Chilled people gathered with ‘umqombhothi, umleqwa and mogodu’ – Jamie Bartlett’s friends honour him

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Friends described Jamie Bartlett as a passionate actor who loved seeing people happy.
Friends described Jamie Bartlett as a passionate actor who loved seeing people happy.
Oupa Bopape/Galloimages

He often proclaimed to his friends that when he died one day, he wished to be celebrated with litres of the traditional brew umqombothi and some traditional African food, including umleqwa, mogodu, and samp, and his friends fulfilled his wishes.

A week after his funeral, Jamie’s industry friends filled up Zone 6 Venue in Soweto where the veteran actor liked to “hang out” with regular folk and to soak up the “culture”.  

With an opening performance by the Isibane Se Africa choir, host and organiser Zola Hashatsi welcomed guests and prepared them for the heart-warming stories of how Jamie lived unapologetically and loved everyone.

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Veteran actress and close friend Magi Noninzi Williams could not hold back the tears as she told of how warm and kind Jamie was.

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to say. Jamie was a hero. He was a giant, a teacher, he gave his spirit to everybody that he came across,” she says.

“Jamie was my buddy. We would go and smoke snuff together. I would sit plat (flat) on the floor, he would ask If I’m gaining weight and he would give me tea.”

She says he always had a remedy for everything.

“One time I had a problem with my eye, I couldn’t see properly. He gave me this eye gene. He always had something to advise.” 

Magi says his favourite place to visit was the township.

“We went to Tembisa, promoting Rhythm City, and he wanted to jump the fence and talk to the little ones. He even threw his new scarf to the children in the audience. He was larger than life. You would hear that he was in Alexandra, or Rockville in Soweto or he was passing wearing a spoti (bucket hat) in Small Street. When I met him, he was a muntu, he was not white, he was a muntu,” she adds.

Mpho Molepo, who played the role of Fats on Rhythm City, says there is not a single important family gathering of his that Jamie missed.

“In July 2007, we met when the Rhythm City project started. I always asked myself ‘who is this loud guy that everyone loved so much?’ When he walked in at work, he would want to kiss everyone. I had a problem with that as a black guy. I grew up in Diepkloof.” 

But he and Jamie grew to be friends and they understood each other.

“He came to my family unveilings. He frequented Soweto. When he came to our family gatherings and funerals, you would find him wearing an apron helping oomama (the mothers) dish up.” 

Mpho says one time, Jamie drove all the way from the Free State to attend his wedding. 

“One thing that people didn’t know about Jamie, he was a good cook and he really wanted to open a restaurant in Soweto,” he adds.

“At work, he never took scripts home. He always learned his lines in the corridors, and he was the first one there at 5am.” 

Mpho says towards his last days, Jamie and a colleague had been working on a podcast.

“On the day I was supposed to shoot, I had bad flu and it never happened” but he hopes to still take part in his honour. 

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Actress and singer Samkelo Ndlovu worked side by side with Jamie and says he started off as her icon before they turned into friends.

“I was cast as Lerato, and we never had any scenes. One day the writers decided to put us together. Here was this giant, mammoth of a man, an icon, I had to prepare, and I did, I even knew his lines,” she says.

After their very first scene, Samkelo says Jamie was blown away.

“He said, I think the writers don’t know what to old with this old toppie anymore and you have just resurrected me, “she says.

“He asked me what I drink and I said, 'champagne, darling'. The next day, he came to work with a big bottle of champagne, a five-litre Moët, and said ‘thank you for resurrecting me. I was in a coma. From then we built a synergy,” she says.

“He has buried some of my family members and me his. He has come from far to watch me sing. I’m pretty sure, I will never find another co-star like that. He taught me so much. He taught me to continue having a teachable spirit. I was bulldozing through life. He was a teacher, healer, and friend and could outdrink me any day.” 

Samkelo says Jamie told her that at his funeral he wanted ‘easy-going people, dagga smoking, and 20 buckets of umqombothi.’ I’d like us to keep smiles in our hearts when we remember him. He had one of the darkest minds anyone could find. He could find sexual innuendos anywhere and we will miss that about him.”

Jamie’s partner and manager, Rosa Onious, who spent his last days with him says she is still not sure how to move forward and accept his death.

“This past two weeks would not have been possible without the support I got from his colleagues and fans.”

Rosa says her relationship with Jamie was not perfect but genuine.

“I would tell him when he came home to leave David Genaro at home, and he really struggled with that. Rhythm City was a big deal for him.”

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Award-winning actor, council member, and artistic director of the Market Theatre James Ngcobo recalls meeting Jamie in Durban in their earlier theatre acting days and how he fascinated him.

“The Jamie I remember is the theatre Jamie I met a long time ago in Durban at the Playhouse,” he says.

“Jamie was three years older than me, and I was in the play Three Musketeers. When I finally got to meet him, we sat as young actors talking about the love of storytelling. Back then, acting was not about coolness but to tell your story and immerse yourself. As a young actor, I used to love getting lost in the rehearsal room with a sandwich and cold drink.” 

And that was the beginning of their relationship.

“My relationship with Jamie slowly got stronger. We had this thing that we shared that was theatre-based. I came to Joburg and started walking around The Market theatre and seeing him all over the walls. The gift that Jamie had as an actor, you get to meet the playful Jamie, but he was an actor that was so in love with being somebody and transforming. That’s what made him a beautiful actor, his love of stories, and people.” 

James says, there is a side about Jamie that was about mentorship. 

“When he saw a young actor that was beautiful, that actor reminded him of a young Jamie. There was just a little boy inside Jamie that loved stories.”

One of the writers at Rhythm City and Jamie’s former housemate, Craig Friedmond, says when heading out of the work environment, Jamie would stop to greet everyone.

"It was exhausting going around town with him because he would want to talk to everybody. For someone introverted as me, it was always embarrassing. This big white man, just reaching out. Weirdly much more famous in the black market. He played that character for 12 years.”

What he will remember the most about Jamie is his contagious laugh.

“You would almost feel like he was attacking you and you would laugh too. We have to remember that beautiful laughter." 

Watch the memorial service here:

Actor Jamie Bartlett (55) died on 23 May after suffering a cardiac arrest. His family announced in a statement that he took his last breath in his sleep while surrounded by his loved ones. 

His burial took place on 2 June and was held at the St George's Cathedral in Cape Town.

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