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Joe Mafela: A giant of a man

In ’Sgudi ’Snaysi, the handle by which S’dumo often went was imbungulu (parasite), bestowed on him by his archnemesis, the fahfee-playing Louisa.

The interesting thing about ’Sgudi ’Snaysi, a comedy series set in a fictional Protea, Soweto house, is one never quite knew what work the principal characters of Sis’ May (Daphne Hlomuka) and Louisa (Gloria Mudau) did, but the unspoken mores of class mobility dictated that they were a class above S’dumo, played by Joe Mafela.

The multitalented Mafela died on March 18 in a car accident near the Johannesburg suburb of Marlboro.

As S’dumo, Mafela was the ultimate subaltern figure, the axis the show rotated around, but also a figure deemed invisible by the suggestion of the upward mobility on
display.

S’dumo, an unemployed migrant, functioned as Sis’ May’s surrogate husband and security guard, because he was the only man in a house full of women. It was here that he pursued his marginal existence, under the constant gaze of his landlady and her coterie of associates.

As both the fly on the wall and the cornerstone, S’dumo was often the unlikely dose of reality in Sis’ May’s house, whose rhythms were accented by the regular visits of perpetual gossipmonger Louisa and Bab’ uMfundisi (Israel Thabede), as well as the occasional appearance of Sis’ May’s actress niece, Thoko (Thembi Mtshali).

Although littered with stereotypes, ’Sgudi ’Snaysi was a commentary on the farcically aspirational nature of black urban middle-class life at the tail-end of apartheid — it ran for 78 episodes from 1986 to the early 1990s.

Sis’ May had a modicum of wealth in the form of a property, but she was also dutifully paying her black tax in the form of a live-in niece, who herself was eking out an existence in a precarious arts sector.

The pastor, an archetype, was always on hand to benefit lecherously from his community status, conducting episodic visits to the widowed Sis’ May, marvelling at the consistency of her chocolate cake. The innuendo and irreverence with which uMfundisi was treated never failed as a comedic trope, always ending climatically in “Mmmm, ’ikhekhe lakho, May!” (your cake is delicious, May!)

But the bulk of the comedy in ’Sgudi ’Snaysi usually emanated from these fragile aspirations periodically coming undone, or being sent up, particularly by S’dumo’s ability to manipulate his supposedly more urbane counterparts by managing to live on for another episode.

As the “other”, the figure from a different world, S’dumo’s role was that of the mythical trickster, inventing all manner of calamities, buying time to evade the travails of living jobless in Johannesburg. The bane of his existence was his never-ending cycle of debt, represented by the omnipresent, limping debt collector Laqhasha, mischievously played by Don Mlangeni.

Several episodes of ’Sgudi ’Snaysi ended with the pair playing some kind of cat-and-mouse dance around Sis’ May’s kitchen table, or around the figure of a nonplussed Louisa, who tried to foil S’dumo’s endless ruses to make it to one more sunrise. Remember her constant refrain, echoed to everybody within earshot: “Ungabosithemba isiqashi, usinika isandla, sithathe ingalo yonke. [Never trust a tenant. They always take your kindness for weakness.]”

S’dumo was a late career-defining role for Mafela, who was already an accomplished actor, making his feature film debut in 1965’s Tokoloshe and starring as Peter Pleasure in uDeliwe.

A biography issued for the cast of Retribution states that Mafela had worked constantly since the advent of television in South Africa in the 1970s. He had roles in international movies and branched out into directing and producing. He also worked extensively in the advertising industry, reprising his S’dumo character for a series of Chicken Licken ads, and also had a successful career as a singer and music performer. The man was larger than life.

But it is as S’dumo that Mafela gained his immortality. Part of S’dumo’s genius was in the way Mafela interpreted the role, bringing a lovable, subversive and deprecating quality to the stereotype of the filthy migrant.

S’dumo, the teabag recycler, was the keeper of secret wisdom, which saw him play a leadership role in his circle of friends (okay, he only had two friends, Gundi and FK, but still) and endear himself to his widowed landlady and her gorgeous niece, sans rent, sans acceptable hygiene.

He turned a stereotype on its head and humanised his character, thereby humanising an entire underclass. Rest in peace, Joe Mafela, and long live S’dumo.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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