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TRIBUTE TO ALFRED NOKWE (article first published : 2008-06-4; last edited : [an error occurred while processing this directive])

Yesterday late afternoon (June 3) saw the passing of one of South Africa’s most respected and revered sons of theatre, Alfred Dudley Nokwe. He died peacefully at home at the age of 72 while watching television with his beloved wife Patti seated next to him.

A well-known and erudite actor and director with a very distinctive voice, Alfred Nokwe was born in Port St Johns and came to Durban with his mother when he was five. He never knew his father and his mother died when he was 14 so he grew to adulthood amid hardship and loneliness. His multi-layered life saw him working as a municipality clerk, secretary of the Beatrice Street YMCA and district sales manager for SA Breweries before moving into the entertainment industry on a full-time basis.

He was 18 when he become involved in show business and appeared in various theatre productions in and around Durban. He had a vocal group of his own called the Rockets and was popular as Master of Ceremonies in various performing platforms. Over and above his stage appearances at the time, he had already started what was to be a busy career in television. He married Patti in 1955 and always acknowledged that she was the secret to their long-lasting marriage, with her most inspiring quality being her humility - despite the fact that she became a performing icon in her own right.

His first professional production was in 1960, in a cameo role in Alan Paton’s Mkhumbane directed by Malcolm Woolfson, a play that coincided with the riots in Durban. Alfred lived in Umkhumbane and in February 2001, the Izwi Cato Manor Community Newspaper featured an article written by him on his experiences in Umkhumbane:

“That is what it (Umkhumbane) was called, named after the river that went through from Bellair meandering past Cabazini then Draaihoek, bypassing Ezimbuzini and forking out to Mgenge and Nettleton Road bordering Chesterville. The Municipality had built an aquaduct at the bottom of Nettleton Road and this was a favourite “skiing resort” for the children of Umkhumbane. You see, the little channel was all slimy and slippery because of the lichens and mosses. That is where you would see naked little black bums sliding up and down the ntshununu. Umkhumbane was sublet to Asiatics at the turn of the century by Whites who had been given the land by George Cato. The Asiatics cultivated and ploughed the land supplying the so called English Market with fresh vegetables. They never looked back!” (See http://www.cmda.org.za/IZWI/Izwi_Apr01_pg2.htm for full article)

The opening night of Mkhumbane saw cast members walking from Cato Manor to the Durban City Hall as the buses had been burned during the conflict. Special Branch police monitored the performance continually, even arresting Johnny Makhathini who was released just in time to make his appearance on stage!

Mkhumbane was a resounding success and after the production, Alfred was one of a handpicked group of 20 or so talented young actors chosen by Malcolm Woolfson to receive tuition in theatrical skills over weekends and holidays. At the time there was no training for black people in the universities but, thanks to Malcolm Woolfson’s vision and determination, this small group received top class tuition from luminaries such as Professor Elizabeth Sneddon, Joan Little, David Horner, Vivien Lazarow, Professor Pieter Scholtz and many others.

In 1982, Alfred opened a Casting and Artists Management Agency and one of his early appointments was managing a cast of 23 teenagers from Umlazi and Kwa Mashu who attended the International Festival of Youth Orchestras and Performing Arts in Aberdeen, Scotland, after which the company toured the East Coast of England and ended up in London. He then went on to manage Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Juluka on their first trip to Germany in 1981 and 1982 as well as Welcome Msomi’s Umabatha cast which toured South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho and the United States.

He featured in 11 theatre productions and 24 television dramas as well as documentaries and educational programmes. Film highlights were Darrell Roodt’s acclaimed film production of Cry the Beloved Country in 1995, Kill Slade directed by Bruce McFarlane in 1989 and the TV mini-series of Shaka Zulu in 1986 directed by William C Faurè. His daughter Tu Nokwe played Pampata, the role she also performed in the feature film of the same name.

Alfred was always supportive of Jerry Pooe’s Eager Artists company and, apart from his and Patti’s guidance and help with the productions, he managed several shows for the Durban runs and on tour. These included Peace in the Valley and Lalela. He was MC in Maurice Smith’s Coon Carnival which toured the then South and Northern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia) and was nominated for an Astera Award in the category of Best Performance in a Dramatic Work for the series Ifa lakwa Mthethwa.

In 2004 – on his birthday, April 1 - I was delighted to present Alfred Nokwe with the first Smart Award from The Fools Awards, the public online voting system run by Copy Dog which acknowledges excellence in the arts on many levels. The citation recognised his distinguished career in the arts lasting more than 40 years during which he exercised a profound influence on generations of younger artists.

Earlier this year, the city of Durban honoured Kwa-Zulu-Natal people who have helped put the province on the map. Alfred Nokwe was among those recognised in the eThekwini Living Legends project.

Durban casting director Peter Gardner, who has known Alfred for many years, says: “Alf and I worked together on numerous film projects over the last 20 years or so, both local and international. One in particular stands out, and that was a commercial for IBM computers for which over 1,200 township children were auditioned over a period of three weeks. Logistics dictated that all the initial casting was done in the townships, either in school or community halls. However, when it came to E section Kwa Mashu, the auditions took place- of course! - in Alfred and Patti’s back yard, with hundreds of eager kids lining the driveway and out into the road. Alf was always easy to get along with and brought a wealth of knowledge about the locals and whatever problems or emotional baggage they might have to bring along with them when they worked on productions. Go well, old friend. You will be remembered and respected by all who knew and worked with you.”

Alfred Nokwe may have left us but his legend will live on through his remaining six children (musician Papi died in 2005) which include top music star Tu Nokwe and Marilyn Nokwe (Mango Groove). His granddaughter is singer Ayanda Nhlangothi (Idols).

Rest in peace, Alfred - you more than made your mark in this world. We will still be counting your footprints for many years to come. – Caroline Smart




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