Mbongeni Ngema, playwright who extolled apartheid resistance, dies at 68

Mbongeni Ngema, a South African playwright who decried the injustices of White-rule apartheid while also celebrating Black culture and resilience in works including the Broadway hit “Sarafina!” that later became a film starring Whoopi Goldberg, died Dec. 27 following a car accident. He was 68.

Mr. Ngema was riding in a car involved in a head-on collision in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, according to a family statement. He died at a hospital in Mbizana.

The struggles of the apartheid era — endemic poverty, repression and political marginalization — were the core of Mr. Ngema’s stage productions, which reached audiences around the world and made Mr. Ngema among the leading artistic voices challenging White-minority rule.

His Tony-nominated musical “Sarafina!” (1987) was inspired by deadly clashes that began in the Black township Soweto in 1976 over orders for schools to adopt Afrikaans as the official language of instruction. Mr. Ngema told interviewers about constant pressures he faced from authorities and how he was at least once targeted to be killed — but left a theater just before the attackers arrived. He said someone mistaken for him was killed.

He signed autographs with the message: “Freedom Tomorrow.” Yet Mr. Ngema crafted his plays as more than a way to express anger. He infused his stories with dark humor, music, dance and dignity, seeking to convey the spirit of Black South Africa during the apartheid era. (In 1994, the once-jailed anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela became the country’s first Black president.)

“We could illustrate the culture and style of life of South Africa as well as the resistance movement itself,” said Mr. Ngema (pronounced en-GEE-ma).

He told his actors that they doubled as “ambassadors” of the anti-apartheid cause. After “Sarafina!” opened on Broadway in January 1988, Mr. Ngema coached the cast on how to reply to political questions. “I wanted technique as well as the truth,” Mr. Ngema told Africa Report.

A series of chance events brought Mr. Ngema into the world of theater. He was working in a fertilizer factory in the mid-1970s when a co-worker who wrote a play asked Mr. Ngema to strum guitar to accompany local stagings. Over time, Mr. Ngema learned the lines of the lead actor. One night, the performer was sick and Mr. Ngema stepped in.

He then helped write several other amateur plays. Eventually, he began working with actor Percy Mtwa. They joined with theater owner Barney Simon to create “Woza Albert!” (1981), a satire about a messiah-like figure who makes his way by plane from Jerusalem to South Africa — only to end up jailed by the White-led government on Robben Island, where Mandela and other political prisoners were detained.

The last scene is set in a graveyard where the presumed messiah is asked to raise “the spirits” — not the physical bodies — of dead anti-apartheid leaders, including the play’s namesake, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Albert Luthuli.

At performances in Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, owned by Simon and was one of the few mixed-race venues in South Africa, some White theatergoers walked out. Others came backstage in tears. When “Woza Albert!” came to the Arena Stage in 1984, Washington Post reviewer David Richards praised the play’s ability to tackle the brutality of apartheid with “more spirit, humor and, yes, hope, than the subject generally inspires.”

Mr. Ngema’s next play, “Asinamali!” (1983), took its title from the rallying cry of rent strikers in 1983 in the Durban township Lamontville. It means in Zulu, “We have no money.”

The setting is a South African prison cell, where five Black inmates describe the racist laws and police abuses that put them behind bars. Each man, however, remains unbroken. “It shows that no matter how bad things get, victory is inevitable,” Mr. Ngema told the New York Times in 1986 before the play opened in Harlem.

“Sarafina!” also had roots in protest. The 1976 uprising in Soweto over the use of Afrikaans in schools touched off 15 months of rioting around the country that claimed more than 600 lives.

In 1980, Mr. Ngema met with anti-apartheid champion Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who was then married to Mandela. Mr. Ngema called her “Mama.”

“I started thinking, ‘This country is in flames,’” he told the South African television show “The Insider SA” in 2022. “So I asked a question. I said, ‘Mama, what do you think is finally going to happen to this country?’”

“Mama looked at me,” Mr. Ngema continued, “and she said, ‘I wish I had a big blanket to cover the faces of the little ones so they do not see that bitter end.’”

“Sarafina!” tells the story of students putting together a show to celebrate Mandela’s freedom. (His actual release from prison came in 1990.) The title character, Sarafina, is detained and tortured by authorities. After her release, she composes the song “Freedom is Coming Tomorrow.”

The production — co-written with South African jazz master Hugh Masekela — uses a musical style known as Mbaqanga, which fuses indigenous African music with jazz, Motown and other traditions. Mr. Ngema called Mbaqanga the “music of liberation.”

“Sarafina!” ran for 597 performances and received five Tony nominations, including best musical and original score. Leleti Khumalo reprised her Broadway performance in the title role of the 1992 film version, which also starred Goldberg as a teacher who inspires the students.

“We wanted to bring township theater to America,” Duma Ndlovu, a South African poet and producer who helped stage “Sarafina!” at Lincoln Center before its Broadway run, told The Post. “It is joy in spite of suffering, a sense of hope in the exuberance of the music. It comes from a spirit of survival.

Mbongeni Ngema was born on June 1, 1955, in Verulam, South Africa, a town north of Durban. His father was a farmer, and his mother tended to the home.

According to his accounts, Mr. Ngema lived with his family until he was 11 and then stayed with relatives. At some point in his teens, he lived on his own in areas around Durban.

He was jailed briefly in the late 1970s, accused of contacts with Mandela’s African National Congress, which was then banned by the South African government. Mr. Ngema told police he was only trying to raise money for theater productions.

“Voices of Sarafina!,” a film documentary about the U.S. production of the musical, was released in 1988.

Mr. Ngema’s marriage to the actress Kumalo ended in divorce. Full information on survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Ngema remained a significant cultural force after the end of apartheid but also faced scrutiny by Black-led governments. His “Sarafina 2,” commissioned as an AIDS awareness production, was performed only a few times after investigations into unauthorized expenditures and cost overruns.

In 2002, a song recorded by Mr. Ngema, “AmaNdiya” (The Indians” in Zulu), brought complaints from South Africa’s large ethnic Indian community over lyrics perceived as fomenting hatred. “Indians don’t want to change, even Mandela has failed to convince them,” a line in the song said. The song was banned from South African airwaves by broadcast regulators.

Mr. Ngema denounced the ban and said the song was intended to “start a debate so that true reconciliation can begin between Africans and Indians.”

He also believed that end of White rule did not dilute the meaning of his plays and their embrace of Black unity.

“My work will outlive me, 100 years from now people will still be performing ‘Sarafina!’ It’s fantastic to know that you’ve written work that will never die,” he said. “That people can give it life beyond yourself.”

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