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Mbongeni Ngema was a legend, but don’t sugar-coat his track record

Mbongeni Ngema was a legend, but don’t sugar-coat his track record
Mbongeni Ngema with Leleti Khumalo and Yogin Devan. (Photo: Facebook)

Ngema was good, he was bad. It is important not to whitewash past events, lest history be distorted.

After hearing that South African musician, playwright and choreographer Mbongeni Ngema, had passed away on Wednesday after a car accident, I fished out a photo taken 31 years ago when I interviewed Leleti Khumalo, lead actress in the movie Sarafina! Ngema was with her.

It is socially inappropriate in most circles to speak ill of a person in the immediate aftermath of their death. Many would believe it is best to put something behind us rather than to continue to dwell on it. However, it is also important not to whitewash past events, lest history be distorted, and all the facts are not laid bare.

It is true that Ngema was a legend. He was an artist of note for his work that reflected the spirit of resistance during the liberation struggle. He co-wrote the popular satirical play Woza Albert!, which was followed by the musical Asinamali. Then came the massive success of Sarafina! in 1987, which told the story of the 1976 Soweto uprising. In 1998, Ngema was inducted into the New York Hall of Fame as one of the revered writers of the 21st century. He also composed several music albums including Township Fever, Laduma, Woza My Fohloza, Jive Madlokovu, and the famous Stimela Sase Zola.

But Ngema was not without controversy. It will be wrong to sugar-coat his public track record.

He was implicated in the fraudulent award of a contract totalling more than R14-million in April 1995 by his friend Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, then serving as health minister, to produce a sequel to Sarafina!, carrying a strong anti-Aids message aimed at the youth. The contract did not follow the required tender procedures. An inquiry found that Ngema got his first cheque two days before the actual contract was signed. Any hope of recovering money from him evaporated with his liquidation in 1999. The taxpayer carried the costs for a production that never went on stage.

In 2002, Ngema earned the wrath of the Indian community – as well as those opposed to racism – for the lyrics to his song Amandiya (Zulu for “Indians”) which portrayed them as abusing Black people and being more racist than whites. A barrage of criticism led to the song being banned by some radio stations and record shops.

“A brave man is required to confront the Indians,” the song says. “Indians don’t want to change; even Mandela has failed to change them. White people were better – we knew it was apartheid in the quest for power.”

It goes on to say that Indians are “all over Parliament” and are to blame for the continuing poverty of Black people in Durban, where a large number of Indians live.

“The reason we are faced with hardship and poverty in Durban is because everything was taken by the Indians. But they turn around and exploit us,” the song says. “Our people are busy buying from Indians’ shops.”

Despite calls from many quarters, even including Nelson Mandela, for Ngema to apologise to the entire country for the “destructive and racist sentiments” of the song, he refused, saying the lyrics merely reflect the views of Black people.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Sarafina’s Mbongeni Ngema has died – but despite his flaws – his legacy will live on

Ngema also had a track record of abusing women. In July 2019, he was removed from his position as co-director of a production of Sarafina! following allegations of sexual harassment and intimidation by a cast member. In 2020, his ex-wife, Xoliswa Nduneni-Ngema, published a memoir in which she detailed instances of alleged abuse and rape committed by Ngema.

Leleti Khumalo, who rose to fame as lead actress in Sarafina!, described her 14 years of marriage to Ngema as a “disgusting” life, far from perfection and happiness. The pair met while filming Sarafina! Back then Ngema was a married man, but that did not stop him from having an affair with Khumalo.

Ngema was a conflicted man. He was good, he was bad. Nevertheless, may his soul rest and rise in peace. DM

Yogin Devan is former news editor of the Sunday Tribune, a corporate communications consultant and social commentator.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Charles Mnisi says:

    It’s interesting how the author starts this article with a disclaimer, acknowledging the social inappropriateness of speaking ill of someone immediately after their death. However, the entire article is dedicated to highlighting the past misdeeds of the same person, now that he is no longer alive. Ngema was undoubtedly fallible, as are we all, including the author.

    Regarding the Indian community in South Africa, it seems Ngema may have been onto something that requires further exploration. How are black people supposed to comprehend the bloodletting and almost insatiable brutality inflicted upon them by the Indian community in Phoenix? When all they went out looking for was to fill a tank, making their ways in/out of their place of work. Or worse, committing the biggest sin by being black in an Indian community?

  • Samson Ngwenyama says:

    I personally think the article may be anti African practices like what most radio stations have done today. Upon hearing his demise all of a sudden they’re playing his hit songs. I think the man deserves to be appreciated for his contribution in the political standoffs of the time.
    Highlighting his shortcomings now goes against African custom.
    Thanks

    • Wellington Moyo says:

      What does that even mean, “African custom”? Africa is quite large, and diverse. Northern Africa, East Africa, West Africa, Southern Africa, etc.

      Secondly, there is historic Africa, and modern Africa. Those customs are not static.

      Lastly, I’m African. And truth should be celebrated and not sacrificed at the altar of “custom”. My two cents.

    • Grumpy Old Man says:

      Samson, what is the rationale or basis of the tradition of not speaking ill of the dead? I understand the notion of allowing someone to rest in peace. I understand that the departed is no longer with us to defend themselves. I also understand the need for family to have space to give respect to & grieve a loss in an atmosphere of peace.
      I vividly remember going to see Sarafina at the Market Theatre more than 30 years ago & it was incredible. That is a huge part of the legacy Ngema leaves behind but one can’t isolate an achievement of this magnitude from the rest of his life. His artistic abilities were not only derived from the good in him but also the bad.
      I respect tradition & beliefs but I also contend that if we are to pay full respect to someones life & legacy you can only do this by considering all of their dimensions

    • A P says:

      It’s kind of silly to say the bad parts of your past are out of bounds when you die; like all your sins get washed away. (Apparently, we aren’t usually the ones that handle that last part anyway.)

      If you follow that logic, then basically everyone gets a free pass after they die. That includes everyone on both sides of every equation.

      It’s also damn hypocritical to say it’s a tradition not to criticise people after they die, or is it just not okay to do it in a public forum? Julius Malema has been critical of Nelson Mandela, but is it OK because it serves as a narrative?

      And what lesson does a blanket exception of past transgressions set for future generations? How do we learn from the mistakes of our ancestors and become better people if we don’t know about those mistakes?

  • Dave Martin says:

    Despite this, when we dance to Stimela Sase Zola, we will always be joyful. An incredible musician who will never be forgotten.

  • Dave Martin says:

    I wonder what the author would/did say of his grandparents at their funerals? Did he do a similar audit of their best and worst achievements?

  • Modise M says:

    The author probably has an axe to grind with Ngema, otherwise he would not have written this callous article. The man has not been laid to rest, yet Devan proceeds to publish the article anyway. You could have at least waited until after his funeral out of courtesy to his friends and family.

  • Iam Fedup says:

    He was corrupt, abusive and immoral, and the world is probably better off without him.

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      Maybe you must stop being fedup, when I started school I was always intimidated by the thought of making a mistake on my writing until I learned the rubber at the back of the pencil,fast forward to the pen that was a frustration I hated crossing over words until the tippex came along, bottom line none of us is perfect and everyone contributes in every situation even the victim the biggest and unforgivable mistake is not being big enough to apologize for doing wrong

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