Actor Darlington Michaels has been in the entertainment industry for 44 years. He shares his fascinating journey with us. By Kwanele Mathebula.
My role on Isidingo solidified my career. In 1984, I wrote and starred in a play titled Survival. It was about the apartheid prison system and how it treated black prisoners. I felt that it was important to tell the story because of the things I would hear and witness from people who were in prison at the time. I went on to tour the country performing it. Due to the political nature of the play, I was arrested in Natalspruit, east of Johannesburg, where I spent three months in prison without trial. After my release, I went on to do more theatre work until 1985. I acted in a few small roles on television before landing the role of Georgie “Papa G” Zamdela on SABC 3 soapie, Isidingo, in 1997. My character was modelled after me – Papa G also spoke Tsotsi taal and wore expensive silk shirts and extravagant jewellery. Twenty years later, people still call me Papa G when I am out in public.
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In 2013, I suffered from a stroke on a work trip to Cape Town. I had travelled with the cast of Isidingo when I fell ill. I spent three months at Groote Schuur Hospital recovering. I couldn’t sit up, walk or feed myself. Although I didn’t think I would make it, the nurses helped me get back on my feet. The stroke left me feeling fragile; my left leg hasn’t fully recovered, and I now use a walking stick. This further impacted my ability to work. So, I decided to reduce my time on Isidingo to focus on healing. I now work as and when I am needed. When not on set, I work on my own productions through my company, Melisizwe Productions.
Being underpaid is the most challenging thing about this career. As an actor, it took too long to get to the point of being paid what I deserve. Although this has improved, more work still needs to be done to ensure that actors are paid well enough to live comfortably after retirement. At my age, I should own the work I have been a part of and that I invested my life in. But, that is not the case because the industry is not structured that way. Also, the government’s lack of involvement in developing the arts doesn’t help. Once we’re out of jobs, we don’t have anyone looking out for us. We still have to make means to earn money in order to survive. That is not how it should be. This is why I’ve been working on my production company so that I can still earn a living. Fortunately, this is working out for me and I will be taking one of my productions on a school tour this year.
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I am working on growing my Melisizwe productions. I am currently working on a production called Who’s to Blame, which will be tackling issues that the youth face, such as substance abuse and teenage pregnancy. We are currently touring schools in Gauteng to teach children how to deal with the pressures they face.
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