Farewell to the great David Phetoe

DRUM re­porter Kaizer Ng­wenya pays trib­ute to his friend, ac­tor David Phetoe

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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

Paul Moroka.

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.

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