Meet the phenomenal Mbali Maphumulo who is, among other things, a two-time breast cancer survivor, a mother, activist and a triple-threat singer, dancer, actress and producer. We speak to her about her remarkable journey.

Mbali looks breathtaking on the set of our photo shoot in Rosebank. She is a powerful symbol of strength and courage. ‘I am very strong,’ she says, not mincing her words. She is part of the #ClearTheStigma Campaign a Jet breast cancer drive aimed at educating and spreading a message of hope to fight the societal stigma surrounding breast cancer in some communities. ‘I push the same messages in my personal capacity,’ she says, ‘to encourage dialogue.’ Mbali was first diagnosed with breast cancer when she was just shy of turning 21 in 2001, and again five years later, when she was a young single mother with no family in a foreign country. ‘My journey taught me that happiness is in the little things,’ she smiles.

Mbali was born in Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal. ‘Sadly, my parents passed away when I was 13 years old,’ she says. Her aunt took her in and raised her as her own, and Mbali considers her aunt’s six children her siblings. ‘We lived in a one-room shack,’ she says. ‘Everything was in that room. 

It was the bedroom and the kitchen.’ She adds that it’s where her resilience comes from. She is not one for a pity party.‘I had a nice childhood,’ she smiles. ‘I don’t have a sob story to tell. My aunt never ill-treated me. I wouldn’t change anything about my childhood.’ That is why she made it a point to build her aunt a house when she started earning an income.

“Allow your will power to do its work. You are stronger than your pain. Imagine that this, too, shall pass. Tap into that feeling of surviving.”

Mbali says cancer is in her family genes – her mother, aunt and grandmother all had cancer, as well as her brother Sandile (her aunt’s oldest son), who was diagnosed with cancer and given three months to live, but defeated it. He is Mbali’s inspiration and she wrote a song for him. Yet she was still not prepared for her own diagnosis. ‘My breasts were sore,’ she says, ‘with a rash and discolouration.’ The ointment she was given didn’t work, which meant a return visit to the doctor, who then suggested they run tests. ‘I was in denial when I received the results,’ she says. 
But she had a mastectomy (one breast removed) and following the operation was cancer-free until its return in 2006, when she was 26 and living in Europe, working on The Lion King

She was fortunate to have caught it at an early stage. ‘I knew the symptoms,’ she says. ‘That is my song – if you are vigilant, you can catch it early and stop it.’ So she had her other breast removed, too. Mbali constantly reminds herself that things could be worse. ‘Allow your will power to do its work,’ she says. ‘Often pain makes you feel you are weaker than you are. You are stronger than your pain. Imagine that this, too, shall pass. Tap into that feeling of surviving.’

‘Life has taught me a lot,’ she says. ‘I had my family taken from me when I was young, but my aunt took me in. There is no need to dwell on what I don’t have.’

As a result of chemotherapy, she had to have a bilateral hip replacement (both hips replaced). ‘My bones are fragile,’ she says, ‘but it is a small price to pay for gaining 15 more years of my life.’

Mbali believes that we are still a long way from rooting out the mistaken beliefs that cause stigma around cancer. ‘In some cultures,’ she says, ‘people believe cancer means you are paying for something you did. A lot still needs to change.’

She adds that the disease has taught her to be content with who she is, and what she has. ‘You count your blessings,’ she smiles. ‘Being close to death makes you rethink everything. Knowing that it can come back teaches you to appreciate the small things.’

Mbali’s acting career began with the stage. After matriculation, she says, there wasn’t money for tertiary education so she decided to study towards a somatology qualification (somatology is the study of the human body). After completing her studies, finding work in the beauty industry wasn’t easy however, and as fate would have it, her cousin convinced her to try her hand at acting – and she has never looked back. She worked with a Pretoria stage production company and then, at the age of 19, moved to Gauteng. 

After two weeks in the City of Gold she landed a part in the globally acclaimed stage play Umoja – Spirit of Togetherness. The award-winning The Lion King followed a year later, which meant moving to Hamburg, Germany – an opportunity she seized with both hands. ‘I took my daughter Nomzamo with me,’ she says, ‘but due to the language barrier, we didn’t stay there for too long.’ After four years in Hamburg, they relocated to the United States, where she lived for another four years. ‘After nearly 10 years abroad,’ she says, ‘I’d had enough.’ Having seen many of her former colleagues move back home only to struggle to find work, Mbali did the clever thing. ‘Before coming back,’ she says, ‘I took a six-month break from The Lion King and joined Muvhango, to test the waters.’

At the end of 2009 she finally decided to move back home. ‘The transition was tough,’ she recalls. ‘I had bought a house but was no longer earning dollars and struggled to find a job.’ This meant selling her house and swapping it for a more modest one. ‘It took me nine months before I could secure my first big role,’ she says. ‘If you are used to working, not having a steady income can be really tough.’

A post shared by Mbali Lagacy (@mbalilagacy) on

Since then, however, she’s had prominent roles on shows such as’s 4Play: Sex Tips for Girls, the Mzansi Magic miniseries Abangani, Isibaya and The Wild, and the SABC1 drama series Tempy Pushas. Currently, she is working on multiple projects as a producer. She has also been in and out of studio recording new music, with a track set to release soon. Listen out…

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· She hardly ever wears earrings
· She enjoys eating and making traditional African food
· She is allergic to dust
· She is a former model
· Her favourite social media apps are WhatsApp and Facebook

MBALI MAPHUMULO: A TRUE SURVIVOR MBALI MAPHUMULO: A TRUE SURVIVOR Reviewed by Jet Club on September 27, 2019 Rating: 5
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