Sophie Lichaba is the epitome of a strong woman: she’s not afraid to talk about her struggles with diabetes and depression, and now she’s taking her message to the screen with her latest role, as Palesa in Lockdown.
“Palesa is a broken woman,” she says, “and a lot of South African women will identify with her.”
A devastating love triangle
Although she’s the head nurse at Kgotsong Asylum, Palesa herself is definitely not okay. She’s caught up in a love triangle with her former husband and Deborah, the governor at Thabazimbi Women’s Correctional Facility, where most of the Lockdown action takes place. And her man is bad news.
I still have struggles, so for me it was so personal. Palesa still has a long way to go, and so do I.”Sophie Lichaba
“Palesa was mentally abused by this guy, even after their divorce, and he continues to abuse her, and takes advantage of the fact that she loves him more than he loves her. I think a lot of South African women are going to identify with the story.”
“The fact she works in a mental hospital doesn’t make it any easier,” says Sophie. “How do you recover from low self-esteem when the man who runs that hospital is the man you’re crying for? Many South African women are going to see her pain and see themselves in her, even though their stories are different.”
No stranger to the rumour mill
Sophie had to endure many people saying she was dying after she was diagnosed with diabetes and shed a lot of weight.
“The rumours affected everyone who knows and loves me. My son even missed class after hearing a rumour that I was dying – I’ve taught him that diabetes is a silent killer that doesn’t give you time for goodbyes, so when they hear things like that, my kids believe it. It’s devastating. It’s as if people are playing games with my life.”
But the dark times she’s endured have given her character an incredible depth.
“I drew on my personal pain, having a whole country say you are such-and-such a person, when you know you are not like that at all. I’ve been attacked in my personal life often – people have said and thought the most painful things. I still have struggles, so for me it was so personal. Palesa still has a long way to go, and so do I.”
Her perfect role
It’s no coincidence that Palesa’s struggles so strongly echo Sophie’s own challenges. The writers wrote the role with her in mind and then contacted her out of the blue on social media.
“They inboxed me on Instagram,” she says, “and said, ‘we wrote this for you’. It’s so amazing that directors and producers are thinking out of the box. They tapped into what they know about who I am now and then they matched it. I’m not just an actress who’s going to go and read this – I am the role. I also did a lot of research into things like what really happens in jail.”
Sophie found the authenticity of Lockdown helpful
Lockdown has long been praised for bringing a high level of authenticity to the show, and this season is no different. The series is shot at Constitution Hill, the old prison complex in Johannesburg that once held prisoners including Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
“It was really helpful shooting at Constitution Hill. You hear the stories that work on your mind; you walk down the real passages of the actual mental hospital; you see the way the inmates walked and talked. Some of the extras are former prisoners. Because of the experiences they’ve had, the way they act is as real as it gets. When they say or do something, you feel it.”
Fortunately, Sophie has conquered her demons, both internal and external, and is ready to tackle the next challenges life throws at her. She’s relaunching her events company, expanding her shisa nyama empire, and has more acting roles in the works. Watch this exciting space!
Watch Sophie’s thrilling story arc when you binge all 10 episodes of Lockdown S5, available to stream on Showmax.