The KwaZulu-Natal government is showering millions of public rands on controversial theatrical producer Mbongeni Ngema, prompting bitter complaints of favouritism and wasteful expenditure.
It has emerged that the province’s department of economic development and tourism has injected a further R2,9-million into Ngema’s Lion of the East — which sparked controversy last year after it received R22-million from the Mpumalanga government for development and staging.
Ngema confirmed to the Mail & Guardian that an additional amount that he ”imagines to be” in the region of R500000 was also paid out for a week of rehearsals in Durban.
The production started a 20-day run at the city’s Playhouse Theatre this week following the government handout.
In addition, a government official said Ngema had been awarded the R15-million contract to manage the state-owned KwaZulu-Natal Music House recording facilities in Durban, which became operational in October.
The establishment of the Music House has caused a furore in Durban’s Indian community, as it involved the eviction of the Durban Cultural and Documentation Centre from the old Derby Street School.
The centre contained archives, books and artifacts going back to the Indian influx into South Africa in 1860, which are at present in storage as the centre has yet to find a new home.
Last year former KwaZulu-Natal premier Sbu Ndebele’s office sponsored Ngema’s production 1906: Bhambatha The Freedom Fighter to the tune of R7-million.
A local industry practitioner, who spoke to the M&G on condition of anonymity, said: ”A sum of R2,9-million for the restaging of an existing play is astronomical. This is a lot more than it costs to develop a completely new production in South Africa.
”Generally, restaging a play involves far less money because the costumes have already been bought, the choreographers and voice and acting coaches have been paid and the lighting has been plotted.”
Democratic Alliance caucus leader in the KwaZulu-Natal legislature John Steenhuisen charged that provincial coffers are effectively serving as Ngema’s cash cow: ”This certainly appears to be another case of him needing cash and the ANC sorting him out with state funds,” he said.
”This is unprecedented in the country — I don’t know of any other artist who has managed to get so much money from government.”
In an interview with the M&G, Ngema said the criticisms displayed ”a lack of understanding, because when people hear these figures, they think its all going into Mbongeni’s pocket”.
”This is an international-class production and people don’t consider things like transport costs and accommodation for the cast of 50 people.”
According to Vukani Mbhele, spokesperson for the provincial department of arts and culture, the government’s total grant to the Playhouse for this financial year is R5,75-million.
Bheko Madlala, spokesperson for economic development and tourism minister Mike Mabuyakhulu, defended the expenditure, saying it was ”an opportunity to increase the number of tourists” coming to Durban over the festive season.
”Currently, our province attracts 32% of domestic tourists and we think the staging of this play will go a long way towards increasing our numbers, marketing our province and giving us a competitive edge,” Madlala said.
He added that the agreement between the Playhouse, and Ngema’s Committed Artists company meant that all takings would go back to the department.
Tickets for the show cost R145, but at a discounted preview evening on Tuesday, the ”House Full” signs were up outside the Playhouse’s 468-seat theatre. Many disappointed punters were left outside.
The musical focuses on the life of Gert Sibande, (the ”Lion of the East”), a Bethal-born ANC activist who drew international attention to the inhumane living and working conditions of farmworkers in the area, which led to a successful potato boycott.
In line with a contract with the Mpumalanga government, Ngema’s musical has just completed a five-week run in Witbank and a three-week run in Nelspruit, which he described as ”overbooked, completely overbooked”.
Ngema said the project was born out of a resolution, emanating from the ANC’s national conference in Polokwane in 2007, on the need to celebrate Sibande’s life and the 50th anniversary of the potato boycott.
The tone of the musical is set at an early stage with the rallying cry: ”The ANC will come to save the people from the white man’s rule.”
Responding to criticism that the play can be construed as party political propaganda, Ngema said: ”I wouldn’t totally disagree with that, but the point is that [the ANC rallying call is] true. It’s fact. There is nothing in the play that isn’t a reflection of history.”
Ngema says he is popular with the ANC government because of his political work and that he comes with a ”guarantee of world class standards”.
On his contract to run the KwaZulu-Natal Music House, Ngema said R15-million was needed to build two recording studios and for the initial running costs ”before a turn-around period, when it will be profit-making”.
Said one community activist: ”It seems ridiculous that the centre, which had been refurbished as an exhibition space to the tune of R2-million by government, had to be replaced by a recording studio.
”They then found that the old building couldn’t be used as recording space and had to build a completely new building next to it for studios.
”The entire school is now being used as offices for Ngema’s employees, about 15 people.”
A government source said Ngema has both an ”international reputation” and ”contacts” in the ruling elite. He was also a ”shrewd businessman and artist. There were a lot of tenders for this project but Ngema’s went the extra mile to include marketing and distribution.
”It also helped that he brought on board established stars like Joseph Tshabalala [of Ladysmith Black Mambazo] and Busi Mhlongo.”
Ngema is best known for his Aids awareness play Sarafina II, for which the national health department paid him R14,27-million in 1995.
The Public Protector later found that the project lacked proper approval from the state tender board.