STELIO SAVANTE

Image: Shaun Hill

There is a tough reason why Stelio Savante is perhaps the hardest working South African in Hollywood. As a character actor, he’s now performing in at least half a dozen projectsa year – from movies like A Million Colours to TV series like The Making of the Mob. He also serves as a co-producer on many – casting fellow actors and also, he says, recruiting young South African talent whenever possible.

The 45-year-old former Capetonian recently drafted Kathleen Turner and Sarita Choudhury for a new Broadway play, in which he will act alongside David Morse. The production, called Jeremiah 5:1, is likely to cement Savante’s reputation as the actor-producer who has championed the theatre world’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Though they know him to be passionate about his craft, his managers, he says, complain that his work rate seems excessive.

If there is a project that speaks to something personal 
for me – those are the roles I’m drawn to – Stelio Savante

But Savante recently told Wanted that illness was partly driving his output: he has an auto-immune disorder called Hashimoto’s disease and is suffering the severe depression it triggers. This, on top of the celiac disease he has been battling for years. Savante says: “For me, it’s been a very solid few yearsof work in all three mediums – but, recently, it’s also been a very tough few months on the health side. I had no idea I was suffering from depression – all I knew wthat my energy levels were way down, and I’d get upset about nothing.

“The most focused I ever am is when I’m focused on a character I’m playing – it takes all my attention, so I don’t focus on Stelio. That’s why, to a fault, I’m workingso much. I love spending time with my family, but, beyond that – down time is very dangerous for me.” In September 2001, Savante witnessed the second plane hitting the World Trade Center – an experience that affected him both personally and professionally. 

In 2011, he produced and performed in an iconic, 10th anniversary play to commemorate the everyday heroes from that day – called 110 Stories – in which he  cast actors like Samuel L Jackson and Melissa Leo. Now, in Jeremiah 5:1, Savante will play the true-life role of a terror double-agent, who – after intense inner conflict – allows himself to be recruited to hunt down 9/11 accomplices in New York. 

“If there is a project that speaks to something personal for me – be it a 9/11 play or something that deals with a human rights issue – those are the roles I’m drawn to, and where I might offer my services as a producer also.” In 2007, Savante became the first male South African to receive a Screen Actors Guild nomination, for his role in the hit TV series Ugly Betty. He’ll be seen next on the big screen in two very different films: a Lionsgate family movie, Army Dog, anda critically acclaimed biopic by legendary director Peter Greenaway, called Eisenstein in Guanajuato.


PATRICIA LAMBERT

Image: Shaun Hill

One South African human rights lawyer in the US heads an effort whose goal is nothing less than to save a billion lives over the next century. And she may already have saved lives on a scale normally associated with famed vaccine researchers and peace negotiators. Formerly an adviser to Nelson Mandela’s administration, Patricia Lambert, 61, is now head of a New York-based organisation that helps the world’s poorest governments fight back against big tobacco. 

The Rhodes University alumnus is director of that industry’s nemesis: the International Legal Consortium for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. “I’m in the business of saving lives,” she says. “That’s a compelling reason to go to work each day. Every young person who doesn’t take up smoking and every person who stops smoking is a life saved.” Even Lambert’s personal life seems to exist at the sharp edge of human rights battles in the US.

In 2007, she was forced to return to SA to be able to marry her American girlfriend, because US federal law at the time did not fully recognise same-sex marriage. She chose the Cradle of Humankind at Sterkfontein in Gauteng as the place for her wedding, and Women’s Day as the date. In 2013, she and her wife were among those who celebrated on the steps of the US Supreme Court after its discriminatory Defence of Marriage Act was struck down.

Lambert is the lawyer who spear-headed SA’s domestic anti-smoking laws, under then health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. But it was her role as the lead South African negotiator on the major global treaty on smoking – the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (2005) – which brought her skills to global prominence. According to a recent report by the World Health Organisation, that treaty – which binds 168 countries to limits on smoking – is set to save 7.4-million lives by 2050.

But the problem, says Lambert, lies in the implementation – and even the deliberate sabotage – of the life-saving regulation. She says the giant tobacco industry is actively threatening developing countries with costly legal action if they dare to implement their own tobacco control laws. Namibia, Togo and Uganda are among the governments that have come under attack from tobacco firms.

Established by billionaire New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids is the legal and advocacy shield for developing nations. Lambert says: “Why do people smoke? Because there is a powerful industry that markets the deadly products without conscience, and motivated by easy profit. So that means that I’m also in the business of fighting against the tobacco industry.”

However, she is undaunted by the notorious tactics of big tobacco, and her team are actively training lawyers around the world on how to stand firm against intimidation. “We’ve created an online database called Tobacco Control Laws, which contains more than 1 500 laws and regulations from 200 countries. Before I was a lawyer I was a teacher. I am energised by our regular inperson seminars for lawyers from around the world.”

Lambert adds: “The roots of my current work are in SA, which I still call home. If current consumption trends continue, tobacco is projected to kill 1-billion people in the 21st century. If I’m successful in my work, this dire prediction will not come true.”


MANKEKOLO MAHLANGUNGCOBO

Image: Shaun Hill

Reverend Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo has emerged as a prominent voice on an astonishing array of issues in the US capital: gender equity,spirituality, civil rights, public health and South African opportunity. And, sometimes, she’s simply a voice on the phone – cold-calling American voters as a humble volunteer in support of Democrat politicians at even the lowest levels of power. 

Having fled to the US as a political exile in the 1980s, Mahlangu-Ngcobo helped arrange Nelson Mandela’s first visit to the US – and her daughter, Ntokozo Ngcobo, wasamong the children who famously greeted the icon on the airport apron. The 63-year-old has since written nine books, obtained four degrees, become a sought-after lecturer in public health, served as a US elections judge, intervened in gender violence in Liberia, championed education projects in Soweto and founded both a church and an international ministry.

In times of collective grief for SA’s diaspora in the US – like the Marikana massacre, or Mandela’s death – Mahlangu-Ngcobo is the pastor who generally leads the spiritual commemoration. In December, she joined ambassador Mninwa Mahlangu in laying a wreath to commemorate the second anniversary of Madiba’s passing. But due to her dedication to civic participation she can also be found defending rights and promoting equality at the local and even neighbourhood level around Baltimore, east of the capital.

“This year is interesting and challenging (in politics) – for Baltimore, for Maryland, and for the national election campaigns,” she says. “In Baltimore we have 15 mayoral candidates running in the primaries. In Maryland we have two Democrats in the US Senate. In Maryland, one of our senators, BarbaraMikulski, is retiring and two congresspersons – one a white male, and one an African-American woman – are running for her seat.

There is heated politics over race and gender. My daughter, Ntokozo Ngcobo, is working full time in one of the senate campaigns. Maryland cannot afford to replace a woman senator with a male, and the senate has been (virtually) all white – it is now time to change it.” Of the chaotic US presidential election campaign, she says: “There is the issue of the first woman president – Hillary Clinton – and of economic equality: Bernie Saunders.

On the Republican side, with Donald Trump winning and violence erupting at his rallies, and calling for building walls to bar illegal immigrants, it is looking interesting how it will play out.” Mahlangu-Ngcobo says she and her colleagues at Morgan State University – where Graça Machel recently spoke – are working on an exchange programme for South African students.


SHAUN TOMSON

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SA’s most famous wave-rider is now bent on building a wave in his adopted society in the US: a wave of positivityand entrepreneurial inspiration he hopes 
will empower young people the world over. Having lost his son, Mathew, to a dangerous teen game in 2006, Shaun Tomson – former world surfing champion and retail clothing entrepreneur – has dedicated his life to providing teens with decision making tools which, he says, will give them a better chance at success, and even of survival. 

As an author, Tomson followed his bestselling book, Surfer’s Code, with the recent release of The Code – The Power of I Will. The new book invites teens to make a dozen written pledges to themselves – a project that has been endorsed by leading US paediatric psychiatrists and praised by USsnowboard superstar Shaun White. “I believe your attitude is what drives your behaviour– to change, you first need to change your attitude,”

Tomson says. “Studies of Facebook postings show that behaviour can be affected through viral contagion. When they took out positive words from Facebook feeds,it resulted in more negative postings. If they took out negative words, it resulted in more positive postings. It’s a classic fight between goodwill and bad will, and we need to be engaged for good.” Tomson says his newest project – LifeCode – adds a critical layer of revenue for teens to the pledge idea while providing an outlet for creativity and peer inspiration.

LifeCode creates an online framework for young people to design T-shirts around inspiring personal “I Will” statements. The shirts will be produced using ecofriendly, direct-to-garment methods and marketed on social media, with revenues flowing to the teen and to their school and online peer promoter.
Tomson says: “To keep the movement sustainable we need to create a capitalistic motivation for kids, and then there’s the added self-respect and confidence that flows from actually making revenue.

“What kids do is just incredible, how they see life – they just see life differently to adults. There’s a nobility there that is mind-blowing.” As a speaker, Tomson has shared the stage with business icons like Sir Richard Branson. And his “I Will” concept has been incorporated into the business philosophies of US companies such as Sonos and South African firms like Cavi Brands. “My goal is to create a positive wave, sustained by the commitments and creativity of youth,” he says.


DR GORDON CRAGG

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As a society, one of the US’s most romantic dreams is to develop a “miracle” 
cancer drug sourced from an exotic rain forest somewhere. Dr Gordon Cragg – a former Rhodes University chemistry graduate – is helping keep that dream alive. For 15 years, Cragg was the head of the Natural Products division of the US National Cancer Institute, effectively serving as the lead diplomat in charge of protecting the world’s forests and jungles for the purpose of medical research. 

I’ve never given up hope for a wonder drug sourced directly from natural products; I remain optimistic Natural products have been my enduring passion
– Dr Gordon Cragg

His team helped to find and protect important natural compounds, which led to developing major anticancer drugs such as Taxol. Cragg – who is now working as a consultant in Maryland – says he never saw a true “miracle cure” 
emerge from the forests and jungles he protected and investigated – the kind of eureka compound seen in the Sean Connery movie Medicine Man. Some of the most effective compounds have been found in far less romantic environments, he adds – such as one breakthrough statin drug that was sourced from a fungus found on a Japanese golf course. His work often involves sustainability.

For instance, it was not enough, he says, that the active compound for Taxol – a treatment for breast and ovarian cancers – was discovered in the bark of the Pacific yew tree in Oregon. The challenge was that you’d need three entire trees for a single course of treatment for one patient. Cragg has had to protect both diversity and quantity in medically promising flora and fauna. 

He has been recognised with major US awards – including the 2006 William L Brown Award for Plant Genetic Resources – for the role he has played in preserving the biodiversity that may yet result in one of those miracles. For his work on biodiversity in Brazil, in particular, he has had a plant species named in his honour: Ludia craggiana “I’ve never given up hope for a wonder drug sourced directly from natural products; I remain optimistic,” he says. “Natural products have been my enduring passion.”


April 2016

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