Playwright Mbongeni Ngema finds himself the subject of controversy related to hit musical Sarafina!. This year marks 27 years since the musical play – a story about the 1970s Soweto riots – which debuted on stage at the Market Theatre. The playwright and producer spoke out against musician Tu Nokwe’s claims that she never received credit for being the brains behind the Sarafina! concept.
“I didn’t plan on speaking about what happened with Sarafina! during my TV interview [on Ba Kae]. And I didn’t realise I was full of fear before, fear of speaking out. But with age you understand things a bit better,” Nokwe told the Mail & Guardian.
She thought she had come to terms with not being credited for the musical; she thought she had forgiven Ngema and moved on. But Nokwe feels she can finally close the Sarafina! chapter by talking about her experience behind the scenes of the Broadway success.
Nokwe says she has confronted Ngema before, in private, about the matter but he was dismissive and even asked her to produce an affidavit to prove she was responsible for conceptualising the play.
“He [Ngema] is denying everything. I have made my point. I am not looking for money and I don’t want to bring him down. I just want closure,” says Nokwe. “Why should I hide that I was a part of it [Sarafina!]?”
No legal action
Nokwe will not be pursing any legal action against Ngema, she just wants him to admit that he lied and apologise.
Ngema, who is not unfamiliar with controversy, has faced public scrutiny before with regards to Sarafina!.
In 1995, Ngema created the big budget Aids-awareness production Sarafina II, which was reportedly awarded a R14.27-million contract by the department of health. This led to an investigation by the public protector and Ngema’s contract with the health department was subsequently terminated.
In 2008, the M&G reported on his stage musical production Lion of the East: Gert Sibande and the Potato Boycott, for which he was awarded a R22-milion contract by the Mpumalanga provincial government. The contract raised eyebrows and the provincial government was criticised for favouritism and wasteful expenditure.
In a 2009 interview with the M&G, Ngema said the criticisms displayed “a lack of understanding, because when people hear these figures, they think it’s 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,” he said.
Six years later, fresh allegations against Ngema were made by Nokwe in an interview on the SABC2 talk show Ba Kae, a show that seems to catch up with South African entertainers who appear to have fallen off the radar.
According to Artslink, Nokwe claimed to have conceptualised Sarafina! while in boarding school under the tutorship of the current UN under secretary general Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who was a teacher at Nokwe’s school and that her relationship with Mlambo-Ngcuka inspired the storyline of Sarafina!. In the play, the lead character, Sarafina, develops a strong bond with her schoolteacher, Mary Masombuka, played by Whoopi Goldberg, who inspires her to fight the system.
Setting the record straight
Ngema’s statement addressing Nokwe’s claims explains that he got the idea of creating a musical about the political state of South Africa during his tour in New York with the musical drama Asinamali in 1984-1985.
“At the time I didn’t have an actual story to work with but my home country was burning and in turmoil, and Asinamali was big news in the United States,” he said.
He only met Nokwe when he returned to South Africa, through Mlambo-Ngcuka, and it was then that he began writing songs for Nokwe’s youth dance group Amajika, a group Ngema’s ex-wife Leleti Khumalo was a part of.
“At that time [after his return to South Africa], I went back to Soweto to visit Winnie Mandela. I vividly recall standing in her kitchen and asking her how she saw the political strife in South Africa developing in the future. She answered me with words I have never forgotten: “Mbongeni, I wish I had a big blanket to cover the faces of all our little ones so they don’t see the bitter end.”
“As I drove away I saw images of young people being forced to experience the terrible violence that was occurring on a daily basis. So this was how the idea of Sarafina! was born,” he says.
Ngema said he brainstormed the idea of a new musical with legendary trumpeter Hugh Masekela during one of his visits to London.
“One day, as we visited his studio in London to try out some concepts, Hugh played me a cassette of songs he had written but not published. One of these was the song that later, with his ready permission, became the title song of Sarafina! and the song after which the musical was named.”
Ngema then drafted a script for the musical play and auditioned a cast for it.
“Naturally one of the first sources of talent I tapped into was Amajiga as I had already worked with them previously with Tu Nokwe’s permission. I then started auditioning nationwide. It was at this stage that my relationship with Nokwe started to crumble. When this happened she demanded back her girls, but they were not willing to go back to her.”
Honour the agreement
According to Nokwe, Ngema didn’t honour the agreement he had with her and parents of some of the Sarafina! cast members who he auditioned from the Amajika group. The agreement was to keep the children, who were between the ages of 11 and 13, focused on their studies while touring with the musical play.
“The kids were to be treated like they were in a mobile boarding school,” Nokwe tells the M&G. With Ngema having full control of managing his cast, Nokwe felt she had no power to intervene.
Sarafina!, which ran for 724 performances, most of them on Broadway, according to the New York Times, garnered five Tony award nominations and won 11 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Image awards. Khumalo, who played the character of Sarafina, received a Tony award nomination for her performance.
Sarafina! captured the story and rebellious spirit of the 1970s and 1980s youth uprisings in South Africa, which challenged the apartheid government and Bantu education, in captivating song and dance.
Following the success of the musical play, the production was later adapted into a feature film directed by Darrel Roodt in 1992. The film went into the history books as the first South African film to be made in the country after the unbanning of the ANC and the release of Nelson Mandela from 27 years in prison.