Thabo Mojaki

Puppeteer

For Thabo Mojaki, the term “starving artist” isn’t just a figure of speech, it has often been the reality.

For a couple of years Mojaki lived on the streets of Johannesburg after leaving his home in the Free State to look for work. He’s still seeking work now, but this time he’s searching for bookings for his puppet shows.

Mojaki (28) discovered a flair for making marionettes out of rubbish, chiefly from waste paper turned into papier mâché.

Now he gives puppet shows and runs workshops teaching children how to make and manipulate puppets of their own. He runs many of the workshops for free, but picks up a little income from working at a church.

He’s happy to dedicate his time and his life to developing and nurturing young people, he says, to inspire them to discover their own abilities through art.

“I teach children in schools and churches how to make puppets because it’s my passion, it’s my life,” he says. “The arts fuel children’s curiosity and critical capacity. It’s vital that children engage with the arts early in their lives.”

His puppets include a ballerina, Zulu and pantsula dancers and a penny whistle player. He makes ventriloquist’s dummies too, but hesitates to say he’s a good ventriloquist.

“I’m growing and learning, but I don’t think of myself as a Jeff Dunham,” he jokes.

Mojaki was 14 when he moved to Johannesburg. He lived on the streets until he was adopted by an Australian woman, who took him in until he finished high school. After school he managed to get a job at Builder’s Warehouse, but he knew his passion was in the arts, so he quit and began busking with his puppets.

He has graduated from busking on the streets to entertaining at birthday parties and giving talks to various groups about his craft, working in English, Sesotho, Sepedi and Afrikaans.

Mojaki is married with three sons of his own now, so he’s keen to win more paid assignments.

“I’m hoping to get more corporate events so I can make a living. I also want to develop a website where people can get hold of me,” he says. — Lesley Stones