Farewell to the great David Phetoe
DRUM reporter Kaizer Ngwenya pays tribute to his friend, actor David Phetoe
WHEN I close my eyes I can still hear his gravelly, one- of- a- kind voice, which reflected the size of his generous spirit, and I’m reminded of how David Phetoe could make few words count as many.
Such was the power and skill of this formidable actor, taken from us like other beloved icons in recent weeks.
David was 86 when he died at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. He’d been ill for some time with prostate cancer and passed away while we were still mourning Bra Hugh Masekela, Sandy Mokwena and Robbie Malinga. Phetoe is probably best remembered for his role on Generations when it premiered in the early 1990s. He played Paul Moroka, the father of Karabo (Connie Ferguson), Archie (Sello Maake kaNcube) and Busang (Arthur Molepo).
But despite his fame on the small screen, he loved theatre the most.
He once told me that in theatre, “Once you’re on, nobody can say ‘cut’. You are out there on your own and there’s that thrill of a real audience. Theatre has kept me alive and allowed me to work at my craft.”
David adored acting, clung to it and honoured it. He fought to be the best and recognised what that meant to the acting community. His passing is significant because, with a handful of exceptions, he’s among the last breed of actors of his stature – actors who dedicated themselves to life in theatre long before we had TV in this county.
He acted in the interest of the profession and – without seeking to be put in the role – became its elder statesman. He set the bar high for others but even higher for himself and because of that every actor wanted not only a career like Phetoe’s, but to be like him. If Ken Gampu defined the SA actor as a sullen and terse craftsman, it was David who crafted the performer as a likeable everyman whose magnetism was impossible to resist, whether he was playing Macbeth or
ICAN’T remember exactly when I first met David, but it was in the late 1960s. It seems he was always at Dorkay House, performing on stage
or teaching drama and encouraging budding actors on the second floor of the building in Joburg’s Eloff Street.
Dorkay House was a vibrant cultural centre where artists of different races met to workshop plays, rehearse music and search for the missing chords.
To me, David was more than a mentor when I harboured dreams of becoming a playwright or theatre critic. He became something of a father figure.
David, who lived in Dube, Soweto, was an easy man to admire. He was always elegantly dressed but never pompous.
“Ja, you skelm, when are you coming to my place? You are a big guy now and no longer want to come and talk to me. Don’t forget I looked after you when you were still a small, timid-looking cub reporter,” he would say every time I met him in the years that followed before laughing and hugging me.
He lived clean and before starting his acting classes at Dorkay House he would make his students exercise.
“Remember, as an actor you must always be fit. The body and the voice are the tools of the trade,” he would tell his students.
In the 1960s a cultural recession set in and Dorkay House was almost boarded up. It was around this time that many top South African musicians left the country as part of the cast of King Kong, which toured abroad.
They, and many other performers, including Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Nathan Mdledle of the Manhattan Brothers, Sal Klaaste, tenor saxophonist Gwigwi Mrwebi (who had also worked in the circulation department of DRUM), chose to stay overseas.
It was a difficult time for David and other artists who remained at home. The security police made life difficult for them and questioned them about their friends who had gone to the USA and UK to perform.
Black and white actors could no longer work together as they had be- fore, and Dorkay House was subjected to regular visits by the security police.
David chose to remain and speak out against apartheid.
The former school teacher went into marketing for a radio manufacturing company and continued teaching speech and drama at Dorkay House in his spare time.
Sometimes he and others secretly performed “dangerous” works like Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, controversial at the time as it was a bitter indictment on the US occupation of Haiti after a bloody rebellion by black slaves.
The Emperor Jones was performed to invited audiences only because it was too risky for them to stage it in township halls lest they be arrested for incitement.
In the 1970s he was part of a group that started a music, drama and visual arts school called the Federated Union of Black Artists Arts Centre in Newtown near the Market Theatre.
By the mid-1970s he began working in film, starring in Lynton Stephenson’s film MaXhosa, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The film earned rave reviews at the London and Berlin Film Festivals.
His other film work included Cry, The Beloved Country with James Earl Jones and Richard Harris and A Good Man in Africa with Sean Connery.
He starred opposite the late Joe Mafela in the TV series Going Up and also got into radio work as a broadcaster for the Joburg-based Swazi Music Radio.
The station targeted middle-class South Africans living in the townships and suburbs.
HIS colleagues speak highly of him. “Phetoe was among the pioneering radio jocks working for a commercial radio station in South Africa,’’ says his former Swazi Music Radio colleague Mesh Mapetla.
Mabutho Sithole, president of the Creative Workers Union of South Africa says the late actor was a fountain of wisdom and a straight talker. “We grew up under his guidance both in the arts and in the townships. He was a talented and unique actor.”
SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago says Phetoe contributed enormously to the country’s entertainment industry, pioneering and assisting the public broadcaster in fulfilling its mandate to entertain and inform audiences.
Poet Napo Masheane tweeted, “We keep losing flames that keep the fire burning in our industry. South Africa, what do you owe to the gods of the arts?”
Rami Chuene also tweeted her respect and sadness. “Stage, TV, movie, voiceovers, TV commercials and everything. Ntate David Phetoe, we’ve lost yet another legend.”
Xoliswa Tom, chairperson of the portfolio committee on arts and culture in Parliament, said in a statement, “We are saddened by the passing of David Phetoe. His legacy will never be diminished. Such heroes should be immortalised and accorded the recognition they deserve”.
His former Generations co-star, Sello Maake kaNcube, describes his on-screen father as a gentle giant.
“Papa, that was what he was,” he says. “When an older person dies, an institution goes.”
LEFT: A young David Phetoe speaking to aspiring actors. ABOVE: The veteran actor is best remembered for his role as Paul Moroka on Generations alongside actors Sello Maake kaNcube and Connie Ferguson.
David with his wife Matshidiso.