Contrary to what we learned at the 2010 World Cup, Shakira is not actually South African. But there are famous people who are. Whether they claim their South African heritage or it was just a place where they were born before they moved, the country can still call them its own. And as you’ll see, the Rainbow Nation has managed to produce some pretty impressive people.
Although Steve Nash moved to Canada when he was only 18 months old, he was born in Johannesburg to a Welsh mother and an English father. He didn’t start playing basketball until he was 12 or 13 (like all good Canadians, he focused more on hockey) but told his mother that one day he would play in the NBA and would be a star. Pretty good prediction, given that he now plays for the Lakers and is a two-time NBA MVP and an eight-time NBA All-Star.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State (now Free State Province) and lived there until he moved to England at age 3 after his father’s death. Best known for authoring the Lord of the Rings series written between 1937 and 1949, Tolkien also addressed societal issues in other works, expressing his opposition for Stalinism, socialism, and his disgust of racism. He even wrote a fairly well-read piece about racism in South Africa at the time.
Charlize Theron is one of the few people on this list who actually grew in South Africa (her first language is Afrikaans). Born in Benoni in the then-Transvaal Province, she grew up on her parents’ farm outside Johannesburg. At 13, she was sent to boarding school and began studying at the National School of the Arts in Johannesburg until she moved to Los Angeles at 19 to join the movie business.
Born in Johannesburg, Dave Matthews moved around between New York and England from age 2 to 10, but returned to Johannesburg with his family. After graduating from high school in 1985, he was conscripted into the South African military but left the country to avoid service. A Quaker, he considered himself a pacifist and unable to fight. Fun fact: Matthews worked for IBM for a short time before he joined the music world and became the rocker we all know and love today.
We’ll go back a little bit to a time where the measure of a celebrity wasn’t based upon US Weekly magazine covers. Glynis Johns won a Tony award for creating the character of Desiree Armfeldt in “A Little Night Music” on Broadway. She is also especially remembered for playing Winifred Banks, the mother of the looked-after children in “Mary Poppins.” She received an Oscar nomination for her role in the 1960 film “The Sundowners.” Born and raised in Pretoria to British parents, Johns became the first person ever to croon the lyrics to the famous song “Send in the Clowns.”
The famous 1980s rock band “Yes” had Trevor Rabin in the front, as guitarist, songwriter, bass guitarist, and keyboardist. A hit-recording band in the late 60s and 70s, they did not reach huge success until Rabin joined. “Owner of a Lonely Heart” written by Rabin became a smash hit and a timeless classic rock sensation. Born in Johannesburg to British parents, Rabin’s father was the lead violinist for the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra.
One of Hollywood’s “wild childs,” Phillips has been in and out of a film career ever since her teenage years. While seemingly American as cheeseburgers, Phillips grew up much of her childhood splitting time between New York, California and South Africa, on account of her South African model mother Genevieve Waite and her Mamas and the Papas singer John Phillips.
Richard E. Grant
Recognize this guy? Born in Swaziland, his father held the position of the final Minister of Education before the British colony was emancipated in 1968. His mother was of German South African origin. Grant studied drama at the University of Cape Town, and became quite successful in film and theater in London, especially from his breakthrough role in the bizarre British comedy “Withnail and I.” Otherwise, he is spotted in films like “Gosford Park,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” and TV shows like “Downton Abbey” and “Girls.”
Remember in the movie “The Mummy” when the spirit of that really buff guy turns into the mummy, gross little scarabs running in and out of his mouth? That was a South African guy named Arnold Vosloo. He has taken his iconic position in action film history with that role, and his part in the subsequent “The Mummy Returns.” Before that swashbuckling, Vosloo was pretty notable in the Pretoria theater scene, having won awards for playing Hamlet and Don Juan. A Dutch and German Afrikaner, he has also been featured in South African cinema, including the hit film “Forgiveness,” and has been seen in “Blood Diamond” and “G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra.”
In “Schindler’s List,” there is the sub-plot with the evil Nazi general played by Ralph Fiennes, unhealthily obsessed with his Jewish maid. This was Embeth Davidtz’s breakout role into serious cinema. Though not Hollywood celebrity status, she is wildly talented and has been in prominent roles in over 40 films, including “Matilda,” “Junebug,” The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and TV shows “Californication,” and “Mad Men.” Born in Indiana, her parents were South African, and they relocated back to the country so her father could teach at Potchefstroom University. She earned an English degree at Rhodes University, and speaks fluent Afrikaans.
Although she was born in New York City, Miller’s mother is a South African-born former model, so she gets South African status even though she is widely considered British-American. An actress, model and fashion designer, she recently spent a considerable amount of time in her mother’s country while on set filming The Girl, set in Cape Town.
“The Big Easy,” or Ernest “Ernie” Els grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, and was one of the top golfers in the world. He had 65 career victories including two U.S. Open victories in 1994 and 1997. Inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011, he is one of only six golfers to win both the U.S. Open and the Open Championship twice. Els has a charitable foundation that helps low-income kids in South Africa learn to play golf.
Seventeen-year-old Sasha Pieterse, now known for her role as Alison DiLaurentis on Pretty Little Liars, was born in Johannesburg before moving to the U.S. Currently the youngest actress on the CW Network show, she began acting at age 6. Pieterse is also working on a country music album and has released several singles. Apparently they start ‘em young over in Joburg.
Orlando Bloom…sort of OK, so this one gets a bit tricky. During Orlando Bloom’s childhood, he was told that his father, Harry Saul Bloom, was his mother’s husband – a Jewish South African-born anti-Apartheid novelist. Nine years after Harry’s death, Orlando learned at age 13 that his biological father was actually Colin Stone, a family friend, who became Orlando’s legal guardian. So he can be considered South African for 13 years at least.
The newest “Gleek,” Dean Geyer was relatively unknown to American audiences until he landed the role as Brody Weston on the fourth season of Glee. However, before that, he finished in third place on Australian Idol and briefly had a band named “Third Edge.” Geyer also calls Johannesburg home, although he moved to Australia when he was young (he even wrote a song entitled “Change” about the move).
Just kidding! But wouldn’t that be funny?