The township theatre exploits of theatre legend Paul Rapetsoa

By Edward Tsumele

Some time in the early 2002’s. a huge man with an equally huge  heart and a  bubbling personality, made his way to an address that used to be a very important address in Johannesburg, No. 61 Commando Road, Industrial. This is an address that housed two newspapers, staffed by some of the most significant black voices in the media in post apartheid South Africa, especially in the 1990s and 2000s, Sowetan and Sunday World.

These were the newspapers that were public reference resource material for those wanting to get insights into the lives of the black community with regards to sports, arts and culture, news and politics. They were trusted agenda setting publications at the time in those areas, and in the case of Sowetan, its historical political legacy and its late legendary editor’s standing Aggrey Klaaste, was inimitable, as it added certain gravitas and prestige to the title on the South African media landscape. I worked for both publications at some stage in my media career.

At the time I was working on Sunday World, on its then highly respected arts supplement Hola. It would not be unfair to suggest and argue that besides one or two other newspaper supplements of the time, this one was one of the most authoritative arts supplement, when it came to how it framed and presented arts articles to the people through critique and through profiling the journeys of many an artist in the country, be it visual art, theatre, radio or TV. It was an influential publication manned by some of the most prominent writers in post apartheid arts writing in the country.

Paul Rapetsoa

Well, this huge man wanted his efforts in promoting theatre, particularly in Limpopo recognized. Yes in Limpopo, the only province in South Africa, which then was one of the two provinces in post apartheid South Africa, alongside Northern Cape, that had no significant theatre tradition in apartheid South Africa and sadly, nor a theatre facility in post apartheid South Africa. It still does not have a single theatre house, while its northern Cape at least has a new theatre house, built recently.

In the case of the Northern cape,this is  thanks to the efforts of activists, including veteran television actor Moagi Modise, who a few years ago left the glitz and glamour of high rated soapies to go back to his home province to fight for a theatre to be built and for authorities to take the arts seriously. That resulted in the construction of this new theatre in Kimberly.

Now this man who came to Number 61 Commando Road, Mahuma Paul Rapestoa must have wanted what has happened to Northern Cape in years down the line to have happened too to the lovely and beloved province of Limpopo. But that of course never happened in his life time, for Rapetsoa died only a few days before the dawn of the new year on December 29, 2020.

Anyway, then in the early 2000s, I bought into his story and, which journalist would dare not believe the playwright’s pitch, as those who have known the man and his passion for theatre will tell you?. Rapetsoa loved theatre and it appeared as if he lived for theatre and nothing else. At the time he had just resigned as head of drama for Thobela FM, to work full time as a playwright, and he did that successfully, right until the time of his demise as he was on SABC1 drama series Skeem Saam playing the role of Malome Josias.

Here was a man who almost single-handedly championed the case for theatre in Limpopo, training many an artist in the township of Seshego and as far as in Gauteng, where he ran his theatre institute from the under-utilised Yeoville Recreation Centre on Raleigh Street, Yeoville, Johannesburg, for years as he would leave Limpopo intermittently to teach his Gauteng students from the facility. The man had addictive passion for theatre as he would sit down with me at the then famous eatery Ekhaya at Time Square that was owned by the late Sue Mabalane, each time he was in Gauteng, to tell me about how he is transforming the lives of many young artists from those premises at Yeoville Recreation Centre.

He would speak animatedly as we enjoyed drinks and  the traditional food that the place was famous for and attracted the suburban middle class people such as journalists, writers, playwrights, musicians and other professionals yearning for Kasie food and simply, comradeship with others in a relaxed environment.

Rapetsoa became a regular there, and that was our meeting place whenever he was in Gauteng. And indeed he got to introduce me to those among his students that he believed would soon make it big in the industry, making their case for them to be interviewed and their dreams of becoming successful artists in this often tough sector published. That was Rapetsoa’s way of doing things. He liked to see young people especially, succeed in theatre and hence many were mentored by him.

His work in the township of Seshego in Polokwane in particular and other towships in the country in general, his drama legacy at Thobela FM, the several young people that he trained through his institute, and recently his TV exploits as an actor on Skeem Saam, is what stands out with regards to Rapetsoa’s legacy inthe country. And therefore, when some people regarded him as the Father of Township Theatre, just like his late mentor Gibson Kente, they were not exaggerating.  After all Rapetsoa was the product of Gibson Kente’s school of theatre, just like many black actors and musicians such as Mbongeni Ngema, the late Brenda Fassie and Marah Louw, to name but just, a few.

Rest in peace Mahuma Paul Rapetsoa and the fruits of your theatre input is out there for everyone to see.

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