Joe Mafela, known to most people as 'Sdumo', starring in the local sitcom, Sgudi Snaysi. Mafela died last weekend in a car crash. He is survived by his wife, four children and six grandchildren. At the time of his death he was playing the role of uncle Tebogo Moroka in Generations - The Legacy Picture: Penguin Films.
Johannesburg - How do I begin to pay tribute to a man so much greater than we all imagined him to be? A great entertainer to the nation. A loving father and husband. A beloved sibling, uncle and grandfather.

A role model for many in and outside the creative arts. A true national treasure.

I’m the reluctant kid in class being pushed to the front to make a speech, and I’m terrified.

So much has been said about Joe Mafela since the tragic news of his passing in a road accident in Joburg reached us this past weekend.

His peers and friends have told of many beautiful anecdotes about this departed icon that I found myself wondering if my words here would do him any justice.

How do I begin to pay tribute to such a legend?

I was probably learning to talk when he played Peter Pleasure in that 1974 film uDeliwe.

Many of us mourning Joe Mafela today did not even realise what a rich theatre career he had already carved for himself before he found space on our screens.

I do not have the colourful stories that his peers in the arts can share about him. In fact, I can count the number of times I was privileged enough to work with the man. None of it was on camera.

I was way too young and still far from the city lights to be in ’Sgudi ’Snaysi.

I never even got to watch it in the earlier days because the television set-up in our Bantustan only allowed us TV1 and TV3.

It wasn’t until I got to drama school that I discovered the magic of one Joe Mafela. Being a student of the dramatic arts, I was at pains to find innovators and trailblazers I could identify with as a black actor in training.

I found plenty and got to watch VHS recordings of many greats - Ken Gampu, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, Sidney Tshama and a few more whose names escape me now.

It was in that search for actors I could identify with that I found a film with a beautiful black woman as the lead and I was immediately drawn to her, uDeliwe.

That’s when I discovered an actor named Joe Mafela. Or shall I say Peter Pleasure.

I would later get to start watching ’Sgudi ’Snaysi in the TV room at res. I have to admit that it was my Zulu friends who got me hooked on it because we all loved Thoko, played by Thembi Mtshali.

I was also intrigued by Mme Gloria Mudau, who played Gog’Louisa. The Mudau name had me drawn to her. Yet I totally missed the fact that the actor who played Sdumo could possibly be from my homeland of Venda. All that I saw was a very talented actor who knew how to keep us laughing.

It would only be years later that I got to know the Joe Mafela I want to pay tribute to. A multilingual artist who knew how to speak each and every one of our official languages.

It was while watching him in Going Up alongside Rex Garner that my uncle remarked “ndi MuVenda hoyu munna” - this man is a MuVenda.

My uncle Peter even claimed to know him. He had lived in Chiawelo where the Mafelas also had their home. Of course I didn’t believe him. The Joe Mafela I knew was Sdumo the Chicken Licken guy. I dismissed Malume and his claims and continued to enjoy the great actor’s work.

A few years later I would meet Vho-Mafela at an audition for the voter education drama Khululeka at Penguin Films in Houghton.

That’s the day I had to apologise to the uncle. Not only did Sdumo greet me in Tshivenda when he walked past, the grand thespian asked me if I was Mashau’s niece. It felt like quite an affirmation. I did not even care about not getting that role.

For me that day confirmed that I stood a chance of making it in the industry despite my being a muVenda. The great Joe Mafela had confirmed in person what many VhaVenda had said before. “Ndi MuVenda hoyu munna”.

In my search for role models I had found one who made it out of a village in Venda and went on to star in and produce some of the greatest work on South African television.

I got to work with Vho-Mafela on a number of radio adverts. He was a marvel to watch. He’d switch from one language to the next as if he were some automated language machine. I wished for that kind of linguistic perfection. I still do.

My other wish, though, I’ll never get to realise. I will never see him on stage leading a musicianship theatre spectacular. I’ll never see him in a Tshivenda television hit drama. We won’t get to see him play any of the kings of the VhaVenda nation.

I’ve always assumed that he’d always be here. That I’d finally get an opportunity to work with the great Joe Mafela in a production where he speaks his mother tongue, my mother tongue.

Ah well, it was not meant to be. This I know would have given him and the council of Vhadau vha Tshiheni great pleasure and pride. He took such pride in the work he did to bring the Netshiheni clan together.

Allow me to say farewell to this great artist, not as a practitioner of the performing arts, but as a Khadzi to a beloved elder of VhaVenda people.

Enda zwavhudi udiawetshele iwe Mudau wa Tshiheni. Welai nga mulalo * swike minenzheni miri i doliwaho.

Iwe Dau a Tshiheni tshihulu tsha Nyampunga tshena!

Mukoma wa Phunga mavhele!

The Sunday Independent