JOHANNESBURG — Well known for his roles in the classic South African sitcoms Sgudi ‘Snaysi and Going Up, beloved South African star Joe Mafela was also a multitalented producer, singer, dancer and entertainment business pioneer.
Mafela was born in Sibasa, Limpopo in 1942 and grew up in Kliptown, Johannesburg. He started his acting career at 22, in the film Real News. He later joined the film company SA Films as actor and producer, where he helped to conceive small-budget films for the black South African market, in most of which he also acted.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, he also managed a variety of popular multidisciplinary dance and music troupes, including groups such as Mzumba and the Gold Reef Dancers, which performed around the world.
He acted in one of the first South African films to feature an all-black cast, Udeliwe, in 1974, as well as in a number of international productions filmed in South Africa, including Shout at the Devil, co-starring Hollywood legends Lee Marvin and Roger Moore, and Red Scorpion, with action star Dolph Lundgren.
It was with the arrival of television in South African in 1976 that Mafela’s talents began to reach a wider audience. He acted in several series, while also conceiving and producing local language television shows, first as part of SA Films and later with the Penguin Films production company he co-founded with writer-producer Roberta Durrant.
The company produced the popular 1986 sitcom Sgudi ‘Snaysi, in which Mafela played S’dumo, a rascally schemer who, over the course of the show’s 78 episodes, become a beloved cultural hero, thanks to Mafela’s talent for balancing over-the-top physical comedy with a realistic portrayal of township life.
At the same time, Mafela moved into the advertising industry as creative director for a number of burgeoning black-owned creative agencies. He transplanted the Sgudi ‘Snaysi premise and his S’dumo character to great effect into a series of popular television commercials for a well-known fast food chicken outlet.
Thanks to the popularity of Sgudi ‘Snaysi, Mafela and Penguin Films produced many of the country’s most popular television shows of the past 30 years.
During the early days of post-apartheid South Africa in the 1990s, he produced and acted in the pioneering popular sitcom Going Up, alongside South African theatre legend Rex Garner. The series successfully communicated the New South African experience with biting humour and frank pathos on race relations.
Mafela and Penguin Films also brought beloved South African comic strip Madam and Eve to the screen in 2000.
During the 1990s, Mafela also recorded a number of isiZulu music albums. They included the local hit Shebeleza (Okongo Mame) that was later used as the anthem for the 1996 African Cup of Nations football tournament held in South Africa.
While beloved as a South African comedy actor, Mafela proved he could tackle more serious issues, most notably in the film Retribution in 2011. The dark, compelling drama took a raw look at the effects of apartheid on South Africa.
Mafela continued to produce, direct and act in television, film and theatre during his final years, including a role in the television drama Generations.
He received a host of industry lifetime achievement awards, including a Comics’ Choice Award, a Duku Duku black entertainment award and a Naledi theatre award.
Mafela is survived by his wife, four children and six grandchildren. — Brandsouthafrica