweli but the actor reveals he is worlds away from the good cop.
“I’m certainly not as gullible as Zweli when it comes to taking people at face value. He’s very naive when it comes to [his wife] Lindiwe, which can be very frustrating.”
SINCE YOU’VE BEEN GONE
After leaving Isidingo in 2001, Bianca moved to the USA where she worked on a few of the biggest theatre productions in New York. She’s acted in stage productions such as Macbeth, Arcadia and The Coast of Utopia, and she also appeared in American TV shows Sex and the Cityand The Good Wife.
When she returned to South Africa in 2016, Bianca took a brief break to raise her daughter, Juliette, who’s now one.
She says she couldn’t refuse when the opportunity to get back into show business came knocking. “One of the creators of the show called me and said, ‘How would you like to be reunited with Hlomla?’ I had just started working again and I jumped at the chance to come on board for a bit.
“Returning to South Africa, I thought it would be lovely for my reintroduction into the industry to be a reunion with Hlomla, so this was just perfect.”
Hlomla has left his footprint all over South African screens, with roles in Jacob’s Cross, Scandal!, End Game and Zero Tolerance to name a few. He’s no stranger to the big screen either – his movie credits include Fools, Red Dust and the Hollywood flick Lord of War.
The seasoned actor was elated when he heard he’d be reunited with his TV wife.
“It almost seemed too good to be true. I had lots of fun when I worked with Bianca. We were both very young. An opportunity to work with her again was definitely appealing to me.”
FAME AND FAMILY
Before love-related shows such as Uyang’thanda Na? and Fix My Love came along, Hlomla endeared himself to South Africans as the presenter of popular reality dating show All You Need is Love.
He’s a familiar face on small and big screens, yet Hlomla prefers to keep his personal life private. The doting dad reveals his children generally don’t watch any of the work he’s done.
“I don’t want them to see me as anything but their dad and I’m particularly sensitive to how much damage things like fame can cause, especially to young people.”
Meanwhile, when Bianca isn’t on set she works as a voice artist on audiobooks.
She also offers private coaching lessons at a studio in Greenside, Johannesburg, for actors who are “looking to sharpen their craft and find clarity and direction in their performance”.
But it’s her family that brings her the most joy. She’s been married to husband Neil for some time.
“Both my husband and I have family here and we wanted our child to have family. We needed the support and it’s going great. We’re really happy,” she says. Bianca smiles as she walks back to the set of The River, shoulder to shoulder with one of her favourite co-stars.