Renowned South African playwright, producer, and composer Mbongeni Ngema has tragically passed away at the age of 68. He was involved in a head-on car collision while returning from a funeral in Lusikisiki, Eastern Cape. Ngema, best known for creating the iconic musical ‘Sarafina!,’ was a passenger in the vehicle involved in the accident.
Ngema’s impactful career reached global recognition with the premiere of ‘Sarafina!’ on Broadway in 1988. The musical drama, later adapted into a film starring Whoopi Goldberg in 1992, garnered international acclaim and received nominations for the Tony and Grammy Awards. ‘Sarafina!’ depicted the inspiring story of a young student leading her peers in the fight against racial segregation during apartheid in South Africa.
Beyond ‘Sarafina!,’ Ngema’s contributions to the arts included the acclaimed theatre production ‘Woza Albert’ in 1981, a political satire exploring the second coming of Jesus Christ as a black man in apartheid-era South Africa, earning over 20 awards worldwide. Ngema was a writer, lyricist, composer, director, choreographer, and theatre producer. His other major credits include vocal arranging on The Lion King.
Tributes have poured in for the late playwright, with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledging Ngema’s enduring impact on the nation and the world. The African National Congress (ANC) and the Economic Freedom Fighters expressed their condolences, describing Ngema as a true legend, doyen, and a genuine ambassador of theatre.
Zizi Kodwa, South African Minister of Sports, Arts, and Culture, emphasized Ngema’s significant loss to the country’s art scene, stating that his work touched and moved audiences globally, making a crucial contribution to telling the South African story.
In a statement, Sarafina! producer Anant Singh said: “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.
“He has left an indelible mark on South African theatre and the creative industries as a whole. This is clearly demonstrated by the timelessness of Sarafina! the film
“Mbongeni was an inspiration and mentored many young artists who are now household names. His passing leaves a deep void but he leaves a rich legacy that will endure for posterity.”
Sarafina! premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and returned this year as part of the event’s Cannes Classics strand.