The death of industry veteran and stalwart Joe "Sdumo" Mafela came as a shock to many. That it happened on the very night the nation's cream de crème was being recognised at the Saftas and shockingly where he had not been invited; according to fellow stalwart Lillian Dube must in itself make the powers-that-be be ashamed and remorseful. That such a heavyweight as Joe Mafela would even need an invitation when his name alone and the immense role he played in being part of developing the South African film and television industry to where it is today is flabbergasting to say the least.
But we should not at all be surprised at the blatant disrespect and lack of recognition of these legends – it's now so common-place that once the industry decides they have reached their 'sell-by' date they are summarily discarded without any thought for their livelihoods with no pension, no medical aid, no benefits and thus facing destitution and lives much less than even those of the wonderful characters they played whom we looked up to and who entertained us daily during the so-called 'prime-time'.
When one considers the trailblazing contribution made by the likes of Ntate Joe Mafela and many others who have passed on the widespread and genuine outpourings of grief from the nation which has lost one of its most loved actors are all but touching and tangible. What leaves a sour taste in the mouth is how his death has again brought to the fore the pathetic, unjust and utterly appalling super-exploitative state of the acting industry. And think how this has come to be and why it shall continue unless tough decisions are made and genuine political will and leadership is displayed by those whose role it is to fix this catastrophe!
African funerals are always a fanfare of sorts where we exhort the virtues of the deceased and celebrate their life and contributions yet funerals of many of our stars have now been turned into opportunities to vent and call-out those who continue to benefit unduly off the talent of the best and brightest the county has produced. This is or should be in itself sacrilegious but then again where else can these things which need to be said be told.
What is sad is how the industry continues to be at the mercy of a connected few who in turn run it like the Wild-West. Labour laws, industry minimum wage standards, common decency and Ubuntu don't apply here – you take whatever little you have been offered and keep quiet!
In 2014 I was one of the actors summarily dismissed from the then nation's favourite soapie 'Generations' without any due process, warning or room to appeal. That this scenario can still happen in an industry worth billions of rands but which still treats its talent as fodder or mere raw materials which can be replaced willy-nilly is testament to the stark realities that liberation does not necessarily mean freedom. At the height of his trade-union days Zwelinzima Vavi threated, ranted and raved at how COSATU would picket at SABC until the 'Generations 16' had been reinstated but nothing came of it. Similar marches have been held for other industries and real changes have followed, so one wonders what makes the acting industry such a sacred cow?
Furthermore the public broadcaster, SABC saw absolutely nothing wrong with not intervening, many were left jobless overnight, some homeless and without any hope of recourse or justice ever coming their way. Court cases and interdicts followed but because many other things are and have been happening, the nation simply forgot. Their stories remain untold, issues unsolved and life goes on in Mzansi.
It would be funny if it was not so sad and pathetic but when industry heavyweights like Lillian Dube are quoted stating that this industry only celebrates "short skirts and g-strings while we have legends like Joe Mafela". Another veteran, Cynthia Shange is quoted stating publicly and bluntly again at Joe Mafela's funeral that she has been "on Muvhango for 18 years and she has never been permanent". This is the truth about this industry which is still to come to the party - 22 years later - and ensure it looks after those who dedicate their lives to bringing entertainment, inspiration and laughter to the nation. Even the President of CCIFSA, a body formed with the sole mandate of redressing these ills had no kind words for the SABC. The big question though my leader is 'WHAT NEXT'?
In the only industry where employees (actors) get let go (read: fired) and Lesley Musina of the Muvhango fame being told "Our writers have not been able to craft a big story for him and because his is such a prominent character, it would have been shameful to just let him float through the season without a gripping storyline". And just like that he's gone! Many other stories such as this one exist and if only actors could come upfront and make sure that these unlawful labour practices come to an end! We cannot even begin to speak about how female actors have been and are treated in the industry where most male producers have been known to sexually harass prospective talent with impunity.
With organisations such as the South African Guild of Actors (SAGA) existing without much bite or let alone teeth. One can only implore the Department of Labour, Department of Arts and Culture, Department of Trade and Industry and CCIFSA to seriously consider convening an acting/film/television industry legotla. Until the systematic exploitation of black talent, black gold by nouve-riche black and white diamond producers ends; then we shall forever hear of harrowing tales of some of most brightest and respected being shamed for dying as paupers. The very industry which they have made their names in won't even have a funeral policy to ensure that the very same actors get decent burials and are remembered with pride and fondness rather than for the fact that people had to donate for them to get send-offs worthy of the talent they so selflessly shared with the whole nation.
Until that day comes then this industry will forever be just like the mining industry; notorious for exploiting black bodies and then banishing them to poverty and sickness after all and sundry are rich and enjoying canapes on some coast somewhere on some island paradise. 22 Years later and it is more expensive to die an actor.