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Tuesday, 25 June, 2002, 18:10 GMT 19:10 UK
South Africa's enfant terrible
South African campaigners for Aids relief
Ngmoa is also accused of exploiting the Aids crisis

South Africa's controversial playwright and composer Mbongeni Ngema has hit the headlines again over his song Amandiya, the Zulu for "Indians".

The song was banned from the airwaves by the Broadcast Complaints Commission because it said it incited hatred against South Africa's Indian community.


Who dares to claim authority over what we should sing about?

Mbongeni Ngema
It is a catchy tune, but the lyrics have been labelled as "hate speech".

Prominent Indian sociologist Fatima Meer described the song as "a disgusting bit of diatribe".

"I never realised Ngema had so much rancour in his heart", she said, adding that with one song, the composer and playwright had wiped away "whatever glory" he had earned over the years.

Unapologetic

Some critics would say the glory is equally blended with infamy.

Ngema himself is completely unapologetic.

The suave showman issued a statement decrying the ban.

"Who dares to claim authority over what we should sing about, and how we should express ourselves?" he asked.

Playwright and composer Mbongeni Ngema
Ngema is unrepentant

His defiance in the face of the tidal wave of wrath emanating from the Indian community is very characteristic.

Ego should be Mbongeni Ngema's middle name.

I first met him on a one-million-rand (about $98,000) luxury bus parked outside the Eyethu cinema in Soweto, where Ngema was rehearsing Sarafina 2.

This was the R14 million musical sponsored by the Health Department in 1996 which was supposed to carry the message about Aids into South Africa's rural areas.

At that point, it had already become a national scandal, not just because the health minister had side-stepped the usual procedures in allocating the money, but because of the enormous cost of the production, the equivalent of a provincial Aids health budget.

Exceptional abilities

Ngema reclined on a luxury seat, and I opened the interview with the words "As one of South Africa's most famous producers" when he stopped me with a raised palm.

"NOT one of South Africa's most famous producers, THE most famous producer," he corrected me gently, as if chiding a child.

From the start Ngema has had an overwhelming sense of his own ability, from his early beginnings in the small northern KwaZulu/Natal settlement of Hlabisa, to his first international theatre triumph with Woza Albert.

This play, written by Ngema together with Barney Simon and Percy Mtwa, established South African struggle theatre on the stages of London and New York in 1981.

Ngema followed this up with the musical Asinimali, which showed off his exceptional technical abilities as a producer.

Controversy

And then came his triumph, Sarafina, funded to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars by the Lincoln Centre.

It became the benchmark musical of its time, carrying to audiences worldwide the revolutionary struggle ardour of South Africa's youth.

Ngema was frequently criticised for capitalising on the anti-apartheid struggle.

With Sarafina 2 he was again criticised of capitalising - this time on the Aids pandemic.

His own sexual mores came under the spotlight during the scandal.

As a polygamist, and a man who openly declares that he cannot resist women who "like him", his qualifications for producing an Aids musical containing the right messages were considered dubious.

But even though his company went into liquidation after the Sarafina 2 debacle, Ngema has continued to mount successful theatre productions and to court controversy.

And, unsurprisingly, he has many thousands of fans.

See also:

17 Jun 02 | Africa
17 Apr 02 | Africa
30 Aug 00 | Africa
28 Aug 01 | Africa
28 Aug 01 | Africa
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