Eyes of an artist: Mbongeni Ngema, the playwright who brought the musical Sarafina! to the stage and silver screen, is turning his attention to Nelson Mandela, who he credits with leading successful negotiations to avoid a civil war. Picture: SUPPLIED
Eyes of an artist: Mbongeni Ngema, the playwright who brought the musical Sarafina! to the stage and silver screen, is turning his attention to Nelson Mandela, who he credits with leading successful negotiations to avoid a civil war. Picture: SUPPLIED

The message in his play Sarafina! is as relevant today as it was in 1987, says celebrated playwright Mbongeni Ngema.

He says that although a democratic government is now in power and apartheid laws no longer oppress black people, SA still faces many challenges.

"There is a lot that still needs to be addressed to improve the quality of life for the majority that still live in abject poverty, and the levels of inequality between the poor and the rich are ever growing," says Ngema.

"We still have people who live in shacks, some without electricity. What’s happened is that the same capitalist system that existed during apartheid has never been touched.

"The former freedom fighters have just assumed office, and the same model of the economy that existed then has never been changed. The only difference is that among the few white people that are extremely rich, we also have a few black people that are also obscenely rich, to the exclusion of the majority."

Sarafina!, the musical that captures the events of 1976 when pupils in Soweto, and later other parts of SA, took to the streets to protest against the imposition of Afrikaans as a language of instruction at township schools, has since its creation in 1986 graced many stages.

From SA to Nigeria and Broadway, the musical and the film of the same name have been critically acclaimed.

The stage production’s journey is not yet over as many theatre-goers were not born when it was first performed. Sarafina! has also been adapted as a school setwork, studied by pupils across Africa.

The play premiered at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in June 1987, with Leleti Khumalo in the lead role as the student activist Sarafina.

That role is now being played by Mahikeng-born dancer and model Tshegofatso Mafojane.

The powerhouse musical took Broadway by storm in January 1988, had a two-year run in New York City and a five-year tour of the US. A second cast toured the world for four years, performing in the UK, Europe, Australia, Japan and West Africa.

The film version of Sarafina! starred Whoopie Goldberg, Khumalo, Ngema, John Kani and Miriam Makeba, with the soundtrack produced by Ngema and Quincy Jones.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the US presented Ngema with 11 awards. The musical was nominated for a Grammy Award and won five Tony Awards, making Ngema a significant voice internationally.

In 2017 Sarafina! performed to appreciative audiences at the State Theatre in Pretoria and is now gracing the stage of Joburg Theatre to mark the anniversary of the Soweto student uprising.

Ngema says SA is still fertile ground for protest theatre, which remains important as the struggle has not ended. "It has become obvious that the struggle was never about race but economic emancipation."

Audiences today are able to draw a parallel between the burning issues that defined the life of a poor black person in 1976, and conditions today, he adds. For them, life hasn’t changed much.

"After we attained freedom in 1994, I was constantly asked whether protest theatre in the mould of Sarafina! would have space in a democratic SA," he says. "The answer to that question is yes.

"Protest theatre is more vibrant and more relevant now than it was during the days of oppression. I therefore encourage young writers, especially, to be critical of our circumstances.

"SA today is definitely different from the SA that existed under apartheid, and was oppressive to the majority of mainly black people. Granted, we now have former freedom fighters in power, and a lot of things have improved.

"But the fact that former freedom fighters are now in government, having replaced the oppressors, does not give them the right to oppress anybody. History has proved in Africa that after 30 years of attaining freedom, things start going wrong, and those who ask difficult questions are labelled counter-revolutionary.

"Protest theatre will not go away for as long as we have stories about the Guptas looting the country’s resources, and we have incidents such as Marikana. We witnessed at Marikana how former liberation commanders acted in the same way the apartheid commanders acted during the Sharpeville massacre — shooting at our people.

Nelson Mandela

"What has happened to our former freedom fighters? Have they forgotten why they went to war to liberate the people in the first place?"

Ngema is working on a new musical entitled Nelson Mandela: Through the Eyes of an Artist, defending the legacy of the first democratic president of SA. Ngema says it has already been booked by producers for a tour abroad.

Although many question whether Mandela’s reconciliation project with white South Africans came at the expense of the economic upliftment of blacks, Ngema believes the former president could not have done more. "Here’s the thing: Mandela was removed from his people for nearly three decades, and while he was away there were developments taking place in the country. In politics, even six months is long.

"Mandela was hugely disadvantaged when he started negotiating with the people who imprisoned him, eight years before his release.

"And when he was released, together with his comrades, he successfully negotiated the settlement that saw the country eventually freed from apartheid.

"And because of that, unlike other countries on the continent such as Mozambique and Zimbabwe for example, SA did not have a full-blown war, it was possible to negotiate our way into freedom.

"During the negotiations, compromises had to be made on both sides. Whatever compromises Mandela made with the National Party has to be understood in that context."

• Sarafina! is at the Joburg Theatre until June 24.