Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

‘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.”

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

Fears of violence persist a year after the murder of...

The court battle to stop coal mining in rural KwaZulu-Natal has heightened the sense of danger among environmental activists

Data shows EFF has lower negative sentiment online among voters...

The EFF has a stronger online presence than the ANC and Democratic Alliance

More top stories

Fishing subsidies in the W. Cape: ‘Illegal fishing is our...

Fishers claim they are forced into illegal trawling because subsidies only benefit big vessels

Kenya’s beach boys fall into sex tourism, trafficking

In the face of their families’ poverty, young men, persuaded by the prospect of wealth or education, travel to Europe with their older female sponsors only to be trafficked for sex

High court reinstates Umgeni Water board

The high court has ruled that the dissolution of the water entity’s board by Minister Lindiwe Sisulu was unfair and unprocedural

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…