The insults came hard and fast. It wasn’t the first time she’d been taunted, teased and targeted – she’d endured plenty of that in school. But this time the bullying was coming from complete strangers on social media.
And it was relentless.
Nomvelo Makhanya tried to laugh it off at first. After all, being a celebrity means weathering storms from online trolls and TV viewers who can’t quite distinguish between real life and soap opera storylines.
But eventually the Scandal! actress cracked. “I was in a really low place,” says Nomvelo (23), who was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in 2016.
And all because haters targeted her over the shape of her head. It all started when Lindiwe, Nomvelo’s character, dropped out of university and attempted to break into the music industry. But she found herself in a world filled with people who weren’t shy about playing dirty to get ahead.
“When my storyline started I also had the new [blonde] hair colour and someone posted a picture of me, circled something on my head and said I had a bald patch, which I don’t.
“It was so strange. I even responded and said, ‘You’re so weird, you went and found something that’s not even there’, but then I brushed it off,” she says. The worst was yet to come, though.
“Two weeks after that the whole potato thing happened. People were putting pictures of my head next to a picture of a potato and saying nasty things – and that really triggered me. I started believing maybe my head is really big, and I started having a lot of self-doubt.
“I was already going through a rough time [because of her depression diagnosis] and then everything blew up on social media and I was almost at my breaking point.”
When we meet Nomvelo on set in Johannesburg she’s still in Lindiwe’s pyjamas and dressing gown. She’s friendly with all the cast and crew, and it’s obvious she’s well-liked by everyone.
Her co-stars were supportive of her and stood by her, she says, but it was her mother, Phindile Makhanya, who really helped her put things in perspective and move on.
“My mom made me see my magic again – and I have a lot of magic!” she says with a chuckle.
“I know I’m beautiful, I’m talented and I’m valid. I matter and what I do, what I stand for, matters.
“I might have been down for a bit but the people around me never let me forget my beauty. I’m truly so grateful and blessed that God put these people in my life.”
Having dealt with bullying as a child and because she’s living with depression, Nomvelo also decided to become an activist for mental-health issues, particularly in young people.
“My friends and I go to schools and talk to learners about mental health,” she explains. “We want to remove this stigma that’s linked to mental illnesses. It shouldn’t be taboo to talk about it.”
Cyberbullying, she adds, is also not something to be taken lightly.
“If you suffer from depression or anxiety or any form of mental illness, cyberbullying affects you immensely. That’s why some kids commit suicide these days, because of things that are said about them on social media.
“This is why I decided to speak up. I wasn’t going to be quiet any longer – plus I’ve always been a person who if I don’t like something, I will speak.”
In the midst of her cyberbullying incident, Nomvelo made a video addressing the bullies, saying how upset she was that people on social media were looking for faults in her.
“I’ve always talked about how toxic this environment can be,” she says in the Instagram clip. “People on here will literally go out of their way to find something wrong with someone and use that to break their spirit.
“Okay, fine, you do all that and then what? What do you gain from tearing down someone’s self-esteem? I’m actually so upset.”
She wanted people to know “it isn’t okay”, she says. “And I wanted the victims of cyberbullying to know they aren’t alone. Even though I’m an actor and I’m a public figure, I go through the same things you go through, and I get affected too.
“I also figured if I have a chance to show a bully the impact their unkind words and actions have, I will do it. Because we need to realise that some people don’t know what they’re doing to others, and others are broken and hurting too.
“They have a problem with themselves and will bring others down to feel better, which isn’t right.”
It’s not uncommon for people to treat cyberbullying as though it’s less serious than other forms of bullying, “when in fact, it affects your health in many ways”, says Johannesburg psychologist Joslina Sehoana.
“It can affect your self-image and cause emotional and psychological damage, including low self-esteem and depression.”
In extreme cases, Sehoana adds, victims of cyberbullying may commit suicide – even if the bully never physically touches the victim, “it’s still very serious, it tarnishes one’s self-image”.
“It can reach a point where the victim is so depressed and wants to escape so badly that they may turn to substance abuse or, in extreme cases, suicide.
Words have significant power and the realities of cyberbullying can have very strong physical and emotional consequences,” she points out.
She advises victims of cyberbullying to distance themselves from the bully, or bullies, “because we can get addicted to what people say about us. We keep going back, even if what is being said is malicious.”
Victims need to keep proof of the bullying, with screenshots and recordings, “and use it to hold them accountable. It can help make them stop, and also understand just how much damage they’ve caused.”
Equally important, Sehoana says, is speaking to someone about the bullying.
“Confide in someone, such as a family member or a mental-health professional,” she suggests, noting that it is important “to handle the harmful effects of bullying, which can result in anger, shame, anxiety and depression. Know that the bully’s behavior has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them – they have a problem and are taking it out on you.”
Nomvelo has some sound advice for the bullies. “Find peace,” she says. “Whatever it is that you’re dealing with, get help and sort it out. Stop taking it out on other people – it’s harmful and unkind.
“And to the bullied: understand that it’s not about you. People are hurting and have insecurities so they use you to numb the pain – it’s not personal, don’t let it get to you.”
Find ways to rise above it, she says, and lean on people who love you and believe in you. Just like she did.