Model Thando Hopa is multi faceted. She’s a former prosecutor, an aspirant actress, poet and an activitist for people whose inherited condition could make them a target for murder.
When you were still working as a prosecutor, how did you balance life between working in law and modelling?
TH: Being a prosecutor was my priority and if there was ever a clash, I chose the law. It was usually manageable, however, it was also emotionally exhausting. Trying to juggle two worlds that were completely different felt like I was spreading myself thin at times. But to me the court cases were urgent and important; the modelling was important too, but not always urgent – so it was easier to lean more toward prioritising my cases.
Why did you decide on law as a career path?
TH: Law was a question of security, but prosecution was a question of compatibility. I actually wanted to be an actress after high school, however, it offered little job security, so I opted for law as a medium of expression that also offered a sense of stability. Prosecution, however, was a genuine choice of the kind of lawyer I wanted to be. I wanted to do something I felt would make a difference in people’s lives. After I discovered Street Law at varsity, I knew I wanted to do something meaningful in my life.
And why did you decide to take a break from it?
TH: After four years I felt it was time to look into interests I had put off. I felt like the only way to do it was to fully commit to the process. So I took a sabbatical. I went through an agonising decision-making process but after weighing everything, I knew it was time to leave. But leaving prosecution did not take away my voice, my purpose or my sense of a meaningful life. So I made the leap.
Last year you were invited to the Sundance Director’s Lab workshop. What did you learn there?
TH: I learnt the importance of vulnerability as a performer. I learnt that you and the director both tell the story and get to know the character together. I learnt that the hardest thing to do is truly let go and trust the process; that wanting to be perfect makes you lose out on spontaneous moments that could tell a story more beautifully than you can imagine.
Do you see yourself acting in a Hollywood film anytime soon?
TH: I really love independent films because of the level of creative control the parties involved have. Hollywood would be wonderful, but I would love to engage more in storytelling that is experimental as opposed to stories that follow a linear success formula.
When designer Gert-Johan Coetzee approached you to model for him, you were reluctant at first. Why?
TH: Modelling was never part of my plans. I had a negative perception about it. I associated modelling with objectification, obsession with conventional looks and shallowness.
And what made you change your mind?
TH: My sister persuaded me otherwise. She made me realise that modelling in itself can create a voice and a platform regarding perceptions and stereotypes. Then I decided to try it out although I doubt I would’ve continued if I didn’t work collectively with Gert-Johan Coetzee and my publicist, Melinda Shaw.I needed to work with people who could see this vision or else there was no point in delving into this profession.
You’re also a poet. Where did your passion for poetry come from?
TH: I read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë and I fell in love with all the images I saw through her words – I think this is where it all started. I then moved into watching spoken word poetry sessions and started performing in open mic sessions.
You also recently signed a deal with Audi. What’s the synergy between yourself and the brand?
TH: I was part of Audi’s “Untaggable” campaign in early 2017, which was appropriate for me because I was never just one thing. I never wanted to be a stereotype, I never aimed for it nor did I fit well into boxes. ‘Untaggable’ was my living truth, it embraced the uniqueness that shaped my life.
Growing up, you were often subjected to stereotyping and discrimination. Which stereotypes about albinism are people most uneducated about?
TH: It was the contradictory beliefs that people with albinism bring either good or bad luck. Having people hug and hold me for good luck, or conversely spit into the necklines of their tops to ward off bad luck or make a big show of not wanting to touch me for fear of becoming like me or having children who are like me. I felt like a walking commodity, struggling to find words to explain how ordinary I am.
Then the name-calling came and words like inkawu (“monkey”), leswafe (“a bleached thing”) and isishawa (“curse”) was used when people spoke about me. Even worse, some people would use these dehumanising words without batting an eyelid because in our languages these are the only available words for the condition.
Now, fortunately, there is a move towards changing this; a country like Tanzania has already taken the first step by working with media and campaigning to introduce a less derogatory term for albinism, from zeru zeru (“ghostlike creature”) to watu wenye ulemavu wa ngozi (“people with skin disability”). That’s still not perfect, but there is discourse about adapting it further, and at least the dialogue is educational and a step in the right direction.
In your opinion, what constitutes beauty?
TH: I’ll dare say that it’s the feeling that you are enough; not perfect, but fully and wholeheartedly enough.
Your parents often encouraged you to live life with no limits, despite people telling you otherwise. What challenges did they face in raising you?
TH: My mom had to learn how to raise a child who was different from her other two children. I needed sunscreen and visual aids, which was a challenge to our modest means. Some people thought I was white and it sometimes caused tension for her.
Both my parents were always told about the things I would not be able to do.
They were told I would be colour blind, then at school they were told I wouldn’t cope in a mainstream school. I think it took bravery to raise a child who was so different from what they knew. Trying to instill a sense of self-worth and self-esteem was another challenge; they monitored me closely and they had to find ways to relate to me because I would always tell them how little they understood.
Can we as South Africans do more to raise awareness around albinism?
TH: The thing about awareness is that it’s never enough until the aspirations of equal and inclusive treatment are fulfilled. However, our government has been willing to work with civil society organisations such as the Albinism Society of South Africa about issues surrounding albinism and has been active in implementing policies.
The United Nations regional action plan has been endorsed by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. This means that Africa as a continent should collectively work together to fight against social exclusion, discrimination, unfair treatment and violence against people with albinism.
There’s a lot to be done in terms of education to dispel superstition: raising awareness, providing of visual aids and accessibility of sunscreen, especially in rural areas; however, there are certainly continuous steps being taken in getting there.
You’re an activist for albinism awareness. What are some of the misconceptions with albinism in Africa, and what’s the solution?
TH: The supernatural attributes ascribed to people who have albinism are a huge problem. Whether we are considered good or bad luck, cursed, immortal or whatever, all of these are hurdles that dehumanise us. I cringe when people talk about albinism and say we are “human like everybody else” – automatically suggesting inferiority. Having to convince others you are, in fact, a human being is something no-one should be subjected to. I know the speaker might mean well, and it’s a message that some people need to hear, but it still makes me cringe.
That’s why I felt integration of images was important in media, television and film. We need people with albinism in roles that create relatability, and remove the portrayal of “otherness”. People should see themselves and their daily lives, hopes, suffering and dreams being played out by someone who doesn’t look like them but is really just like them.
By embracing identities that are beyond the stereotype, art and media can humanise stories and characters. It would also help to have albinism entered into a curriculum such as biology throughout Africa, so that the next generation is better equipped to understand the condition through scientific explanation. Then teachers can also provide solid solutions to learners who struggle with eyesight and skin sensitivity. This would encourage a system of not only integration but inclusion too.
What would your message of inspiration be to women in general?
TH: Be kind to yourself, all the time.
Fast-fire Q&A with Thando
Lately I quite enjoy reading random monologues. It’s slowly becoming an obsession.
What music are your currently listening to?
Folk rock, because it has some lovely poetry.
Most memorable quote?
“I want people to remember me as someone whose life has been helpful to humanity” – Thomas Sankara (my recent favourite)
My pillow at night. Its huggable, cuddly, soft and super low maintenance.
Morning sunshine through the window. The author Chris Wind and her amusing thoughts. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and her story that unfolds more with time. Ancient Southern African female leaders who were misunderstood, bold and brave, and who dared to take on a vision bigger than themselves. My most important inspiration is my parents: their dedication to self-correct, improve and touch people’s lives has made me lucky enough to witness this phenomenon firsthand and decide what kind of person I aim to be.
Sushi and sushi and sushi
PHOTO: LOURENS REYNEKE/SHAW MEDIA