SA’s identity is rooted in the legacy of Mbongeni Ngema

Mbongeni Ngema was a prolific artist whose works put South Africa on the international map as early as the 1980s. Picture: Patrick Mtolo

Mbongeni Ngema was a prolific artist whose works put South Africa on the international map as early as the 1980s. Picture: Patrick Mtolo

Published Jan 7, 2024


By Tswelopele Makoe

AS 2023 came to a close, our nation was shaken by the news of the tragic passing of internationally acclaimed playwright, anti-apartheid activist and iconic choreographer and musician Mbongeni Ngema.

Ngema, who was notable for his play-turned-film Sarafina, was acclaimed for his artistic and authentic works showing the spirit of South Africans under the abhorrent apartheid regime.

Ngema was a prolific artist, whose works put South Africa on the international map as early as the 1980s. He had a plethora of accolades under his belt, including various nominations for Grammy and Tony awards, receipt of lifetime achievement awards, including a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People image award.

This past week, masses of artists and supporters from all walks of life descended onto Durban’s Playhouse Theatre – Ngema’s go-to arena – for his memorial service.

It was followed by his category 2 special provincial funeral, which was held at the International Convention Centre in Durban on Friday.

Ngema’s memorial and funeral services were true to form of the legend of thespianism and was attended by dignitaries and artists from everywhere, including KwaZulu-Natal Premier Nomusa Dube-Ncube and former president Jacob Zuma, among others.

Ngema, who was affectionately known as Madlokovu (his clan name), wrote and produced the most successful theatrical work to come out of South Africa.

Sarafina was performed on New York’s Broadway about 600 times from the beginning of 1988. His other notable works include Woza Albert and Asinamali.

He was an avid pioneer of South African dramatic arts – composing, writing, producing, directing and choreographing – who worked alongside prolific artists such as Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Whoopi Goldberg and Michael Bolton, to name a few.

In fact, Ngema was inducted into the New York Walk of Fame nearly 30 years ago, as one of the most notable and revered writers of the 21st century.

Ngema proliferated into state notoriety in the 1980s, during the abominable apartheid regime. His writings were strikingly influenced by the harrowing experiences of the tyrannised black majority population.

His art was expressive of the resilience and tenacity of the downtrodden. What is particularly remarkable is his assertion of the persistence of young schoolchildren of the time, who were fighting for a decent education and a fair society for all.

Although the 1976 Soweto massacre that inspired Sarafina had passed at the time of the play, Ngema was one of the few playwrights who reiterated the magnitude and force that children hold in society.

Instead of the typical belittling of schoolchildren, Ngema saw them as embodying a vigour that is often ignored by society at large.

In this way, he not only used his art forms to confront the appalling apartheid regime, but also to spark an inter-generational connection within the fight against apartheid.

Ngema’s productions – notably Woza Albert, Sarafina and Asinamali – not only found international acclaim but sparked a pertinent dialogue about the lived realities of South Africans, not only in the country but all over the world.

Although the youth of today are grappling with a different set of societal challenges, some of the issues that were dealt with in 1976 are eerily similar to those being grappled with today.

Constant protests for the betterment of the education system are a yearly occurrence in the post-apartheid South Africa context.

This is compounded by various other issues such as poor housing, abysmal service delivery and proliferating unemployment rates, among many more.

It is in the contemporary South African context that we are seeing a major disconnect between the generations, particularly where politics and social ideologies are concerned.

It is now, more than ever, where we see Ngema’s works being relevant to our society. Intergenerational dialogues about common struggles, aspirations and overall societal advancements are pertinent to our progress as a nation.

It will be utterly devastating if many youths of today were to be unaware of many of Ngema’s works, and his tremendous contribution to the history and culture of South Africa today.

The creative arts, and the mastery with which Ngema’s art forms were executed, show the immense authority which the arts hold in our society.

Creative arts are not merely for one’s amusement, they are an ingenious expression of our history, culture and heritage. They are the expression of a society, not from an analytical viewpoint, but from the perspective of the people who embody that society.

Without the arts, we lose valuable knowledge about our identity, our cultures and our way of life.

Although nearly half a century has passed since the 1976 Soweto student uprisings, the fight for a decent education is ongoing.

It is, indeed, the responsibility of the government and the education sector to ensure that our youth are aware of the transformative works of their society and the strength derived from their authentically African identity.

However, this is still not the case. Our curricula are riddled with European and Western knowledge, history and objectives. The majority of South African schools scarcely focus on the country’s history, and more importantly the fight against the subjugating apartheid regime.

Numerous schools completely exclude African art forms, theatre, books and indigenous knowledge systems. Even at tertiary level, a plethora of students graduate without touching on any forms of African knowledge.

This is a disastrous fact that is not only affecting individuals in our society, but has a ripple effect on the future of our nation. Valuable knowledge about our identity, histories, heritage and culture are being lost in our increasingly globalised society.

If we, as a nation, from the very top positions of power, do not try to preserve our knowledge systems, we will face catastrophic consequences.

We need to embed African art forms into our knowledge system. We need to prioritise African knowledge systems in our education.

South Africa is a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multilingual society, with a unique set of challenges in the modern world, and it is vital that we address it as such.

Our education system as it currently stands, is extinguishing our history. It is negligently shaping our society for the worst. The historic contribution of icons like Ngema, Biko, Ngoyi, Sobukwe, Mashinini, Sisulu, Plaatje, among many others, are being stifled intentionally.

Our music, theatre, stories and languages were not only our identity, but their embodiment was also a form of protest during the most arduous time in our history.

Ngema exposed all this through his pursuit of protest theatre. Our culture, heritage, art forms and history are all a part of our common identity, and a key element in the actualisation of social cohesion.

It is not only our education systems that have consistently failed us, but also our leadership at the top levels of government.

Although we seemingly have a democratic government that is representative of the people, it is those same elected public representatives that have paid lip service to our culture, our history and our own experiences from our curricula.

As a nation, we are on a path of serious deterioration. We need to lean on our history and art forms to revive and remind our people of our immense inherent power, just as Ngema, Masekela and Makeba did so reverently.

Ngema undoubtedly transformed the country’s performing arts landscape. Movies like Sarafina elevated the plight of South Africans in the global landscape.

They authentically emulated our history, our culture and our determination as a people. Once a people lose their history, they lose their identity, culture, heritage, language and sense of community.

We need to lead by Ngema’s example of speaking truth to power, of being audacious, confrontational and steadfast in one’s identity and reality.

The man himself may be gone, but his spirit is etched into the fabric of the nation. As Dave Chappelle so flawlessly said: “What you do in your lifetime informs the generations that come after you.”

* Tswelopele Makoe is a gender activist. She is also an Andrew W Mellon scholar, pursuing an MA Ethics at UWC, and affiliated with the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice. The views expressed are her own.