Lillian Dube. Picture: Supplied

Being reminded every day about one’s mortality is not most people’s idea of pleasant TV viewing. That’s the message from those morbid Clientele ads as presented by Lillian Dube and Desmond Dube.

But in fairness to both of them, the two actors have provided viewers with more comedic entertainment than they have reminded us about that uncomfortable subject. 

Last year, when the Tshwane University of Technology conferred on one of the grande dames of the South African screen an honorary degree for drama and film production, it was a salute to over 30 years of remarkable television acting.

During this period she gave viewers both tragic and comedic characters but all memorable in equal measure. In Mopheme (1987) she was Baratang, a cruel step-mother and quarrelsome wife who was eventually forced to pack up and leave her homestead in tears. 

Although this was not her first acting gig, her prominent role in the popular Sesotho drama series put her exceptional acting talent in the spotlight.

It was therefore timely and appropriate that 30 years after Mopheme hit the small screen, the Tshwane University of Technology decided to honour her for “her contribution to the broad field of the arts in particular and social causes in general”.

Lillian Dube. Picture: Supplied

But while she’s officially Dr Lillian Dube, she hasn’t forgotten her humble township beginnings in Orlando East, Soweto, and a rural upbringing in Lesotho.

And the 73-year-old thespian says it’s all thanks to her late mother who instilled in her a strong work ethic from a very young age. She was taught that there’s no lesser or undignified occupation in the world.

What mattered was the diligence with which the job was done. Before her rise in the television industry, Dube was involved in a number of menial jobs, including working as a domestic, serving tea in a furniture factory and working as a clerk in a retail store.

Throughout all these, she has carried her duties with characteristic humility, diligence and humour. In a classic case of art imitating life, Dube was diagnosed with breast cancer after her much-loved character, Sister Bettina in Soul City, revealed that she was suffering the same fate.

In 2008, a year after she was diagnosed, the outspoken and amiable actress underwent surgery and has since been declared to be in remission. 

She has become the face of cancer survivors and takes every opportunity to advise women over the age of 40 to go for annual check-ups. Early detection is key, she maintains.

Unbeknown to many, she’s also a stage performer - earning her two Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Theatre Guild and the SAFTAs. In April this year, Dube’s string of accolades was capped with the ultimate honour - the Presidential Order of Ikhamanga (Silver) “for her contribution to the performing arts and raising awareness in women’s health issues through storytelling”.

The motivation added that “her creative ways of dealing with serious subjects through humour has been healing to the nation”.

Skwizas, the SABC2 sitcom that she created, produced and starred in, has been going strong for several seasons. And no, she’s not related to Desmond Dube. They just share a surname and of course those sombre life insurance commercials.