Legendary musician, playwright ‘leaves a rich legacy’

Mbongeni Ngema in front of a microphone with a guitar in his hands.

Legendary musician and playwright Mbongeni Ngema died at the age of 68 in a car crash in the Eastern Cape. Picture: Supplied.

Published Dec 29, 2023


Legendary musician and playwright Mbongeni Ngema, 68, whose work “touched and moved audiences around the world”, died in a car crash while returning from a funeral in the Eastern Cape on Wednesday.

Born in Verulam, north of Durban, Ngema, also a composer and choreographer, was best known for writing the award-winning musical Sarafina! which debuted in 1988 and was made into a movie in 1992.

Minister of Arts and Culture Zizi Kodwa said Ngema received Tony Award nominations for Asinamali and Sarafina!, and Grammy Award nominations for his work in Sarafina! and The Lion King. He also acted in the film adaptation of Sarafina! and the Oscar-nominated film Yesterday.

Locally, he said Ngema received several accolades such as the South African Music Awards Lifetime Achievement Award and the Naledi Theatre Award. He also contributed to the development of creative arts in communities through his collaboration with the department and its agencies such as the Playhouse Company.

He said Ngema’s death was a significant loss to South African arts.

“I wish to express my deepest sympathies to the Ngema family, his colleagues and contemporaries, and to the South African arts fraternity.

“South Africa has lost one of its great playwrights, composers, lyricists, directors and musicians. Ngema’s work was celebrated in South Africa and internationally,” said Kodwa.

KwaZulu-Natal premier Nomusa Dube-Ncube said Ngema was the finest producer, composer and lyricist of our time. “We have lost a true legend, a doyen and genuine ambassador of theatre. On behalf of the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government and our people, we send our deepest condolences to his family for this great loss.”

Director and film producer Anant Singh, who acquired the film rights to Sarafina! and became friends with Ngema 36 years ago, said he left an indelible mark on SA theatre and the creative industries as a whole.

“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. His passing leaves a deep void but he leaves a rich legacy that will endure for posterity,” said Singh.

Political parties also offered their condolences to Ngema’s family, friends and colleagues.

ANC national spokesperson Mahlengi Bhengu-Motsiri said Ngema’s artistry resonated with the Struggle against apartheid and reflected the spirit of resistance during pivotal moments in the nation’s history.

“We mourn the loss of a patriot who used his creative prowess to amplify the voices of the oppressed. Ngema’s impact goes beyond the stage and screen. It reverberates in the hearts of those who have been touched by his compelling narratives and powerful performances,” he said.

ActionSA president Herman Mashaba said as Ngema’s death is mourned, his creative genius is celebrated. “We also celebrate his creative genius which led to the creation of the award-winning play and movie Sarafina! as well as co-authoring Woza Albert.

“We thank him for his commitment to anti-apartheid activism through his creative works, which highlighted the injustices of apartheid on an international stage,” he said.

The EFF also paid tribute to Ngema, saying he was more than just an artist.

“He was a cultural icon, and a beacon of hope during some of our darkest times. His legacy will forever be etched in the fabric of our nation, a testament to the transformative power of art in the face of oppression.”