'Sarafina III' a hot potato

The Mpumalanga provincial government last week defended its decision to splurge R22-million on a musical commemorating the 50th anniversary of the potato boycott, to be produced by controversial theatre practitioner Mbongeni Ngema.

Sammy Mpatlanyane, spokesperson for the Mpumalanga department of culture, sports and recreation, said government “was not apologetic” about the big budget production, entitled Lion of the East: Gert Sibande and the Potato Boycott, because it would act as a “huge springboard” for local theatre talent while preserving and promoting local history and culture.

“It is the department’s mandate to protect, preserve and showcase the traditions of the province — Gert Sibande is not just a local hero, but also a national one who advanced our struggle. If we don’t tell the story, who will?” said Mpatlanyane.

Sibande, who went by the moniker “Lion of the East”, was a Bethal-born ANC activist who drew international attention to the inhumane living and working conditions of potato-farm workers in the area, which resulted in a successful boycott of produce.

Mpatlanyane said Ngema was required to draw 70% of his projected 45-member cast from the province, which will equip “youth from the area with vital training and exposure to theatre practice”.

He dismissed suggestions that R22-million for a single production—more than a 10% chunk of his department’s annual budget of R208-million—was perhaps over the top.

“This is a projected cost which includes everything from accommodation to rehearsals, publicity, lighting and music — If you have a well-known scriptwriter like Mbongeni Ngema on board you immediately have a brand and we want this production to tour nationally and overseas,” he said.

While referring questions pertaining to the massive budget to the provincial government, Ngema dismissed suggestions that it was excessive: “Like all great musicals, like The Lion King, I’m taking you to a world standard — There will be a large cast, a big set, costumes, sophisticated lighting; everything will be done on that large scale.”

Ngema was previously at the centre of controversy over Sarafina II, an Aids-awareness play for which he was awarded a R14,27-million contract by the department of health in 1995.
It later emerged that the contract was signed without proper approval from the state tender board, while the public protector questioned the necessity of spending that amount of money on a single play.

The Mail & Guardian canvassed various theatre practitioners to contextualise the R22-million budget of Ngema’s new musical. Bernard Jay, chief executive officer of the Johannesburg Civic Theatre, said R22-million “must be a record for a single South African theatre production. I have never seen a budget that big for one show in this country.”

He said musicals, with their large casts, costume changes and musical orchestration, were generally expensive: “The more financial support you can get, the better you can do. Mbongeni is an extraordinary artist, so we will have to wait and see what he comes up with and whether it was worth it,” said Jay.

Jay added that the Civic Theatre, which employs 84 full-time staff and has an annual budget of R39-million, was working on its own large-scale musical—an adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton’s The Boys in the Photograph. A total of R15-million has been set aside for the five-year project which will coincide with the 2010 World Cup.

Grahamstown’s National Arts Festival chief executive, Ismail Mahomed, speaking in his personal capacity, thought it “ridiculous”. “R22-million would keep a number of festivals running for a number of years and create work for thousands of people. The money could have been used to strengthen institutions on the verge of collapse and inject new energy into the industry,” he said.

Mahomed, who spent seven years working in Mpumalanga, said there was “an enormous financial risk factor” in spending that much money on a single production and that “this level of miscalculation and mismanagement is standard operating procedure there”.

The National Arts Festival has an annual budget of R18-million.

Regina Sebright, producer at the Johannesburg Market Theatre, said R22-million was the equivalent of “two years’ worth of programming in three theatres. We spend between R10-million and R12-million on about 20 productions a year.”

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football. Read more from Niren Tolsi

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