Mbongeni Ngema

Mbongeni Ngema is a legendary South African playwright, actor, composer, director, lyricist, musician and theatre producer. He is the mastermind behind a successful Broadway musical, Sarafina!, which starred then newcomer Leleti Khumalo and introduced Sindi Dlathu. That musical was later turned in a feature film starring Leleti Khumalo and Whoopi Goldberg.

Mbongeni Ngema
Born Mbongeni Ngema
May 10, 1955
Verulam
KwaZulu-Natal
South Africa
Occupation Playwright
Musician, Writer
Director, Actor
Notable Work Sarafina!
Since 1980 – to date

Wives

Leleti Khumalo; 1992 – 2005 (d)
Nonhlanhla “Mroza” Buthelezi; 2011 – to date

Contact Details

Agent Unknown
Website Unknown

Mbongeni Ngema was born in Verulam, a town located in the north of the city of Durban, in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa.

His birthday has never been conclusively established or confirmed by the media; two different days, two different months and two different years have been reported by be his birthday.

Some sources have claimed that he was born on May 10, 1955 while other sources have claimed that he was born on June 1, 1956. There is no known clarification of this ambiguity. A 2013 New 24 report stated that he was 58 years old at the time which may suggest that he was born in 1955.

Mbongeni Ngema was working as a manual labourer before embarking on a theatre career as an actor on local productions in the late 1970s; he could play guitar.

In 1981 he co-wrote a satirical play, Woza Albert, with Percy Mtwa; the late Barney Simon has also been credited as the writer of the play. Woza Albert! asks what would happen if Jesus Christ came back to 1980’s apartheid South Africa.

In 1983 Mbongeni Ngema penned his next stage play titled Asinamali!, the play dealt with with police violence, forced separations from families, and constricting racist laws as experienced by five prisoners.

Upon opening, the play was met with great hostility by South African law enforcement agencies which saw actors (in that play) being arrested in raids which took place during performances.

Mbongeni Ngema’s earliest plays,  Woza Albert! and Asinamali!, were highly successful and they were a subject of critical praise; however, not withstanding the displeasure of the government of apartheid South Africa. The success of Woza Albert! and Asinamali! in the United States of America (USA) paved a way for what would becoming his greatest international success, Sarafina!.

 

 

Sarafina!, 1987

In the wake of the success of his early work, Mbongeni Ngema began working on his next project titled Sarafina!. The play chronicles the story a black teenager named Sarafina who at first wants to become a superstar, instead, inspired by a teacher, she becomes a revolutionary in the 1976 student uprisings in Soweto.

SarafinaMbongeni Ngema conceived and directed Sarafina!, he also wrote the book, music (reportedly with Hugh Masekela), and lyrics. The play was first presented at Market Theatre in Johannesburg, Gauteng (at the time, Transvaal Province of apartheid South Africa) in June 1987. On the play then newcomer Leleti Khumalo played the role of the title character with another newcomer Sindi Dlathu as her understudy.

On January 28, 1988 Sarafina! opened on Broadway at The Cort Theatre on 138 West 48th Street New York, New York in the United States of America. After 597 performances and 11 previews Sarafina! closed on July 2, 1989 eighteen months later. The production was also nominated for the Tony Award in the following categories; Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography and Best Direction of a Musical.

The show’s lead actress Leleti Khumalo also racked up a number of accolades for her portrayal of Sarafina, these included a Tony Award nomination, Best Featured Actress in a Musical, as well as a NAACP Image Award. Sarafina! had a huge impact on society and remains once of South Africas’ most iconic stage productions, however, it also had on impact on the career of Leleti Khumalo and it remains among some of her most notable work.

In 1988 the making of Mbongeni Ngema’s Sarafina! was chronicled in the American documentary film directed by Nigel Noble titled, Voices of Sarafina!, was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. The was later adapted into a feature film and was given the same title; it starred Leleti Khumalo, Whoopi Goldberg, Miriam Makeba, John Kani and Tiberius Meintjies.

 

 

Post Sarafina!, 1990 – 2013

In 1990 Mbongeni Ngema wrote a play titled Township Fever which was inspired by a violent strike by South African railway workers. The production traveled from Johannesburg, South Africa’s the Market Theatre to the United States of America’s the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Majestic Theatre.

Down the years he has produced a number of stage plays including; Magic at 4 AM (1993), Circle Of Life (African voices) (1995), Mama (1996), Sarafina! 2 (1997), Nikeziwe (2005), The House of Shaka (2006), Lion of the East (2009) and The Zulu (2013). The Zulu saw Mbongeni Ngema’s return to stage as he was the lead performer on the production which opened at Market Theatre in October 2013 to a sold out audience.

“This story is one I was told repeatedly by my great-grandmother so I have known it before I knew anything else. I wrote a musical also named The Zulu but it wasn’t as detailed as this play. Over the years I have continued to research it and perfect it and this is the result, Mbongeni Ngema said in an interview with News 24. “I was feeling nostalgic about the stage – I wanted to come back with a good play. I have always loved being on stage and had been thinking about it for years. I wasn’t going to settle for an inferior production after doing such great work,” he continued.

 

 

Music

Mbongeni Ngema is a musician, librettist and composer. Over the years he has recorded studio albums, compilations and has written scores for plays and films. Some of Mbongeni Ngema’s most memorable songs include; “Siwiliwili”, “Stimela SaseZola”, Woza My Fohloza”, “Simuka Na Ndwendwe”, “Safa Saphel’isizwe” and “Madlokovu” among many others.

Mbongeni Ngema has written the musical soundtrack for Sarafina! – the movie and produced the movie’s soundtrack alongside Quincy Jones. He has composed several music albums, including the famous and locally loved album Stimela SaseZola. Mbongeni Ngema has written and arranged numerous songs as well as arranged music for artists such as Michael Bolton. He was also one of the vocal arrangers for The Lion King, Disney’s animated film.

 

  • AmaNdiya Controversy

In 2002 Mbongeni Ngema released a song titled “AmaNdiya” which means “Indians” in IsiZulu. The song was a subject of controversy and was described as demeaning to the South African Indian population and constituting racial hate speech with incitement to harm, “The song as broadcast demeaned the Indian section of the population by accusing the Indians in sweeping generalisations of the oppression of Zulus, of dispossession of Zulus,” BCCSA chairperson [at the time] Professor Kobus van Rooyen.

“An argument could be made out that the song is likely to act as a catharsis for those Zulus who feel prejudiced by the economic position of the Indian businessmen… We also accept in favour of the writer, that he intended to begin a constructive discussion that could lead to reconciliation, as stated in the opening words by the writer,” he continued.

The song was banned by Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) from public broadcast. This was after The SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) lodged the complaint with the BCCSA after the SABC radio station Ukhozi FM played AmaNdiya during a current affairs programme in which the race issue was discussed.  Mbongeni Ngema stated that “deeply regrets” the decision by the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) to ban his song. According to The Guardian he (Mbongeni Ngema) rejected the call by Nelson Mandela to apologize.

 

 

Discography (Select Albums)

Year Album Record Label Notes
1993 Magic at 4 A.M Gallo Record Company Original Score for a Musical
2001 Simuka Na Ndwendwe Gallo Record Company Studio Album
2008 Sarafina – The Music of Liberation Electromode Sarafina! Soundtrack
2011 Forever My Music KZN Music House Studio Album
2011 The Very Best of KZN Music House Compilation Album
2011 Lion of the East…A Musical Explosion! KZN Music House Original Score for a Musical
2014 Ultimate Collection Gallo Record Company Compilation Album
2015 Greatest Moments of Gallo Record Company Compilation Album

 

 

 

Television Work, Film and Gold Diggers, 1986 – to date

Despite being a figure of legendary proportions in South Africa, Mbongeni Ngema has rarely featured on South African televisions. In 1986 Mbongeni Ngema wrote a television adaptation of his play, Asinamali and 1988 he served as a writer in the documentary about his critically acclaimed Sarafina!, Voices of Sarafina!. In 1992 he portrayed the character of Sabela in the screen adaptation of Sarafina! and that of Dingane in the 1999 mini-series; Saints, Sinners and Settlers.

In 2006 he portrayed the character of Bra Stone in the Curious Pictures anthology series, Heartlines, which originally aired on SABC 2 from July through September of that year. In 2015 Mbongeni Ngema was cast in his reportedly first ever starring role in a television series when he portrayed the character of Patric Gumede on the e.tv telenovela, Gold Diggers. The show also stars Zulu Boy (Mxolisi Brian Majozi), Tina Jaxa and Clementine Mosimane.

 

 

Select Filmography

Year Title Role Notes
1982 Everyman Himself Woza Albert Documentary
1986 Asinamali As Writer, Adaptation of his Play
1988 Voices of Sarafina! Himself Also As Writer, Documentary about his Play
1992 Sarafina! Sabela Minor Role, Screenplay Writer, Composer & Other
1994 Lion King Music Department
1999 Saints, Sinners and Settlers Dingane Minor Role, Mini-series
2006 Heartlines Bra Stone Supporting Role, Anthology Series
2008 Durban Poison Himself Documentary
2015 – to date Gold Diggers Patric Gumede Lead Role, Telenovela

 

 

 

Other Work

In 1997 Mbongeni Ngema was appointed as a visiting lecturer at the University of Zululand to teach his unique artistic technique and subsequently produced the first CD released by the university’s music department. In 2003 he was appointed as Artistic Director for the 2003 Cricket World Cup and in 2004 appointed as one of the organisers of the 10th Anniversary Celebrations of South Africa’s democracy. He established  the recording studio and record company, The KZN Music House, on behalf of the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Arts, Sports and Recreation and manages that label through his company Committed Artists.

 

 

In Writing

Several books and academic work have been written about Mbongeni Ngema and his celebrated works, including Nothing Except Ourselves by Laura Jones (USA), The Best of Mbongeni Ngema, The man and his music by Isabel Cooke (RSA), An investigation into the creation and interpretation in Mbongeni Ngema’s intra-cultural Theatre – N. O. Sabelo (University of KwaZulu-Natal Thesis).

 

 

Honours

Mbongeni Ngema has amassed numerous honours for his work, particularly for his contribution to theatre and music in South Africa and across the world. His accolades include; a Tony Award nomination, a Grammy Award nomination, an NAACP Image Award nomination, an induction into the New York “Walk of Fame”, an Honorary Doctorate from the Good Shepherd College and a Living Legend Award from the Ethekwini Municipality, Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal.

 

 

Personal Life

Mbongeni Ngema is reportedly a polygamist; his most famous wife is undoubtedly famed actress Leleti Khumalo with whom he worked on the critically acclaimed musical, Sarafina!. The pair was married between 1992 and 2005; after the couple divorced Leleti Khumalo spoke to Nicky Greenwall in 2014 on e.tv’s The Close Up about that marriage to Mbongeni Ngema and described it as “disgusting”.

Leleti Khumalo and Mbongeni NgemaI would portray that I am happy, living happily and yet I’m living a disgusting and strange life. The media wasn’t after me because I was a very private person; they could not see that I was living a false life,” Leleti Khumalo said on The Close Up. According to the 2006 City Press article, when Mbongeni Ngema met Leleti Khumalo who was in her teenage years at the time he was married to first wife Xoliswa Ngema.

A 2011 Sowetan article titled “Ngema to Marry his Fourth Wife” read (in part) “Ngema once had three wives at a time – Pretoria State Theatre chief executive Xoliswa Ngema, actress Cebisile Mpungose and Yesterday star and former Generations actress Leleti Khumalo. He is divorced from all of them.”

That article was discussing the  impending nuptials between Mbongeni Ngema and Nonhlanhla “Mroza” Buthelezi whom he has since married. It also revealed that he was engaged to other three women, “Ngema, the creator of the award-winning musical Sarafina, will also be marrying Nompumelelo Gumede, Saleha Nxumalo and Cat Mpanza in separate wedding ceremonies on dates yet to be announced.”

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