Remembering South African-Born International Actor — Zakes Mokae

Before Charlize Theron won an Oscar and became the face and pride of South African acting to the world, a Johannesburg man had already made an indelible mark on Hollywood by appearing in hit television shows and movies, even though it is for his theatre work that he is now remembered in the US. 

Zakes Mokae, was a Tony-winning South African actor whose partnership with his South African playwright Athol Fugard, in plays like “The Blood Knot,” “Boesman and Lena” and “Master Harold ... and the Boys,” brought the insidious psychological brutality of apartheid to the attention of a world audience.

Mokae was born in Johannesburg, South Africa on 5 Aug 1935. I got to know of him when he appeared in an episode of one my favourite shows of all time, The West Wing. He played a president of a fictional country in South Africa and he was speaking Setswana. Of course hearing an actor speaking my language in an American show, I had to get to know who he is.  

His official biography states that Mokae attended St. Peter's Anglican school in Rosettenville, where he came to know the Superintendent, Father Trevor Huddleston. He started as a saxophonist playing in the Huddleston Jazz Band alongside the now accomplished musician, Hugh Masekela.

The apartheid regime blocked his acting career in South Africa so he went to London in 1961 to study acting at RADA, and appeared on the West End and Broadway. 

In 1969 he moved into American films and established himself as a gifted character actor, appearing in such films as in the horror film The Serpent and the Rainbow, and in the anti-apartheid film A Dry White Season.

In 1980 he founded The Black Actors Theatre with Danny Glover in San Francisco. In 1982 he won a Tony Award for his performance in Master Harold and the Boys and in 1993 received a nomination for The Song of Jacob Zulu.  

In Feb 2005 he was presented with the South African Life-Time Achievement Award for his stage work.

Zakes Mokae passed away in his sleep on 11 September 2009 in Las Vegas after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.  He was cremated in the American state of Nevada, USA and laid to rest at the West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was 75.

Sidenote: After The Blood Knot opened in London, Mr. Mokae was barred from returning to South Africa. He did not return until 1982, when he learned his 23 year old brother James was to be hanged for murders committed during a robbery, though it was unclear whether James was present during the killings. Mr. Mokae, who learned of the death sentence on the night he won his Tony Award, returned to Johannesburg in time to witness his brother’s execution.

Films Mr Mokae has appeared on;

A World of Strangers/ Dilemma
The Comedians
Fragment of Fear
The River Niger
The Island
Cry Freedom
The Serpent and the Rainbow
Gross Anatomy
A Dry White Season
A Rage in Harlem
The Doctor
Body Parts
Dust Devil
Slaughter of the Innocents
Vampire in Brooklyn
Krippendorf's Tribe

Television shows he appeared in:

Danger Man
Seek Her Out
Hazel and Her New Gas Cooker
Where Have They Gone, All the Little Children?
Starsky and Hutch
One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story
Roots: the next generations
Knight Rider
A Caribbean Mystery
Master Harold ...and The Boys
A Different World
The Hogan Family
Parker Kane
Dream On
The X Files
Percy Thunder
In Darkest Hollywood: Cinema and Apartheid
Rise and Walk: the Dennis Byrd Story
Law and Order
Gensyn med Johannesburg
Waterworld (computer game)
The West Wing
The Valiant Little Tailor
Watch Zakes Mokae speaking Setswana on The West Wing playing "President Nambila". The translator is totally off though ... 

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