An icon who learnt from the best

Mbon­geni Ngema con­tin­ues to add a spice of ex­cel­lence to his work

Move! - - CONTENTS - By Bonolo Sekudu


IN 1979, an un­wa­ver­ing spirit and an in­tense love for the arts led all-round mas­ter of arts, Dr Mbon­geni Ngema, to Soweto be­cause he wanted to learn from the late leg­endary Gibson Kente. That leap of faith took him to a des­tiny he knew in his heart was meant for him be­cause it earned him in­ter­na­tional hon­our and ac­co­lades, in­clud­ing the Life­time Achieve­ment Award at this year’s South African Mu­sic Awards. Per­haps, that is why it is not pos­si­ble to ig­nore him when he says that most of the peo­ple on TV aren’t trained to be ac­tors. “They are mod­els not ac­tors,” the 62-year-old icon says.


“The great­est de­ci­sion I ever did for my­self was to leave Dur­ban,” Mbon­geni says. He went to Gibson’s house be­cause he wanted to learn from the best cre­ator, com­poser, direc­tor and pro­ducer there was.

“When I got there he re­jected me. I didn’t leave, I slept in his garage next to his car,” he says.

While those who were al­ready work­ing with the late Gibson re­hearsed, he watched for three months. “So many times he told me to go back home but I re­fused. He would give me money to go back but I just bought kota with it,” he says with a laugh.

When he was fi­nally given an op­por­tu­nity to be­come part of the pool of tal­ented young peo­ple at Gibson’s house, he felt like life had just be­gun for him. Mbon­geni was raised by par­ents who were not con­vinced by his love for his gui­tar, in­stead they never re­ally took him se­ri­ously.

“In the 1980s, when a play I cre­ated, Woza Al­bert, toured in­ter­na­tion­ally they could see that re­ally I had done well for my­self. When I came back from tour­ing over­seas, my fa­ther was on his deathbed and I gave him a lot of money. He was so happy,” he says. “Soon af­ter, my mother saw the play and she wept as she hugged me.”


Re­cently, Asi­na­mali, a play cre­ated decades ago has now turned into a movie. It re­ceived a stand­ing ova­tion in New York and it will be show­ing in Mzansi in Au­gust.

There are a few things that Mbon­geni has not done. One of the mile­stones he wants to reach is open­ing an academy for the arts where he will groom young artists. He says there is some­thing that has kept him reach­ing lev­els he has in the arts.

“Every artist or cre­ator has a spe­cial touch they add into their work,” he says. “There is just this spice of ex­cel­lence that I add. I’m able to see a play in my mind and that gives me di­rec­tion.”


Al­though he has reached a level of suc­cess many have not, he says he will keep on go­ing. Sara­fina! The Mu­si­cal is cur­rently show­ing in Joburg The­atre and he is also work­ing on Nel­son Man­dela The Mu­si­cal too.

“It gives me great plea­sure to still do what I love, al­though it is dis­heart­en­ing that even af­ter the new demo­cratic dis­pen­sa­tion, we still get fund­ing for our sto­ries from out­side of South Africa. This is some­thing that needs to change,” he says.

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