Sarafina! is still with us as youth struggles continue

It is easy to relegate Sarafina! to just being a film that is screened only on Youth Day to remind black people why they are still angry at their white neighbours. Being prepared for lives of servitude through Bantu education and having culture erased through the  indoctrination of Afrikaans are perfectly good reasons to be livid. And that is what the youth of 1976 were: righteously indignant at an unjust order and fed up with their parents’ apathy.

Students had planned a march in protest from Orlando Stadium to Morris Isaacson High School when police gunned them down to claim the first casualties of the Soweto Uprising. Because of this association with student activism, Mbongeni Ngema selects the school as the setting of his musical, and in place of Tsietsi Mashinini — the student leader of the revolution — the playwright instals Sarafina as the moral centre and principal agitator of his play. 

For the influence she wields over her schoolmates, and the anti-apartheid rhetoric she whips up in class, Sarafina is twice jailed and tortured by the apartheid state’s special branch of police. The young stalwart is unbowed by intimidation, even as classmates disappear into exile, jail cells and the ranks of uMkhonto weSizwe. For her the only outcome is liberation, and it needs to come tomorrow. One cannot help but think of the parallels with the mother of the nation, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

So seductive is the story of a young schoolgirl who dreams of freedom for her country that when Sarafina! premiered on Broadway in 1988, two casts in the US and Europe toured for four years for a total of 597 performances and 11 previews. In addition to global appeal, the musical garnered critical acclaim, earning Tony award nominations for best musical, best original score, best choreography, best direction of a musical and best featured actress in a musical for Leleti Khumalo’s performance as the lead. Her portrayal of the title character not only won her a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People image award but introduced her as a theatrical talent on the global stage.

Stardust shimmers over both film and stage productions, with the soundtrack for the latter featuring compositions and performances from colossi such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. Meanwhile the film adaptation attracted the talents of the first black woman to have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award — the great Whoopi Goldberg — along with our own legend, Black Panther star and stage icon John Kani. It also launched the career of entertainment icon and choreographer Somizi Mhlongo.

For as long as it has run, the musical has always been a shop-window for stage talent, but the production’s relevance goes beyond creating opportunities for the youth. The class of 1976 took to the streets when the government of the day left them behind with discriminatory policies. Now it is this struggle cohort, some of whom grew to profit from the ANC-led democracy for which they fought, who leave behind the youth of today with corrupt and unethical leadership. 

What is 2016’s #FeesMustFall movement if not a rebellion against the elders two generations prior, who have left work undone because it is their turn to eat? And what of the majority; can they eat the right to vote, or is economic freedom a fairytale in South Africa?

The stressful conditions under which learning was expected to take place in 1976 affect the same demographic now as they did then: namely young black people. Looking at tertiary education in the country, the majority cannot afford tuition. The lucky few whose expenses are covered by bursaries, scholarships and student loans, must then enter previously all-white institutions and negotiate statues of colonial megalomaniacs, courses with prohibitively expensive textbooks and dining halls that do not allow you to eat with your hands. Never mind the explicitly racist attitudes of certain students, institutions and policies. 

It is assumed that every student emerges from — and retreats to — a middle-class nuclear family, so residences close for the holidays, leaving tens of thousands without a home, sleeping in offices, computer labs and the floors of begrudging friends and relatives. 

Leleti Khumalo takes the lead in the film version.

In South Africa, 43% of schoolchildren depend on school resources and equipment to complete their schoolwork. Put simply, they cannot study outside of the school environment because they are locked out of the digital economy. Similarly to #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall, the #DataMustFall movement started in 2016, exactly 40 years after the 1976 uprising. The context feeding all three campaigns is a direct result of the structural inequality designed by the apartheid government.

In the above regard, Ngema’s play is an important historical document: a touchstone that reminds us of the appropriate response to unethical leadership. Let us not be quick to localise the musical’s agenda to rebellion against Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. It is true that this fight is ongoing, as the #OpenStellenbosch campaign demonstrated, with its challenge to the hegemony of white Afrikaans culture at Stellenbosch University, where the pace of transformation is too slow for black staff and students to feel included. 

The students in Sarafina! hurl their bodies against the violent machinery of the state for an equal education in the broadest sense. This is an education in which students do not feel un-homed by the institutions at which learning takes place. Furthermore, the pupils of Morris Isaacson High School laid down their lives for curricula that are progressive, and cognisant of the local context. In their vision, a black hand does not hesitate to ask a question of a white expert, because there is representation at both student and staff levels. Finally, an equal education is worth the certificate, because upon its completion awaits equal economic participation in a society where there is gainful employment and access to capital.

Sarafina! is still with us because the class of 1976 won the battle but lost the war. It is clear now that enfranchisement without economic empowerment is merely apartheid in its most socially acceptable form. A minority of those who were forged in the fire of the uprising ascended to positions of power and influence. We cannot deny that they have slept at the wheel and let the majority of South Africans down.

It is against this backdrop of the rainbow nation at the precipice, that Sarafina! gains blinding poignancy. The production reminds viewers that unconscionable sacrifices were made by heroic youths with everything to gain and everything to lose. Their time and prime was still ahead of them, but gallantly they martyred themselves to show that there is no living with injustice. We cannot allow their sacrifices to be betrayed by leaders who appear to have forgotten them.

The case is there to be made that South Africa currently stands in its darkest post-liberation moment. In this winter of load-shedding, following last year’s winter of looting, the ruling party consumes itself from within. As the film version of Sarafina! turns 30, it is brought home that the movie is only a couple of years older than our democracy. That means that Sarafina! has been with us much like an elder sister. 

In the beginning she showed us the way, then watched without judgment as we lost it. Perhaps now, in the darkness of our discontent, the time is ripe for a revisit, if only to see her finger illuminating the right direction again.   

It was the 1987 musical – first presented at the Market Theatre in June of that year in Johannesburg – that inspired us with the resilience of youth as it defied the oppressive designs of the apartheid regime that sought to sow despondency and apathy in its ranks. The high school pupils of the play demonstrated that the pursuit of happiness in circumstances under which one has no logical reason to be upbeat, is an act of resistance in itself. Moreover, it possesses the power to inspire those whom conditions have reduced to hopeless wretches.

A student scrubs a classroom floor at Morris Isaacson High School, the birthplace of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, and the location for ‘Sarafina!’.

The torch has been passed now to a predominantly KwaZulu-Natal-based cast in Sarafina! 2022: the most recent iteration of the revolutionary musical. More than 30 actors from the province have responded to this opportunity that has been created for its youth. Crowd favourites such as the narrating Colgate, Silence (the bellringer), Teaspoon (the gossip), Crocodile (the boxer), Sginci (the guitar man), Stimela (the style man), and the girl everyone wants to know: Sarafina, will be brought to life nightly by local talent, for the benefit of multigenerational audiences crammed into the Opera Theatre of the Playhouse Company in Durban.

This cast selection policy is aligned with the values of the franchise that launched and enhanced the careers of the entertainment icons previously mentioned. It is with heightened anticipation that audiences from Ngema’s home province await the stars that will be born onstage.

Those who are not in a position to attend may still adhere to the life lessons from the play, which are sadly still relevant today. South Africans surmounted improbable odds in the liberation struggle against apartheid. That means we have it in us to step off the path to self-destruction and instead honour the sacrifices of those who died for this democracy. 

With principled, charismatic leadership, the fearless engagement of the youth and the goodwill of the majority of our citizens, South Africans can return to inspiring the world, instead of cowering from it in embarrassment. I thank Sarafina! for this clarity and resolve.

Sarafina! opened at Durban’s Playhouse Company on 15 July and runs until 15 September. Shows start at 7pm from Tuesday to Saturday, with matinees on Saturday afternoons at 2pm. Tickets are R180 each and are available at Pick n Pay or through Webtickets

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