Salt artist Percy Maimela depicts the talented Joe Mafela. Picture: Facebook
Joe Mafela’s astonishing multilingualism was one trait that allowed him to firmly embed himself in the lives of all South Africans – regardless of ethnicity.

This was the view of the legendary South African producer and director Roberta Durrant, who spoke to The Star after Thursday’s memorial service for the iconic “Bra Joe” Mafela at the Joburg Theatre.

Durrant – who founded the production company Penguin Films – said when they cast Mafela in the unforgettable role of Sdumo in the hit TV series Sgudi ’Snaysi (1986), she was unaware that the actor spoke so many languages.

“But that skill became evident immediately once we started rehearsing for the show,” she said with a laugh.

Durrant added that Mafela’s multilingualism, where he had the ability to fluently speak all of the country’s 11 official languages, became very important when her company was approached by the Matla Trust to produce the sitcom Khululeka (1994), which was intended to educate first-time voters.

The Matla Trust was a trust set up for democracy education by Nelson Mandela.

“The Matla Trust specifically asked for the series to be built around Joe because he had already reached so many people with his language skills at the time of production.

“I honestly believe that reaching people was Joe’s purpose in life and I think he believed that as well, because he was such a spiritual person,” Durrant said.

“He came to this Earth for a very specific purpose, which was to inject some TV humour in a very difficult period in our country (the 1980s), and during our transition to democracy.”

The memorial service was not without its contentious moments, one of which was when the president of the Cultural and Creative Industries Federation of South Africa (CCIFSA), Tony Kgoroge, highlighted what he felt has been the exploitation of black performers in the entertainment industry, which Mafela and his generation of actors were not immune to.

Kgoroge said white producers, writers and directors continued to “steal” black stories, adding this was despite the fact that his “white colleagues” knew nothing about townships and other areas where black stories were cultivated.

Durrant admitted “there is obviously a lot of truth” to what the CCIFSA president said, but was adamant that she tried to mitigate against this by making Mafela a part-owner of Penguin Films within a “few short years” of their working with each other.

Mafela’s eldest son Jimmy told The Star that his father instilled in them the virtues of multilingualism, saying Joe believed that knowing other people’s languages was a way to understand different cultures.

He joked that he was the only child of Mafela’s four children who spoke to his father in their native Tshivenda.

Jimmy is a music producer, who has worked with the renowned house and dance musician Black Coffee and kwaito star Professor.

“I credit my father for leaving me with a deep love for the arts – especially music.”

The Star