News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Mbongeni Ngema, South African playwright and creator of 'Sarafina!,' has died at 68

Performers Percy Mtwa, left, and Mbongeni Ngema in a scene from "Woza Albert" at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1981.
Ruphin Coudyzer
Performers Percy Mtwa, left, and Mbongeni Ngema in a scene from "Woza Albert" at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1981.

JOHANNESBURG — Renowned South African playwright, producer and composer Mbongeni Ngema has died in a car crash at the age of 68, his family said.

"Ngema was killed in a head-on car accident while returning from a funeral he was attending in Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape this evening," his family said in a statement Wednesday. The celebrated playwright was a passenger in the vehicle involved in the crash.

He was best known for creating the hit Sarafina! which first premiered on Broadway in 1988. It was adapted into a musical drama starring Whoopi Goldberg in 1992, becoming an international success and was nominated for the Tony and Grammy Awards.

Sarafina! told the story of a young student and how she inspired her peers to fight against racial segregation in apartheid South Africa after her teacher was thrown in jail.

Apartheid was an institutionalized system that discriminated against non-whites and ensured South Africa was ruled by the minority white population from 1948 till the early 1990s.

Ngema's body of work included the lauded theatre production Woza Albert, which first showed in 1981 and went on to win more than 20 awards across the world. The political satire explored the second coming of Jesus Christ as a black man, returning to South Africa as a black man.

Tributes to the noted playwright have been pouring in.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa praised the late Ngema in a statement.

"The many productions he created or to which he contributed inspired resilience and pride among us as fellow South Africans and took South Africa and our continent into the theatres, homes and consciousness of millions of people around the world," Ramaphosa said Thursday.

South Africa's ruling African National Congress party and one of its biggest rivals, the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters both conveyed their condolences.

The ANC said in a statement: "He was a globally acclaimed playwright, composer and producer. We have lost a true legend, a doyen, and a genuine ambassador of theatre."

The Leftist party described him as "more than just an artist; he was a cultural icon, and a beacon of hope during some of our darkest times".

Zizi Kodwa, South African minister of sports, arts and culture Zizi Kodwa said in a tweet Negma's loss was significant to the South African art scene adding that his work "touched and moved audiences around the world and made an important contribution in telling the South African story."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]