Dr Mbongeni Ngema. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/African News Agency (ANA)

High drama preceded the opening night of the global-hit musical Sarafina! at the Joburg Theatre on Friday when acclaimed playwright, director and producer Dr Mbongeni Ngema was served with a removal notice by theatre management.

Allegations of sexual harassment were levelled against Ngema, and his assistant manager Sam Madikane, by members of the Sarafina! cast, leading to such a notice being served on the pair.

In a statement released late on Friday night, Joburg Theatre confirmed it had noted the complaints and that an internal investigation was currently under way.

"The abovementioned allegations have been brought to the attention of management at Joburg Theatre. As a theatre, the interest of safety for all that use the venue is a priority and as such, an internal investigation is under way," the statement read.

The theatre had also made available counsellors for cast members for the duration of the production's season.

"The Joburg Theatre, as an entity of the City of Joburg, fully upholds and protects the human rights, dignity and safety of all who work at the theatre. Furthermore, we take the safety and well-being of young actors and minors as of paramount importance. The theatre has in place a professional counsellor who is available during the production season at Joburg Theatre for the Sarafina! cast members," it said.

The theatre added it was currently seeking legal advice and would comment further on the issue in due course.

Recent media reports alleged Ngema persistently called a young cast member professing his love for her. He is said to have suggested that they keep the '"relationship" a secret. Allegations of threats and intimidation of witnesses are also circulating.

Madikane, on the other hand, is alleged to have insisted on relocating to a hotel where young female cast members were being accommodated. The complaint to theatre management was that Madikane had entered the room of a young female cast member who was getting dressed at the time.

One of South Africa’s most iconic symbols of the struggle for social and political freedom and justice, Sarafina! was conceived and directed by Ngema who wrote and arranged the music and lyrics, with additional songs by the late Dr Hugh Masekela.  

Sarafina! was adapted to become a school set work and it is studied by learners in schools across the African continent. 

The play, which depicts students involved in the 1976 Soweto Uprising against apartheid, was created in June 1986 and premiered at The Market Theatre in Johannesburg in June 1987, with Leleti Khumalo in the title role as the school girl activist, Sarafina!

The powerhouse musical took Broadway by storm in January 1988 during black history month culminating in a 2-year run on Broadway in Manhattan New York City and a 5-year tour of the United States of America. Concurrently a second cast of Sarafina! premiered in 1988 and went on to tour the world for 4 years which included the UK, Europe, Australia, Japan and West Africa.

The current season of Sarafina! is set to run until August 11.