Sandra Prinsloo kissed John Kani. The onstage kiss ignited a firestorm. She was a white woman; he was a black man. She was playing the title role in Miss Julie while Kani played her lover. It was the eighties in South Africa – a country governed by nonsensical laws like the Immorality Act, which prohibited sexual relations between white people and those of other races.
“A lot of my peers said to me, ‘I think you’ve gone too far now,’ and I just couldn’t understand it,” Prinsloo says. She kissed Kani over thirty years ago. Apartheid is over. Since then, she has appeared in dozens of films and innumerable theatre productions, cementing her standing as the country’s doyenne of theatre and film. But that kiss is still the moment that defines her career.
An independent thinker from the start, Prinsloo’s defiant spirit emerged when she was young. Born into a conservative Afrikaans family, she rebelled against the rigidity of school and the strictness of the church. “I didn’t like the way we were forced to think – you weren’t allowed to be a free thinker,” she says.
Trained as a ballet dancer from an early age, she didn’t grow up imagining she would become an actor. “It wasn’t something I ever thought I would do,” she says. “I was far too shy in those days. It wasn’t as if I had this great big burning passion – I never went to drama school thinking that I was going to be an actress, absolutely not.” The unlikely drama major minored in languages – just in case.
So convinced was Prinsloo that acting wasn’t for her, she turned down a full time contract with the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal (PACT) during her final year at University. “It wasn’t because I was arrogant,” she says. “It was because I really didn’t think I was going to crack it as an actress.” But when the opportunity to play a prodigious role in a PACT production came about, she couldn’t say no.
“This sounds very esoteric and stupid,” Prinsloo says. “But it was as if something absolutely magical happened that night, as if this golden net came down. Everybody in the cast felt it. There was this exchange of energy between the audience and the actors. It was so tangible.” After that night, she realised the stage was where she wanted to spend her days. “I could never imagine another place where you could live in such magic – even if it is only for an hour or two.”
It was once she left PACT for the celebrated Market Theatre in Johannesburg that Prinsloo began to come into her own as an actress. Founded in 1976, the Market Theatre was known for its role in challenging apartheid, becoming known as South Africa’s ‘Theatre of Struggle’. While the nation’s political climate was hardly conducive to artistic development, the theatre was a haven for like-minded artists where they could create and experiment freely.
“It was an amazing place,” Prinsloo says. “We worked for no money, we were incredibly poor. Still, it was a wonderful place to be. There were so many talented and passionate people – you couldn’t not be if you joined because it was all about ideas and change. It was very exciting.”
It was while at the Market Theatre that Prinsloo became more aware of the radical racial divisions in the country. “I think I fully began to see what was going on,” she says. “It was the time of the riots and of burning buses and the Market Theatre was really at the centre of it. It was surrounded by this revolution that was going on in the streets, of people saying ‘enough.’”
In the early eighties, Prinsloo was offered the lead role in of a production of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. A dream part for any actress, fellow Market Theatre alum John Kani was opposite her. The story of a doomed affair between a wealthy socialite and her lowly valet, Prinsloo and Kani both knew that the depiction of an interracial relationship on stage would cause a stir.
“I suppose one lives in a bit of a fool’s paradise when you’re an actor,” Prinsloo says. “You live in a very free-thinking, protected environment.” It was into this sheltered, progressive atmosphere that the vitriol of the apartheid government and its supporters seeped.
First staged in Cape Town during the height of apartheid, Miss Julie marked the first on-stage kiss shared between a white woman and a black man. Prinsloo’s role in the play was met with harassment and threats from many in the conservative Afrikaner community. Although she had expected some backlash, the severity of the reactions surprised her.
After a number of years at the Market Theatre, Prinsloo left to pursue the life of a freelance actress. She was ever particularly interested in a transition from theatre to film – “I had always thought it a bit inferior” – but it was through a movie called The Gods Must Be Crazy that she would become ingrained in the South African consciousness.
“I actually thought it was quite awful the first time I saw it,” Prinsloo says. “I thought, ‘Oh, what have I done? I’m in this silly movie looking like a bit of a fool.” The comedy took a while to find its audience but has since become a cult classic. A zany farce about a San Bushman who encounters modern civilization, Prinsloo is still surprised at what a hit it has become. “People come up to me every day and tell me how much they love it.”
Earlier in 2014, she was awarded the Presidential Award: Order of Ikhamanga for her contribution in the performing arts and applying her talents to take a stand against racism. With a career that has spanned over forty years and multiple awards for her work both on stage and screen, Prinsloo has become adored by audiences across the nation.
Now in her sixties, she remains passionate about the arts in South Africa and continues to work as an actor. With two movies in the works and her own production company, she’s as in-demand as ever. “I’m incredibly fortunate,” she says. “I’m still doing exciting and interesting work. It’s a good place for an older actress to be – there are still proper parts out there, which is wonderful.”
One of South Africa’s most treasured entertainers, Sandra Prinsloo is revered not just for her craft but also for stepping into the firing line during a volatile time in history and standing up as an ally. “It was like swimming through a dirty pool underwater. You just couldn’t rationalise any of it,” she says of the period.
Today she is proud to call herself a South African, the anger and mistrust she admits to feeling toward her people during apartheid behind her. While her talent is irrefutable, it was her use those talents to confront an unjust society that is part of why she is so beloved by South Africa – a love that she reciprocates. “South African people are extraordinary,” Prinsloo says. “And not just in terms of talent. What makes us so remarkable is that inclination of ordinary people to do the most extraordinary things.”