Mbongeni Ngema, director of Sarafina II, in The Mark Gevisser Profile
DEPENDING on which way you look at it, Mbongeni Ngema is the very best or the very last person you’d want to give a R14-million Aids education contract to. Even his biographer, Laura Jones, was moved to chide him, in an otherwise-salutary Nothing Except Ourselves, for his sexual “recklessness”: “No matter the consequences to himself or his lover, however, he has always found it impossible to pass up any appealing woman, especially one who seemed attracted to him.”
Ngema, rooting his polygamy in the customs of the rural Zululand whence he hails, at one point had three wives. His first, Xoliswa, divorced him. Now he has two: his star, Leleti Khumalo, with whom he lives in that Kloof home you saw in the Sunday papers last week, and Cebisila, 16 when he married her in 1990, who lives in another Durban house.
So yes, says Ngema about the relationship between his theatre and his sex life: “Sarafina II has made me change my life. I’m living through a revolution with my own customs. It’s difficult for an African man, particularly for a successful one, to say he has only one partner.” Understanding Aids through the play has made him “keep women at arms’ length. I’ve had to go through a struggle within myself — if I’m attracted to someone, I have to ask myself so many questions.”
Like whether to use condoms? “A beautiful option. If I have to go out of the way, that’s the only option I have.”
Sarafina II, which has been dormant for the past few weeks, re-opens on Friday at the Eyethu Cinema in Soweto, where it will run until the end of March. On Monday, four days before this unexpected opening (brought forward because of the scandal), Ngema gathers his cast in a Durban hall: “I’m warning you,” he says, “… the journalists will not be on your side. They’ll be thinking you’re a massive scandal, a waste of taxpayers’ money. So every step you take they’ll be judging you. The stakes are high …”
The stakes are high, and so I cannot blame Mbongeni Ngema too much for giving me the runaround. I chased him, usually unsuccessfully, around Durban for two days. He lived up to his notorious reputation for disorganisation. When we did connect, he was charming, cool in floppy linen suits, shorn of those trademark peppercorns around the mouth, fresh-faced rather than dissolute. Despite the fact that he was working those “so sue me” spaniel-eyes for all they were worth (well more than R14-million — Ngema is a multimedia superstar), I found him refreshingly artless. A country boy from Hlabisa quite at home in an imported silver Camaro with personalised plates, calling the shots at a fab post-modern office, all curves and views and shiny black surfaces, up on Morningside Ridge. The Umgeni Road is most certainly not Sunset Boulevard, but this is as close to the Hollywood Hills as you’re going to find in the canefields.
Depending on whom you believe, the offices were decked out by you and me, dear taxpayer, or by our equivalents on the polders and in the petites villes. Ngema confirms that Sarafina II was the brainchild of Minister of Health Nkosazana Zuma. The truth is that conventional Aids awareness methods — pamphlets, posters, even worthy educational theatre — have not worked, and so Zuma is to be commended for trying something new, and for roping little Sarafina, pop-liberation icon of the 1980s, into the act: who ever thought the matronly minister could be so funky?
Whether it is worth R14-million — equivalent to a fifth of the annual Aids budget and the total cost of the entire annual provincial Aids allocations — is another matter altogether. People in the Aids field can be forgiven for finding it offensive and even grotesque that even Ngema’s stage-hands earn R2 000 a week, the salary many of them earn in a month, and that Ngema has bought, with the the department’s money, items like a R1-million luxury bus.
Citing what amounts to a gag from the minister’s office, Ngema will not respond to allegations of “unaccounted for” money, save to say that he has “no knowledge” of the R1,1-million in dispute.
Like his political principles, he has decided to brazen it out. About the bus, he says, “Yes! It’s about time our artists were transported in dignity. Why must we be transported in luxury buses in the United States, but come to our own country to be put in the back of Kombis? No way! I’m proud of our bus.”
Are his own services worth R300 000, particularly given the fact that he is paid another full-time salary, worth R90 000, by the state through his position as musical director of the Natal Playhouse? “No, they are not. I should be earning at least a million.” But does any director in this country earn those figures? “I don’t think you can compare me to anyone in this country.”
He is unrepentant about the cost of the production, putting a race-spin on it: “I’m not prepared to do a second-class production. Why should whites get state- funded first-class productions in the State Theatre, while blacks in the townships get flatbed trucks? No. Blacks deserve Broadway standards.”
Apart from the fact that he is now a senior official at one of these “white” state institutions, where he has successfully produced three of his own plays using state money, the problem here is that he — a creative artist — – is dealing with the Health Department’s budget as if it were funding for the arts rather than funding for health education.
Sarafina II marks a crucial turning point in indigenous South African theatre, one that has been a long time coming. Now, given the severe budgetary constraints on arts funding, the only way performing artists will get money for their work is if they tie in to one aspect or another of the RDP: this year Sarafina II uses Aids and throws in a message about condom use; next year Sarafina III might tap Kader Asmal’s budget and throw in a message about sanitation: “Ventilated Privies Are Coming, To-mor-row!”
Ngema, who has no problem with the concept of “RDP theatre”, sees it another way: black South African theatre has “always been issue-based. What I’m doing with Sarafina II is an exact continuation of what I was doing with the original Sarafina. The only difference is that when we were doing freedom theatre, the government wouldn’t pay for it. Now we are free, we are shifting to other stories, and the government is finally paying.”
Some might say that by calling this Sarafina a continuation of a previous one, the director is revealing his own expediency. He was frequently slammed, in the 1980s, for capitalising on the struggle. Is he now capitalising on another?
It’s worth putting Mbongeni Ngema into context. His Woza Albert!, developed with Percy Mtwa and Barney Simon, heralded the birth of South Africa’s world- renowned protest theatre in 1981. Then with Asinamali!, Ngema demonstrated his exceptional technical abilities, and his ability to turn the wrenching political dynamics of the time into an entertaining and challenging theatrical form. Both are among the most brilliant and defining works of art to have emerged from this land.
Asinamali! became a cause celebre in New York. The Lincoln Centre gave Ngema hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce his next work, Sarafina!. He recruited 30-odd kids, housed them in a refurbished warehouse in Newtown, and set to work, from scratch, to create the play over nearly a year. Certainly, his patriarchal position made the situation ripe for exploitation, and there were controversies, not least allegations that he used the casting couch, and the cane and belt to “discipline” his wards. Ngema admits to the corporal punishment, saying that it was because the families of the “kids” had entrusted them to him, and that it was his duty to discipline them.
One way or the other, Sarafina! became the benchmark musical of the time, and launched a generation of young stars. The play defines the way most Americans think about South Africa, and it defines the way most young black South Africans think about theatre. Go to any community theatre group, and you’ll see a dozen teenage girls trying to be Sarafina — all “Broadway-here-I- come” mug-faced delivery and brazen sexuality. At every community theatre festival in this land, there is at least one group that puts on a tape of the play and lip-synchs its way through it. The pastiche of political anger and comic burlesque, fused into a form of struggle-minstrelsy, has become the almost inescapable formula for how to make black South African theatre: liberating in the possibilities of success it presents, oppressive in the limitations of style it imposes.
Oppressive, indeed, even to its own creator. Since Sarafina!, Ngema has produced little of note. His latest musicals have been pale shades of Sarafina!, with narratives becoming more and more inconsequential and self-referential. His work is formulaic, and often seems half-baked, precisely because he is trying to be everything from director and composer to choreographer, producer, manager and writer. But Ngema professes to be thrilled with the formula: “Yes, my musicals do work to a formula, but it’s a formula I like. And more important, a formula the people like.”
Now the brassy schoolgirl returns to our stages as a condom-toting social worker; the revolutionary aspiration of the 1980s has matured into the social responsibility of the 1990s. Perhaps South African theatre’s most famous son is to be commended for his inventiveness: using Aids, he has found a way of bringing theatre back into the townships, to the rickety halls and grubby cinemas and open fields he once played to with “Bra Gib” Kente. It remains to be seen whether, in the process, he has re- sparked his own creative muse and re-energised the genre of township theatre.
I can trace my coming to political consciousness, as a white schoolboy lurking around the Market Theatre, to a performance of Woza Albert! I’ll never forget Ngema. I wept at the shame of my ignorance while black folk guffawed all around me. Later in my life, I remember watching Americans on Broadway at Sarafina!, smugly leaving the theatre believing that, by simply paying $25 and sitting through a couple of hours of song and dance, they had personally done their bit in liberating South Africa, by literally applauding black children from slavery into freedom.
To invest R14-million blindly in such an unpredictable medium is a costly risk. The odds are not improved by the fact that Ngema knew little about Aids to begin with, and was given little backup from the Department of Health until the very last minute. Even now, his understanding is rudimentary. No wonder some spectators felt his first productions perpetuated the problem that women face in the Aids epidemic by showing women to be subjugated “gifts” spreading the virus.
Laura Jones writes, in her biography, that Ngema’s “tender answer to the questions I’ve put to him about the numerous affairs in his life — many of which seem to have been highly irresponsible — is always the same: ‘But she loved me’.”
Hey, if Mbongeni Ngema speaks the truth and Sarafina II has precipitated an internal sexual revolution, maybe Dr Zuma’s risk will pay off. This man is no prissy health professional: he has been there in the sexual trenches, done it all. Perhaps he does, after all, know what he’s on about.