Verna Vels died in her sleep at her Johannesburg home on Thursday evening after a battle with cancer.

Johannesburg - Verna Vels, the creator of children's character “Liewe Heksie”, played a critical role at the SABC, the public broadcaster said on Friday.

“The SABC board and management on behalf of the corporation send their condolences and prayers to the Vels family, during this difficult time and would like to comfort the family with the thought that Ms Vels played a critical role in the development and execution of programmes at the SABC,” said spokesman Kaizer Kganyago.

JacarandaFM reported on Friday that she had died.

Vels, 81, died in her sleep at her Johannesburg home on Thursday evening after a battle with cancer, Lefra Productions confirmed to the radio station.

Kganyago said Vels joined the SABC on December 1, 1954, as a radio presenter. From 1963 until 1968, she presented the programme “Vrouerubriek”.

She spent 39 years with the SABC and retired in 1993.

“For the past 12 years, Ms Vels worked with SABC2 soap drama '7de Laan' as an assistant director,” he said.

At the time of her retirement in 1993, she was the woman who held the highest executive position in the South African television industry, as programme director of TV1, Afrikaans.

Vels was involved in the creation of Afrikaans children's programmes “Kraaines” and “Wielie Wielie Walie”, and she was also the voice behind the character “Bennie Boekwurm”.

Her first Liewe Heksie (dear little witch) stories were broadcast on radio in 1961. She published 10 Liewe Heksie books, eight records and several CDs, videos and DVDs.

Her last book, “Liewe Heksie en die rekenaar” (“Dear little witch and the computer”), was published in 1999.

The character made its TV debut in 1978 in a series of 26 programmes. A total of 52 episodes were made.

Vels was also the voice behind Liewe Heksie and her best friend, “Blommie Kabouter”.

More recently, Vels wrote Liewe Heksie plays for children at theatres and arts festivals countrywide.

In an interview with JacarandaFM the day before her 80th birthday last year, she described the Liewe Heksie character as “a witch who was a little bit stupid”, created to make children laugh, instead of scaring them.

“Heksie was really not written to educate children, but to make them laugh.”

She said even though she had retired, she was still working twice a week on the set of the soapie “7de Laan”.

“It keeps you open-minded,” she said, to which morning show host Rian van Heerden commented that she was the “ultimate career woman” of her time.

Vels laughed and replied: “I was having too much fun to get married.”