Mbongeni Ngema, South African playwright and creator of ‘Sarafina!’, is killed in a car crash at 68


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Performers Percy Mtwa, left, and Mbongeni Ngema in a scene from “Woza Albert” at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1981. (AP Photo/Ruphin Coudyzer/File)

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Renowned South African playwright, producer and composer Mbongeni Ngema, the creator of the Broadway hit “Sarafina!”, has died in a car crash at the age of 68, his family said.

Ngema was killed in a head-on accident while returning from a funeral in a rural town in Eastern Cape province, the family said in a statement Wednesday. The celebrated playwright was a passenger in the vehicle.

He was best known for writing “Sarafina!”, which premiered on Broadway in 1988. It was adapted into a musical drama starring Whoopi Goldberg in 1992 and became an international success, being nominated for Tony and Grammy awards.

“Sarafina!” told the story of a student and how she inspired her peers to fight against racial segregation in apartheid South Africa after her favorite teacher, played by Goldberg, was thrown in jail for protesting against the system.

The story was based on the events of the 1976 Soweto uprising in South Africa, when thousands of students took part in protests against the apartheid government.

Apartheid was an institutionalized system that discriminated against non-whites and ensured South Africa was ruled by the minority white population from 1948 until the first all-race democratic elections in 1994.

Ngema’s body of work also included the lauded theater production “Woza Albert,” which premiered in 1981 and won more than 20 awards around the world. The political satire explored the second coming of Jesus Christ as a black man in South Africa during apartheid.

Tributes to Ngema poured in, including from South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

“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 theaters, homes and consciousness of millions of people around the world,” Ramaphosa said in a statement.

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 theater.”

The Economic Freedom Fighters 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 Africa’s minister of sports, arts and culture, wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that Ngema’s work “touched and moved audiences around the world and made an important contribution in telling the South African story.”


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