Mzansi Profiles! People Mbongeni Ngema Biography: Early Life | Career | Personal Life | Death

Mbongeni Ngema Biography: Early Life | Career | Personal Life | Death

Mbongeni Ngema Biography: Early Life | Career | Personal Life | Death post thumbnail image

This is the biography of Mbongeni Ngema, a South African playwright, composer, and director who created some of the most acclaimed and influential works of theatre and music in the country’s history. His works, such as Woza Albert! and Sarafina!, captured the struggles, hopes, and dreams of black South Africans under apartheid and beyond. Ngema was also a prolific film and television producer and a recipient of many awards and honors. He was widely regarded as a visionary, a pioneer, and a legend of South African theatre.


Early Life and Education

Mbongeni Ngema was born on June 1, 1956, in Verulam, KwaZulu-Natal, near Durban, South Africa. He grew up in the heart of Zululand, in a place called Nhlwathi, in Hlabisa. He was from the lineage of the warriors Mbandama and Sigcwelegcwele kaMhlekehleke of the Ngema clan, who led the Ingoba Makhosi regiment in the Battle of Isandlwana against the British in 1879.

Ngema developed a passion for music and theatre at a young age. He started his career as a theatre backing guitarist and later joined local theatre groups in the late 1970s. He did not receive any formal training in theatre but learned from his mentors such as Gibson Kente, Barney Simon, and Percy Mtwa.


Mbongeni Ngema Career and Achievements

Mbongeni Ngema Biography

Mbongeni Ngema Biography [Image: Facebook]


Ngema rose to fame as the co-writer and co-star of the play Woza Albert! in 1981, which was a satire on apartheid and a tribute to the resilience of black South Africans. The play won several awards, including the Edinburgh Fringe First Award, and was performed in many countries.

In 1985, Ngema wrote and directed his most successful work, Sarafina!, a musical about the 1976 Soweto uprising, which was a protest by black students against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. The musical featured a young Leleti Khumalo as the lead character, and was nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, in 1988.

It also won 11 NAACP Image Awards and was nominated for a Grammy Award. The musical ran for two years on Broadway, and toured the US, Europe, Australia, and Japan. In 1992, it was adapted into a feature film, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Miriam Makeba, and Khumalo.

Ngema continued to create plays and musicals that reflected the spirit and history of black South Africans, such as Township Fever (1990), Mama (1995), Asinamali (1996), Maria Maria (1997), The Zulu (1999), 1906 Bhambada The Freedom Fighter (2004), The House of Shaka (2005), and The Lion of the East (2006). He also composed several music albums, such as Stimela SaseZola (2003), which was a tribute to the migrant workers who built the South African economy.

Ngema was also involved in film and television production. He wrote the musical soundtrack for Sarafina! the movie, and produced the movie’s soundtrack alongside Quincy Jones. He also produced and directed the TV series Shaka Zulu (1986), The Making of the Mahatma (1996), and Zulu Love Letter (2004).

Ngema received many honours and awards for his artistic contributions, such as the New York Walk of Fame in 1998, the Presidential Order of Ikhamanga in Silver in 2008, and the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Naledi Theatre Awards in 2011. He was also appointed as a visiting lecturer at the University of Zululand in 1997, where he taught his unique artistic technique.


Mbongeni Ngema Biography

Mbongeni Ngema Biography [Image: Facebook]


Mbongeni Ngema Personal Life and Death

Ngema married Leleti Khumalo, the star of Sarafina!, in 1992. They divorced in 2005, after Khumalo accused Ngema of domestic abuse. Ngema had four children from previous relationships.

Ngema died on December 27, 2023, at the age of 67, in a road traffic accident. He perished in a head-on collision on his way from a funeral in the Eastern Cape.



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