A tribute to Joe ‘Sdumo’ Mafela

2017-03-26 06:02
Joe Mafela
Joe Mafela (Photo: Gallo)

Cape Town - It’s not difficult to see how Joe Mafela came to be regarded as a star who represented “regular” South Africans.

Born in 1942 in Sibasa, Limpopo, his family moved to Kliptown, Soweto, when he was five and then to White City and Tshiawelo before he ended up in a large, middle class home in Kew in Joburg’s northern suburbs. As a result, Mafela – whom friends and colleagues fondly call Papa Joe, and fans call Sdumo after his most famous TV character – spoke isiZulu fluently, despite being born into a traditional Tshivenda home. He used his grasp of South Africa’s many languages to further his career (just try getting major TV roles in Tshivenda), but also to relate to the many people he met and engaged with, who came away warmed by the experience.

S’gud, gud, gud...

In 1964, a hip, 22-year-old Mafela, all tight, skinny jeans and Afro, landed a role in Real News, a feature film directed by Peter Hunt, famous for From Russia with Love. This was to be the beginning of a 40-year acting career that would see Mafela become the nation’s favourite jester and goofy uncle. He would, according to biographers, star in the first all-black local film, Udeliwe, as the character Peter Pleasure.

From the advent of TV in South Africa, Mafela was a known face, but the 80s were really when Papa Joe found his groove in his defining role in the sitcom ’Sgudi ’Snaysi. He recalled, in a TV interview with Pearl Modiadie, how the SABC had been looking for a show that would relax viewers and provide wholesome entertainment for the whole family. ’Sgudi ’Snaysi was an absolute banger of a show and is still as entertaining today as it was when I first saw it. For the longest time, Mafela was – to me and my friends – just Sdumo, the loveable and lazy security guard who messed up weekly on the classic sitcom.

...It’s good, it’s nice

“It was quite the challenge to get Going Up! on to SABC as I think this was the first time black people and white people were acting together. The broadcaster did not know how to handle this at the time,” says Roberta Durrant, Mafela’s partner in Penguin Films, which basically defined an era of South African sitcom. (Remember the sneezing penguin that signalled the end of the show?) “They did endless focus groups, the show nearly didn’t happen.”

Everyone remembers Papa Joe for his famous Chicken Licken ad campaign, but not many know that he wrote the famous jingle himself. (“It’s good, good, good. It’s good, it’s nice.”) For his efforts, he was the first black man to win a Loerie.

Not only did he do all those things, but he was also a director and writer on ’Sgudi ’Snaysi, Going Up!, Stokvel and Khululeka.

In 1996, Sdumo dropped a fire song off the album Shebeleza. The title track was brought in to be used as the theme for the Africa Cup of Nations tournament, which South Africa won.

In the music video, Mafela hangs in the streets of the kasi having a good time with children. Broad smiles all round.

“Joe Mafela lived his life to heal and unite South Africans through laughter,” said Ismail Mahomed, chief executive of The Market theatre, this week. “Choosing roles that were easily recognisable, he gave those roles immense dignity. He allowed his audiences to discover the greatness of humanity through the ordinariness of his characters.” Needless to say, Mafela also worked extensively in the theatre.

A gentleman and a mentor

A mentor and a professional through and through is how his former colleagues remember him.

“That man always rooted for me I am truly grateful that I got to tell him how important he was to me before this happened,” said an emotional Manaka Ranaka, who worked with Mafela on Generations: The Legacy and on Stokvel.

Vele Manenje, a colleague at Penguin Films, recalls this time last year – at the SA Film and Television Awards:

“He congratulated me on my nomination, but reminded me to never ever get too comfortable within my craft and also to stay level-headed in the industry, and to always be humble as a true Venda child under the wings of God.”

Thembi Mtshali, who starred alongside Mafela in ’Sgudi ’Snaysi and Stokvel, was left reeling last weekend. “At first I didn’t believe it. I thought it was one of those social-media hoaxes. Even when Welcome Msomi called me, I really didn’t believe him until someone called me to catch the news on TV,” the legendary actress told #Trending.

“On ’Sgudi ’Snaysi, my character, Thoko, was the one who always sympathised with Sdumo, and that carried over in our personal relationship. Joe became part of my family. He never came empty-handed. He’d always say, ‘Last time I was here at your home, I saw you didn’t have X, so I decided to get it for you.’”

“The people’s passion for his work makes it that much harder to say goodbye,” said his son, Joe Mafela Junior. “I will miss everything about him. We missed him when he was away working when he was still alive. He loved playing and talking with his grandchildren and watching cricket. The greatest lesson I learnt from him was patience. He always told me to know what I want, but never to rush. ‘Your day will come,’ he would say.”

RIP Joe Mafela (1942-2017)

When Joe Mafela died in a car accident last Saturday, the nation reeled. The man who offered us much-needed relief during the country’s darkest moments of apartheid was a part of our collective identity.

Sdumo ... the everyman and icon.

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