'Papa' David Phetoe was a father figure in SA arts
David Phetoe was a venerable father figure on the screen and in real life. As one of the original cast members in Generations as Paul Moroka, the late actor, cultural activist and broadcaster was the patriarch of the Moroka dynasty.
Following his passing recently, it became evident that for actors like Sello Maake Ka Ncube, Connie Ferguson and Arthur Molepo, who played his children in the popular series, he would always be Papa.
And indeed, Molepo delivered a moving musical item, his own version of The Beatles’ Let It Be, at the memorial service at the Market Theatre, to underscore the familial bonds that started in 1993 when Generations was launched.
Those with elephantine memories will also remember him as the doting grandfather who starred in a sour milk commercial with a very young Molemo Maaroganye, an actor and musician popularly known as Jub Jub.
However, his acting career goes back to the 1950s, the era of King Kong the jazz opera and Dorkay House, an academy that has come to symbolise the golden era of black performance arts.
So in the 1990s he was already a veteran of groundbreaking stage productions such as Nongogo (1959), Athol Fugard’s play where he starred as shebeen patron Sam with Solomon Rachilo, Zakes Mokae, Cornelius Mabaso and Thandi Khumalo.
Nongogo was first performed at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre, an important space for black performance arts in the 1950s and 1960s in Joburg.
It was a difficult time for black performers as their pigment automatically criminalised them and made them victims of curfew laws under the Group Areas Act.
Despite the constant harassment by the police, black artists like Phetoe demonstrated remarkable resilience and exceptional dedication to their craft.
They soldiered on with dignity and a never-say-die spirit. He was also involved in Shakespearean plays such as The Tempest and acted in his self-penned one-hander, The Diary of a Black Actor, an autobiographical stage work which toured the world and highlighted the plight of black performers under apartheid.
Born in 1932 in Wolmaranstad, in the then Western Transvaal, into a Tswana royal family, Phetoe was raised in Alexandra, Joburg and got to experience first-hand the tough black urban experience in a racist society.
Although he grew up without a father, he was lucky enough to have attended St Peter’s Anglican School in Rosettenville, a prestigious institution that produced eminent personalities in the cultural, academic and political spheres - like Hugh Masekela, Eskia Mphahlele and Oliver Tambo.
After graduating as a teacher, Phetoe never pursued the profession full time and instead chose the arts, but both his contemporaries and younger generations remember him as a teacher who was dedicated to passing on his expertise as a performer.
A real torch-bearer, he was one of the broadcasters who initiated the famous SR Radio in 1978.
At the time of his death, he was president of Letsema La Tsela, an organisation dedicated to improving the situation of struggling artists. He ran it with actor Jerry Tsie.
He leaves behind a proud legacy of selfless dedication to the arts.
Video: Courtesy of SABCIOL