The work of Patrick Shai: A pleasurable pleasure to experience

11 November 2019, Dobsonville, South Africa: veteran actor stands with his hands in the air, pleading with a troupe of South African police; behind him a community in protest. Moments later, a legend is running for his life, a hail of gunshots chases him – 11 bullets do the catching. An activist survives; the ammunition was only but rubber-bullets.

1976, South Africa: producer-director Joe Mafela is recruiting dancers for a production. A mother to a young man involved in the liberation movement against the apartheid regime – a young man as volatile as the times he lives in, urges her 20 year old son to audition – out of the fear of his arrest or even worse, his death. The young man auditions, makes it into Mzumba African Ballet, and in 1977 the artist Patrick Shai is born.    

The birth of the artist blazed the path of a new sort of purpose. In an interview Shai expresses, “I discovered that the fire in me of a kid who threw stones in ’76, who inhaled teargas, who then formed a group to respond to the brutality of the white regime [was still burning]… I realise now that there was a purpose in God plucking me in there, so that I can bring out that which I wanted to bring out through revolution, throwing stones, but I can do that through the arts.” This purpose seemed to follow him even in his roles in international films such as Hold My Hand I’m Dying (1988), Land of Dreams (1990, and Cry the Beloved Country (1995).

1997, South Africa: Shai is cast in the SABC 1 series, Soul City IV, for the role of Thabang, an abusive husband. This role becomes, as he calls it, his “road to Damascus” moment – a dramatic change of heart that had a profound influence on his and his loved ones’ lives.

It was, once again, the arts that reformed his life. In a letter on the effect of this role, Shai stated, “When playing an abusive husband in the Soul City IV series, I first-hand experienced the pain and scars I was inflicting on my wife and children… What really pained me that day was the realisation that inflicting violence is a choice. When I fought with my wife, bringing her pain and fear, I did not make the right choice. I now know that violence with women is wrong.”

With the advent of television in South Africa came a new phenomenon, that of public figures. For the first time we could meet complete strangers from distant lands in our own living rooms, and if we were to meet them in public, they felt familiar, we knew them, we spent countless hours with them, we knew their lives; at least for almost two decades we knew only the lives of the characters they played.

There have been scores of these public figures between the 1970s and the 1990s, but for whatever reason, only a handful whose names have stood the test of time; Patrick Shai stands out amongst these names. With the advancement of television and the introduction of lifestyle shows, it seemed that the price for being a public figure was the surrender of one’s personal life. It was no longer just about the character, but also the actual human portraying it. Public image was thus of paramount importance.

2010, South Africa: over a decade after the turning point of his abusive behavior, multi-award winning actor, Patrick Shai becomes the ambassador of Brothers For Life, Brothers Against Violence campaign. Despite running a risk of undoing over three decades of the work he had put into building his legacy, which came with being hailed as a venerated actor by South African audiences, loved and revered by his colleagues, and leading a healthy relationship with his wife and children, he went public with his abusive past terming himself a “reformed perpetrator of Gender Based Violence”. He later founded Khuluma Ndoda, a Men’s Social Movement against all types of Gender Based Violence.

Shai used his personal experiences in speaking out against GBV until his last days. However, his entire character was put in disrepute by his negligence in his boxing challenge video to South African rapper, Cassper Nyovest. Regardless of his intent, his behavior and language exhibited a disregard for the female body, and worse still, his cohort acted contra to what had become his modus operandi, his “mantra ya majita” as it were: o ska skeema motho o senang ngqondo.”

18 January 2022, Dobsonville, South Africa: a veteran actor stands with his hands in the air pleading for forgiveness, around him a horde of the cancel culture community. A moment later, a hail of tweets engulfs him – countless insults do the drowning. A remorseful man does not survive. Four days later he takes his own life.

Upon hearing the devastating news of Shai’s passing, fellow actor and friend Hlomla Dandala took to Instagram with the words, “For those who wanted Patrick Shai canceled. You wanted it. You got it.” We may not know exactly what it is that led to Patrick Shai taking his own life, but what we cannot run away from is that the fear he faced when he was fleeing from the police and considering falling with the hope that they will stop shooting, but thought to himself that, “if you fall they’re gonna finish you off,” is a fear that became a reality. He fell, and cancel culture just kept shooting.

John Perlman asks him in an episode of A song, A book and A dish, “Patrick Shai, what’s your wish for yourself?” To which he replies, “I… eish… I wish for God to give me time and wisdom to continue doing the good things that I’m supposedly doing, and more.” He may have passed, but his legacy lives on, and perhaps the manner in which he exited this life advances the purpose of his work, urging us to not only continue his work against Gender Based Violence, but also to fight against the scourge that is mental illness and the negligence and brutality of cancel culture that feeds off it.

In the words of his mentor, Joe Mafela we say, “It has been the greatest pleasure to have had the pleasure of your pleasure, [your work has been] a pleasurable pleasure.” May your soul Rest in Peace.

Patrick Shai was laid to rest on Saturday January 29. 

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