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Tuesday, January 19, 2021


(Afzal Khan)

Afzal Khan, a life celebrated. Tribute by director and playwright Rajesh Gopie.

On Saturday night at 8.30 pm, my friend and fellow actor, Afzal Khan passed away at St Augustine’s hospital in Durban from Covid-19 complications. He was a month short of his 65th birthday.

I met Afzal in 2001, and immediately liked him. He was affectionate, effusive and he possessed a natural disposition towards humour. He was not someone you would forget easily and very rarely did I ever meet him without his wife Sumayya and his children by his side. Afzal was deeply family orientated, something engrained in his upbringing. Raised in a large joint family in Reservoir Hills, he was the last born and he lovingly shared stories of his childhood. He openly regaled me with family anecdotes, both hilarious and compelling. He cried at the drop of a hat when it came to matters of the heart. His kids teased, “Papa cries for everything”. There was never a dull moment around Afzal.

In 2002, I cast him in my play, The Coolie Odyssey, a story about indentured labour and the coming of Indians to South Africa, commissioned by the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown as part of the main festival. It was a big deal at the time, and it turned out to be an experience we would never forget. The play was critically acclaimed, and the cast brimmed with pride knowing that we had added an important chapter to our country’s burgeoning democracy, one in which Indian stories previously occupied a minimal space at best. Afzal held his own amongst a cast that boasted the likes of the late greats Franz Dobrovsky and Allister Dube. He had made his mark on the national theatre scene and there was no holding him back.

In the years since, whenever we met, Afzal would recount so much of that tour; random moments, a collage of memories that only someone like him would appreciate. He was a rare breed of a yesteryear person, the type that held human experience and relationships precious above money and cheap fame. His word was his bond, and he was never late for a rehearsal, nor did he avoid hard work and long hours in our creative endeavor.

We worked again four more times; The Coolie Odyssey (restaged) at the Market Theatre in 2003 and The Playhouse Company in 2005, Kismet Court a popular radio drama for SABC radio in 2006, and Tamasha on Hope Street at the Market Theatre in 2017, for which his performance earned him a Naledi Theatre nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He also worked steadily with a host of other names in the Durban theatre scene and found his way into films and television as well. He achieved so much for a man who hardly had any formal training in the performing arts.

Afzal and Sumayya often came over to my home for family birthdays and dinners. How could we ever forget his Michael Jackson impersonation with a South Indian twist? The provocateur, Afzal, would gyrate to MJ’s BAD, while singing the lyrics in Tamil mumbo jumbo. And, he had a gift for pulling faces. The “Hanuman” face cracked me up every time! A comedic feast, to say the least.

Afzal’s death was sudden and shocking, and the sadness is felt by all who knew him as indicated in the deluge of social media posts. For me it is certainly a case of gone too soon. I would have loved to work with him again and had proposed that to him a few months ago. Sadly, this was not to be.

However, Afzal Khan’s legacy should be celebrated, and he rightfully takes his place in the celestial theatre of treasured South African performers. Let us honour Afzal, a man of warm heart and comedic generosity that lived and died in the time of Corona.

Go in peace my dear friend. - Rajesh Gopie, 18/01/21