Family and creative industry friends have described veteran stage and screen actor David Letsebe Phetoe as “a champion for the arts and artists’ rights”.
At a memorial service held at the SABC studios in Johannesburg on Wednesday, Phetoe was celebrated by his contemporaries with many drawing on his activism for artists within the industry.
“David would just walk into my office and tell my personal assistant that he was an old man and did not need an appointment to see me. He would always have piles and piles of files with complaints on behalf of other artists,” said Kaizer Kganyago, head of group communications at the SABC.
“He was a commander of the creative forces. We salute you, son of Africa,” Kganyago added.
Black Panther cast member Connie Chiume, who once played Phetoe’s lover onscreen, said: “He was a walking library. There were no drama schools during our time and people like Bra David are the ones who taught us how to carry ourselves within the industry.”
There was a consensus among the speakers on Phetoe’s passion for the arts. According to Phetoe’s long-time friend, musician and activist in the Black Consciousness Movement, Molefe Pheto, Phetoe’s love for teaching was evident even back in the 1950s when they first met.
“Together we founded a music, drama, arts and literature institute in 1976 which fast became a space for learning and teaching artistic ways of engaging the discriminatory apartheid rule of the time,” Pheto said.
“He contributed immensely towards our country’s independence through his craft and for that he was persecuted by the security police at the time.”
Phetoe also played the role of a priest in Cry, the Beloved Country, a movie based on the novel by Alan Paton which told the story of courage and endurance set against the background of racial injustice in South Africa.
The legendary Phetoe continued to play a crucial role through arts even after democracy.
He was part of the cast of Generations, a soapie which, according to SABC’s program manager Clara Nzima, “played a critical role during our country’s transition into independence. This was the first time a black man was depicted as a successful business mogul owning his own advertising company. This showed black South Africans what was now possible in this new democratic context”.
Phetoe also continued with his love for imparting knowledge about the industry on to the next generation. One of the projects he was working on before his death was with third year documentary film students at the SABC.
Rachel Lerumo, who is part of this project, said: “David was a like a grandfather to me … I gained my love for theatre from him.”
The memorial service felt more like a platform for artists to educate and bring to light the plight of actors and actresses.
Phetoe, who died at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital last Thursday after complaining of shortness of breath the night before, will be laid to rest on Saturday.
The 85-year-old artist is survived by his two children.