Mbongeni Ngema. Source: Global Information Network - Photo: 2024

South Africa Grieves Death of Celebrated Writer of ‘Sarafina!’

By Lisa Vives, Global Information Network

NEW YORK | 1 January 2024 (IDN) — Members of the theatre world, the arts community and followers worldwide are lamenting the death of Mbongeni Ngema—playwright, composer, lyricist, director and musician—who died in a head-on collision in Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape.

The celebrated playwright who brought the liberation struggle to world audiences had been returning from a funeral when the accident took place. He was 68.

Dennis Bloem, spokesperson for the Activists and Citizens Forum, expressed the community’s grief.

“This is a massive loss not only to his family but to the entire country,” said Bloem. “Mbongeni Ngema was not an ordinary musician and artist – he was a liberator. He used his art and music to conscientize millions of people worldwide. He exposed apartheid through his plays.”

The Harlem community recognized his anti-apartheid message, and he was honored by Congressman Charles Rangel, who 2016 declared May 9 as “Duma Ndlovu and Mbongeni Ngema Day”.

Ngema was best known for writing “Sarafina!” which featured the song “Freedom is Coming Tomorrow.” It was the story of Black high school students in the township of Soweto in 1976 during the uprising against the government’s imposition of Afrikaans, rather than Zulu, as the official language in schools.

Mr. Ngema collaborated with the trumpeter and composer Hugh Masekela on the score. The play premiered on Broadway in 1988 and became an international success with Whoopi Goldberg in 1992.

Litha Mpondwana, the spokesman for South African Arts Minister Zizi Kodwa, said: “At a critical time in the liberation struggle against apartheid, Dr. Ngema took the plays Woza Albert, Asinamali, and Sarafina! to international stages. These productions not only showcased South African talent, but also narrated to the world the experiences of South Africans who were ostracized and brutalized under apartheid.”

“A luminary in the arts”

The African National Congress called him “a luminary in the arts” and “a patriot who used his creative prowess to amplify the voices of the oppressed”.

His play ”Asinamali!” – born of a rent strike in a South African township – scored a resounding success as the opening production of the ”Woza Afrika!” festival at Lincoln Center.

In the play, five actors, all portraying political prisoners, tell stories of life in the townships and the circumstances that landed them in jail. ”Asinamali!” (the title means ”We have no money!”) used music, dance, choral recitation and old-fashioned storytelling to give a searing account of life in a segregated society.

”For a country as uninformed about South Africa as America is,” said singer and activist Harry Belafonte, ”this play is an important opportunity to learn.”

Ngema’s body of work also included the lauded theater production “Woza Albert,” which premiered in 1981 and won more than 20 awards around the world. The political satire explored the second coming of Jesus Christ as a Black man in South Africa during apartheid.

”The political and historical effect of this show became very important back home,” said Duma Ndlovu, executive director of Woza Afrika. ”This play represents many people’s hopes and aspirations…  ‘Asinamali!’ astounded me. People walked out of the theater kind of stunned – they had no words to articulate the feeling.”

Further details about the funeral arrangements will be released in due course, according to a statement by the Ngema family. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Mbongeni Ngema. Source: Global Information Network

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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