An iconic actor who deserved better
OBITUARY: JOE MAFELA JUNE 25 1942 – MAR 18 2017
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