Mbongeni Ngema: a phenomenon that comes once in a lifetime

Farewell Madlokovu – playwright Mbongeni Ngema.

Farewell Madlokovu – playwright Mbongeni Ngema.

Published Jan 5, 2024



"If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing." – Benjamin Franklin

In April of 2000, the renowned African American playwright August Wilson wrote in the New York Times: "Before one can become an artist one must first be. It is being in all facets, its many definitions that endow the artist with an immutable sense of himself that is necessary for the accomplishment of his tasks. Simply put, art is beholden to the kiln in which the artist was fired. Before I am anything, a man, or a playwright, I am an African American. The tributary streams of culture, history and experience have provided me with the materials out of which I make my art. As an African American playwright, I have many forebears who have pioneered and hacked out of the underbrush an aesthetic that embraced and elevated the cultural values of Black Americans to a level equal to those of their European counterparts."

One would be forgiven for thinking that August Wilson also had Mbongeni Ngema in mind when he wrote the above words, which brilliantly capture and encapsulate who Ngema was. Ngema was an artist through and through. In fact, he was performing arts personified. His eyes burned with passion and integrity. He was a black man who worked, wrote and fought himself into being a great artist.

In the words of Haki R. Madhubuti, Ngema was "the gem in our ocean, a clean, clear, determined, heartfelt, memory-layered and unforgettable voice. No booty calls here, no celebration of our pathologies, no chittlin' circuit opportunism, no banging of the chest or cheap amens for a people raised in the hellhole of an alien people's culture. His goal was to free our minds from the mentality of being the property of others".

Farewell Madlokovu – playwright Mbongeni Ngema.

One of the most successful and celebrated playwrights globally, he was the moral force of his generation. He was the clarion voice of the disenfranchised. Simply put, he was the voice of the marginalised and an outspoken and fierce critic through his musical plays against social injustice. Few contemporary playwrights could match Ngema's output. One was unavoidably impressed with his unswerving, deep-rooted love and appreciation of his people and culture as the central source of his expansive grasp of human life and his impressive creative productions. His ingeniously thought out creative works are worthy of preservation, emulation and transmission to the current generation and future generations.

Avidly watching his memorial service on TV, I effortlessly concluded that Madlokovu (Ngema's clan name) fits the description of a phenomenon that comes once in a lifetime. An active director of his own work, he oversaw the production of numerous plays. A long-time political activist, he was, through theatre, a vigorous and vocal campaigner for human rights.

The word “great” features prominently when a colossus like Ngema has fallen. But what determines greatness? How do you measure a man’s greatness? Is it situated in his power, the wealth he or she leaves behind, mental prowess, physical abilities, intelligence, magnanimity or greatness? Historian H.G. Wells famously remarked that a “man’s greatness can be measured by what he leaves to grow, and whether he started others to think along fresh lines with a vigour that persisted after him”.

Many great leaders like him are distinguishable by one thing that they possess. German sociologist Max Weber called it “the firm taming of the soul”. Today, psychologists call it “emotional intelligence” – the capacity to handle one’s emotions and relationships with others. We were mesmerised by his genius; his artistic expressions were unmatched and unparalleled.

Farewell Madlokovu – playwright Mbongeni Ngema.

Sadly, so much has happened to the profession of playwriting. And so much of what has happened has not been good for playwrights. Just as Ngema, fallible like all of us, conceded that he erred in certain aspects of his life, our government must also take the blame for letting him and many other artists “fade away in the desert”. In his article “Against Populism”, Jan Lauwers argues “theatre is not economically advantageous as an artistic medium. Because it does not bend to the laws of the capitalist system, one cannot get rich in the theatre. The chances of getting rich in the plastic arts are exceedingly small. The chances of getting rich as a theatre maker are non-existent".

There is an outcry that artists or their agencies need to be subsidised quite substantially to ply their trade. On my leisurely reading, I came across this fascinating take on the subsidisation of the artists. Again, in Jan Lauwers’ article, “Against Populism”, he is of the view that subsidies are a democratic means of safeguarding freedom of thought. He says imagine if we questioned the subsidies for soldiers: "Well, dear Mr. Soldier, you can defend our country, but you will have to provide your own food and rifle. No problem, says the soldier, and off he goes. In the distance he sees a farm and thinks to himself: I'll find some food there. He knocks at the door. The farmer opens it. The soldier holds a knife to the farmer's throat and says: ‘I want a bowl of soup and then I'll defend you.’ White with fear, the farmer gives him his bowl of hot soup.

Farewell Madlokovu – playwright Mbongeni Ngema. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/Independent Newspapers

“Now let's replace the soldier with, for example, an actor without subsidies. He knocks at the farmer's door, but he hasn't got a knife. He says, ‘I want a bowl of soup.’ ‘Why should I give you a bowl of soup?’ the farmer asks. The actor replies: ‘If you don't give me one, I shall recite a monologue by Jan Fabre right here in front of you.’ ‘Oh, no!’ screams the farmer, ‘Not a monologue by Fabre, not a monologue by Fabre...’ ”

Lauwers asks, why should the artists always have to defend themselves? Why is so much social and political correctness required? He thinks it has something to do with the freedom they symbolise. They are defenceless because there is no power connected to this freedom—only responsibility.

For artists do indeed have a responsibility, as the Italian arte povera artist Michelangelo Pistoletto says, “Because artists are placed at the top of the social ladder, freedom without consequences amounts to laziness. But at the same time, it is increasingly required that art become involved in politics, that it become ‘committed’, that it stops behaving in an elitist manner.”

What might that be, art that is not elitist, asks Lauwers? Folk art? Surely, argues Lauwers, every form of art that manifests itself in superficial political statements can, in essence, be reduced to entertainment. Lauwers is of the view that art must stand with both feet in society. Art takes place in the twilight zone where invention and reality stand in each other's way.

Farewell Madlokovu – playwright Mbongeni Ngema.

We need to think in new ways about the future – to invent the potential future impact of theatre on the world. Ngema's memorial service has demonstrated that our society is skilled at self-reflection and evaluation of its own strengths and flaws, especially on how artists are treated. These are traits necessary for growth and improvement. We must also devote energy to better understanding the current complexities of this world to ensure that theatre can have a profound and deep impact both by helping to illuminate abstract or philosophical questions and by addressing social and political problems. Theatre must be made, shared and incorporated into community life. Or, as Tennessee Williams put it, "Life is an unanswered question, but let's still believe in the dignity and importance of the question."

Making sense of that unanswered question is an equally significant role for theatre. The world is a mess, and our playwrights have a responsibility to take a look, a hard look, at what is going on and comment on it. For the time being, however, a short attention span is no longer an excuse for avoiding theatre.

In 1996, Wilson delivered his landmark speech, “The Ground on Which I Stand”, which dynamited the hardened crust of assumptions about what late-20th century racial progress looked like, allowing subterranean tensions and conflicts to bubble up, and over, the surface. Interestingly, the speech also placed theatre—that often under-loved and under-discussed art form—at the forefront of a national conversation about integration, nationalism, assimilation and power. Like Wilson, Mbongeni Ngema took care to stake out the "ground" on which he and his culture stood and fought.

Farewell Madlokovu – playwright Mbongeni Ngema.

Vaclav Havel, the famous Czech playwright who became the president of Czechoslovakia, wrote from jail that "man is nailed down—like Christ on the cross—to a grid of paradoxes. He balances between the torment of not knowing his mission and the joy of carrying it out". Just like Havel, Mbongeni Ngema did both. The British gave birth to William Shakespeare as their best playwright. The Americans have produced August Wilson and Steven Spielberg as venerable and renowned playwrights. In Mbongeni Ngema, the African continent proudly produced an inimitably ingenious playwright who has made Africans walk tall elatedly.

In saying goodbye to this man, who added my name to the endless list of his friends, I would like to borrow the words of the Swiss theatre and film director Luc Bondy, the man who radiated intelligence and when considering the death of a friend, reflected: "Only part of us dies. A fraction of our consciousness, which needs neither space nor a body, remains and appears in the memories of friends who go on living. We stop judging the dead. We see them as more present than the living. We can see the backs of their heads – we can see them deep in conversation with other people."

Farewell, Madlokovu. I am immensely honoured and humbled to have been one of your friends.

Dr Vusi Shongwe. Picture: Supplied

Dr Vusi Shongwe

Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal