On 18 March, we woke up to the sad news that actor Joe Mafela had died. The man who’d brought us some of the most iconic comedic characters on South African television: Sdumo from ’Sgud ’Snaysi and Jabu Cebekhulu in Going Up had left us abruptly. And who can forget his hit, Shebeleza (Congo Mama), which became the unofficial theme song for the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996?

At his memorial service, a formidable group of elders – including jazz legend Stompie Manana and singer and actress Abigail Kubheka – come to pay their last respects to their friend and colleague. When the chairman of the Living Legends, theatre master Welcome Msomi, informed the crowd that poet and fellow legend, Don Mattera, would read a poem especially written by him for Mafela, the crowd at the memorial screeched with bittersweet delight. “Nobody writes about Joe Mafela, he writes us, he shows us how to live our lives,” interluded Mattera before starting the poem.

Mafela – like Msomi, Mattera, Kubheka, choreographer and dance instructor Adele Blank, and Peter Magubane, the man behind many of the harrowing images from the 1976 student uprisings – was one of the nine Living Legends who form part of an initiative by Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa. The Living Legends Legacy Programme (LLLP) was officially unveiled by the minister in 2015 and is essentially a space of confluence for veterans from various aspects of the performing arts, with the view to pass on their experience to younger people hoping to follow in their footsteps. “It is important to celebrate our African heritage and identity by making sure the knowledge is passed down to each generation,” the minister told journalists on Heritage Day last year.

From the haunting images of 16 June 1976, captured by the keen eye of photographer Peter Magubane, to Umabatha, Welcome Msomi’s original Zulu adaption of Macbeth, South Africa has a treasure trove of artistic talent. Now, a group of South Africa’s greats have come together to pass on their knowledge. By Lerato Tshabalala

Mafela’s passing sent ripples of sadness across South Africa. It became increasingly clear that a great tree had fallen. Actress Nomzamo Mbatha, who acted alongside Mafela in Isibaya, reposted a heartfelt message she’d written two years prior to the 75-year-old’s passing (from a car accident). The message is not only an indication of Mafela’s greatness, but is symbolic of how many younger people feel about icons of their youth: “Joe Mafela… What a privilege and an honour to be working with this legend every day. Never in my entire life did I ever imagine that I, an ordinary girl from KwaMashu, would be in the presence of greats.”

The history books may not acknowledge the icons who risked their lives during the apartheid struggle by using their creative expression (whether through dance or music) to tell the stories of their people, but the elders of the LLLP are hoping to change that.

“Minister Mthethwa came up with the idea of the Living Legends after realising that some of our country’s legends die without transferring their skills to the youth. He called a workshop with many living legends in 2015 to talk about changing this pattern,” explains LLLP chairman Msomi, who was the first to adapt Shakespeare’s Macbeth into Zulu in 1972’s Umabatha. “The aim was also about collaborating with up-and-coming artists across different artistic disciplines. However, one of the things we wanted to establish was a proper identification of a living legend, and the first thing that was decided upon was that the Living Legends had to be 70 years and older,” says the 73-year-old theatre veteran, before jokingly admitting that “if the age was not that specific, then everyone would call themselves a living legend. You have to wait for your 70s.”

Thereafter, a trust was formed, so that the LLLP wouldn’t be dictated to by government – the Legends themselves would decide how to best utilise the trust. Nine Living Legends were selected, with singer Letta Mbulu as the deputy chairperson. “We had to look at where we needed to start, and we decided on master classes. The minister set aside funding for the master classes, so the Living Legends could also make a living while giving back. We sent people like composer Caiphus Semenya to Mpumalanga to talk to the young people about a career in music, how he created and produced songs. The kids were excited to have Caiphus there,” says Msomi. Semenya (who’s been married to Mbulu for 47 years this year) co-produced The Roots soundtrack with Quincy Jones and was one of the Academy-nominated composers for Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple. Mbulu and Semenya met while touring with the musical King Kong, which opened in South Africa in 1959, before the two went into exile in Los Angeles, USA in 1965.

Recently, Mbulu’s hit Jikijela – written by the singer in 1976 after watching the student uprisings while in exile – was recorded by songstress Thandiswa Mazwai in her latest jazz album, Belede. But Mbulu admits that she was hesitant to take up the position of deputy chairperson. “I felt very uncomfortable about the prospect of being second in command, it sounded very restrictive to me. At the end of the day, we are all artists; as creatives, we all need to have our input taken into consideration. Since we all create art, I didn’t understand why I had to do something that sounded so serious,” chuckles the 74-year-old. It took some convincing for her to buy into the idea. “After it was explained to me that everyone’s input would be considered, but that a formal structure needed to be established in order for the minister not to be bombarded and for tasks to be done timeously, I accepted the position of deputy chair,” explains Mbulu.

In April 2017, Mbulu and Msomi set about on a journey to reconnect with 95-year-old traditional healer and Isanusi (Zulu diviner or sangoma), Credo Mutwa. “This is an important project for us. As the Living Legends, we feel it’s important to recognise Mutwa’s contribution to our culture and country; he’s a spiritual leader and he knows our history. There are certain wrongs that need to be righted – most importantly, we owe him an apology for what happened in 1976…” says Mbulu, sounding gravely melancholic. Mutwa had to leave Soweto in the 80s and move to Kuruman, after the Kwa-Khaya Lendaba Cultural Village that he had founded in 1974 was burnt down by angry students in 1976, who had misunderstood Mutwa’s aim for the cultural village as a place that “promotes tribalism and separate development”. There was to be a second attack on the village – which was filled with Mutwa’s uniquely created African sculptures – and after his son was killed, he elected that he and his wife Virginia should rather leave the township. The Living Legends want to restore Mutwa’s legacy and bring him peace while he’s still alive. “We are putting together a group of young people who we’d like to sit with him, and not only apologise but explain what happened so he can have closure, because what we discovered when we went to see him is that he still doesn’t have closure,” laments Mbulu. In 2005, the site was restored and is now known widely as the Credo Mutwa Cultural Village in Jabavu, Soweto.

It seems the Living Legends have a lot of bridges to help mend, but if anyone can do it, it’s these living gods of African storytelling. These vastly different generations – those having lived and thrived in an analogue world where talent was supreme, attempting to connect with the digital generation, who dream of a lot of fame with a little bit of talent sprinkled on top – have a great deal to learn from each other. But Msomi says this is just the beginning. “We are going to create a network of living legends right through Africa and beyond. We will also go on a fundraising tour of Europe and the US and work with the living legends from those countries. So we’ve got a lot of plans,” says Msomi.

With the youngest member being 73 and the oldest 85, you can’t help not only to aspire to their achievements, but to admire their energy and commitment to our country.

The nine Living Legends;

Welcome Msomi, 73, theatre 

Letta Mbulu, 74, music 

Peter Magubane, 85, visual art

Adele Blank, 75, dance 

Don Mattera, 85, literature 

Stompie Manana, 82, audiovisual arts 

Wally Serote, 74, heritage

Fred Hagemann, 70s, theatrical education 

Joe Mafela, 75, film and television