David Phetoe: Farewell to a legend of the theatre

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David Phetoe
David Phetoe

Another icon has joined the ranks of the country’s cultural greats who have left us.

The country was shocked by the death of veteran actor Bab' David Phetoe, in Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital on Thursday evening.

He was 85.

He was taken to hospital on Wednesday after falling ill.

The cultural colossus, as Generations creator Mfundi Vundla referred to him, was a much larger contributor to local arts than just his portrayal of Paul Moroka on the original Generations telenovela.

Vundla said he was a man among men. “Indoda yama doda! A man who laid down the foundations of modernism in the 1960s protest theatre movement.”

Market Theatre CEO Ismail Mahomed spoke to City Press about the significance of Phetoe’s career and expressed how grave a loss this is.

“Veteran actor David Phetoe is most remembered for his television role in Generations and for his role in the Alan Paton film Cry, the Beloved Country.

"Bab' David’s early work in the entertainment industry began with many theatre veterans who have passed on and whose names have been erased from our cultural histories and our memories.”

In 2007, the Naledi Theatre Awards honoured Phetoe with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Mahomed said it was “a blessing for any South African artist to receive while they are still alive and can continue to inspire generations after them”.

He said Phetoe and artists like him worked tirelessly to pave the way for the future.

There were very few actors working right now who had not been affected by his efforts, whether through his avid mentoring of young talent or through his efforts in the liberation struggle.

In 1959, Phetoe appeared in Athol Fugard’s Nongogo at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre in a production that was banned by the government of the time.

Phetoe’s brother, Molefe, had been speaking to media on behalf of the family. He said he was still feeling shaken.

“He was giving to a point where he was abused. He would go out of his way to do everything for everybody. You come in with problems, he will find something to help you with.”

Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa expressed his sympathies: “Our heartfelt condolences go out to the loved ones of veteran actor uBaba David Phetoe.”

Actress Rami Chuene said: “Stage, TV, movies, voice-overs and everything in between. Ntate David Phetoe, the original daddy. We’ve lost yet another legend.”

Mahomed said: “Although much has been written this week to mourn the death of the illustrious actor, almost every obituary has mentioned only his role in the television soapie and the full-length movie.

"Passing comments have lightly referenced his legendary work in theatre as a performer and producer.

"Hardly anything has been written about his early theatre work, which sadly reflects on the archives of cultural memory that South Africa is losing with every passing veteran.”

Phetoe enjoyed an illustrious career and won our hearts in roles on shows like Sgudi ’Snaysi with the late Joe Mafela, Velaphi, Going Up and Imvelaphi.

The SABC’s message of support to the Phetoe family read: “The South African Broadcasting Corporation’s board, management and staff would like to extend their heartfelt condolences to the Phetoe family, friends and fans.

"2018 continues to be a gloomy year in the South African entertainment industry as South Africa mourns the loss of another legendary actor.”

There has been an outpouring of condolences from industry heavyweights such as Sello Maake Ka-Ncube.

Phetoe mentored him during their time at Generations.

Mahomed said that recently, South Africans had mourned the deaths of jazz musician Hugh Masekela; actor, playwright and theatre producer John Ledwaba and poet Keorapetse Kgositsile.

“We should be celebrating their legacies in our museums so that generations of South Africans will remember them, celebrate them and critically reflect on our times and our histories.”

Phetoe’s memorial service will take place on Wednesday at the SABC studios in Johannesburg.

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