An iconic ac­tor who de­served bet­ter


CityPress - - Voices -

The last time I saw Bra Joe (Joe Mafela) was in the SABC cor­ri­dors about a week be­fore he passed on. Mu­vhango (the soapie pro­duced by me) and Gen­er­a­tions: The Le­gacy (in which Mafela ap­peared un­til his pass­ing) are neigh­bours: the stu­dios where we film are prac­ti­cally next to each other, so the ac­tors and crew rub shoul­ders at will.

So when Ntate Mafela emerged from the Gen­er­a­tions green room about 10 days ago and greeted me in Tshiv­enda, noth­ing fore­warned me that this would be our last con­ver­sa­tion. We did not en­gage in a long chat. I was rush­ing to the of­fice or stu­dio at the time. He had grabbed my hand and, af­ter a small greet­ing, told me that he “wants to come back home”. I did not know what to say. It was an awk­ward mo­ment, and thank God I was rush­ing.

So, I told him we would talk later and then es­caped, think­ing noth­ing of his wish to “come home”.

I would later give con­text to th­ese words when a jour­nal­ist called me last Sun­day morn­ing, re­quest­ing a com­ment about Mafela’s fa­tal car crash. I was crushed. I had not known that he was gone.

Sud­denly, our brief con­ver­sa­tion of a few days back flooded my mem­ory. I asked my­self mil­lions of ques­tions, in­ter­ro­gat­ing the “whys” and “what nows” of it all. I then re­flected on the first time I met and spoke to Ntate Mafela.

When I got a con­tract to pro­duce Mu­vhango in 1996, he was the first ac­tor I ap­proached. I wanted him to play the lead role. At that time, he was an iconic TV ac­tor, hav­ing en­joyed a suc­cess­ful run as Sdumo in the IsiZulu sit­com, ’Sgudi ’Snaysi, a few years be­fore. He had just fin­ished a sea­son of Go­ing Up!, play­ing a char­ac­ter called Jab­u­lani. He was not busy shoot­ing, but his con­tract for­bade him from par­tic­i­pat­ing in any other pro­duc­tion. He had, a few years be­fore, been made a di­rec­tor of a pro­duc­tion com­pany and things were sup­posed to be look­ing good, but he com­plained to me that he had to do as he was told – how odd, if he was a di­rec­tor. He was sad­dened that he could not join the very first Venda drama in the his­tory of South African tele­vi­sion. He then in­tro­duced me to his brother Paul Mafela, who came to por­tray the char­ac­ter of Mashudu Muk­w­evho, the pa­tri­arch of the Venda fam­ily in the drama se­ries. At that point, Bra Joe’s case il­lus­trated in a sad way the jour­ney of the black ac­tor in a South Africa that was sup­posed to be chang­ing. How­ever, change was hap­pen­ing at the pace and dic­tate of the former colo­nial masters. Here was a man who was hugely suc­cess­ful, with a brand that was trend­ing and rak­ing in the cash. But he stood in a cor­ner, com­plain­ing bit­terly about his treat­ment by white pro­duc­ers. I am sure that he only com­plained openly to me be­cause of my rep­u­ta­tion as a rad­i­cal black pro­ducer. But the re­la­tion­ship that Ntate Mafela and I cul­ti­vated went far be­yond the naked eye and the lure of act­ing. I seem to have evoked a spe­cial love in him, a love for his lan­guage – hence the con­ver­sa­tions we had in Tshiv­enda. Mafela con­stantly suf­fered the pain of not be­ing recog­nised as Venda speak­ing. He had man­aged to el­e­vate the char­ac­ter of Sdumo to dizzy­ing heights, and it al­most be­came his al­ter ego.

The prob­lem was that the char­ac­ter was so typ­i­cally Zulu – the Zulu Jim comes to Joburg per­sona, with his ru­ral char­ac­ter­is­tics and per­son­al­ity.

There is another part to Mafela not be­ing recog­nised as Venda. The painful his­tory of apartheid cre­ated a schism among Venda-speak­ing peo­ple, with a huge group leav­ing their ru­ral homes for Jo­han­nes­burg and chang­ing their iden­tity. Mafela al­most fell into this group – if not by in­tent or de­sign, then by de­fault be­cause there was al­ways an is­sue with Venda-speak­ing peo­ple say­ing he was pro­mot­ing the Zulu lan­guage at the ex­pense of his own Tshiv­enda.

This ar­gu­ment ig­nored the fact that there were hardly any Venda pro­grammes on TV. And when Mu­vhango pre­miered in 1997, many peo­ple who had been afraid to let their iden­tity be known openly came out to iden­tify as Vhavenda. There was a rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion even in the per­cep­tion of the Venda-speak­ing group. Sud­denly, there was re­spect.

Th­ese are some of the things that Mafela ac­knowl­edged in some of our con­ver­sa­tions, and he had al­ways looked at Mu­vhango as his “home” of sorts. So, when he said he wanted to “come home” those 10 days be­fore he de­parted th­ese shores, I clearly un­der­stood what he meant.

Lit­tle did I know that we were not go­ing to have an op­por­tu­nity to take the con­ver­sa­tion fur­ther. I am sure he would have loved to play a role in his own lan­guage, for once in his il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer.

It is hard to imag­ine that in his en­tire life he had never been ac­corded the dig­nity of act­ing in his own lan­guage in a ma­jor soapie or drama. May his soul rest in peace.

Kha vha rovhale nga­mu­lalo vho Mafela, Mboloma, Tshi­dada Muhali; Khakhamela; Zulu; Muthombeni.

Duma Ndlovu is a play­wright and TV pro­ducer

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