Mbongeni Ngema, South African Musician and ‘Sarafina!’ Creator, Dies at 68

Mbongeni Ngema, South African Musician and ‘Sarafina!’ Creator, Dies at 68

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Mbongeni Ngema, a distinguished South African musician and creator of the musical “Sarafina!,” died on Wednesday in a car accident. He was 68.

“Ngema was killed in a head-on car accident while returning from a funeral he was attending in Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape this evening,” his family said in a statement to the Associated Press. It is understood that he was a passenger in the car.

A playwright, producer and composer, he is best known for creating the 1987 stage musical “Sarafina!,” which tells the tale of a student woman who sees her teacher sent to jail and inspires other to fight against the racial segregation system known as apartheid. In 1981, he also created “Woza Albert,” a satirical stage drama in which Jesus Christ returns to Earth as a black South African.

“Sarafina!,” with lyrics co-written by Hugh Masekela, first opened at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg with Leleti Khumalo in the title role. With Khumalo reprising the role, it transferred to Broadway in 1988 and played at the Cort Theater for nearly 600 performances until it closed in July 1989.

“Sarafina!” was produced as a musical film that debuted in 1992 at the Cannes Film Festival. It was directed by Darrell Roodt and produced by Anant Singh. The film starred Khumalo, Miriam Makeba, John Kani and Whoopi Goldberg.

Apartheid was still operational at the time the film rights were acquired and Hollywood studios reportedly chose not to finance the film production. Singh assembled finance instead from the BBC in the U.K. and French producer Revcom. By the time filming started, Nelson Mandela had been released from jail and apartheid had official been abolished.

“The many productions he created or to which he contributed inspired resilience and pride among us as fellow South Africans and took South Africa and our continent into the theatres, homes and consciousness of millions of people around the world,” said South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa.

“We have lost a trailblazing creative talent who fearlessly brought awareness of South Africa under apartheid to a global audience using the theatre as a platform. Mbongeni was one of South Africa’s finest multi-talented creatives – a writer, lyricist, composer, director, choreographer and theatre producer.  He has left an indelible mark on South African theatre and the creative industries as a whole,” Singh said in a statement sent to Variety.

“Mbongeni and I became friends 36 years ago when we met at the Market Theatre. I was awestruck by the show, his creativity and his talent. [‘Sarafina!’] was a spellbinding story of freedom. But what many forget is that the inspiration went all the way back to Nelson Mandela. The story of ‘Sarafina!’ is a celebration of the day Mandela was released – a somewhat outlandish notion for 1987, when the man himself was in prison for life and with images of and articles about him still banned. Mbongeni had crafted the musical with immense care and ingenious creativity. The obvious influences were both Nelson and Winnie Mandela, and indeed part of the message was about the strength of Winnie and young women in general, which became a central theme of ‘Sarafina!’.”

The Gauteng Social Development Department said Thursday that it had posthumously granted Ngema its 365 Men’s Award for being a positive role model and acknowledged his transformation from an abuser of women to a women’s rights activist.

“He joins the likes of the late Patrick Shai who are men in the public domain who came out and used their celebrity status to repent and talk about their contribution towards GBV (gender-based violence) and the abuse they inflicted on women. Seeking to use their story and lessons to teach others not to commit the same ills they did. Ensuring that we promote positive masculinity,” the organization said.

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