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‘Sarafina’ recounts rape ordeal in memoir



Xoliswa Nduneni-Ngema is the chief executive officer of Johannesburg City Theatres. In her memoir, Heart of a Strong Woman: From Daveyton to Sarafina! My Story of Triumph, she recounts her domestic violence agony during her marriage to South African playwright Mbongeni Ngema.

Together they became forceful anti-apartheid performers and primary benefactors to the multi-faceted South African entertainment pop culture.

Xoliswa met Mbongeni at one of the plays held by iconic South African militant playwright Gibson Kente.

Mbongeni rose from rural Zululand to feature in Kente’s cast. Kente had discovered the integral careers of Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Jonas Gwangwa and cast them in the 1959 London stage production, King Kong.

Mbongeni had stayed at the playwright’s house while he performed in Mama and the Load, Kente’s touring musical play, where he honed his virtuosity in drama, music production and choreography.

He soon broke away and earned credence on his own musical plays Asinamali and Woza Albert! They received astounding reviews and caught the attention of the BBC.

Mbongeni was born on June 1, 1955, and Xoliswa on July 21, 1962. She had schooled at Nzimankulu in rural Queenstown in 1976 and at the prestigious St John’s College in Mthatha.

Contrastingly, Mbongeni had dropped out of high school to pursue his thespian dream. Mbongeni, an avid reader, was a womaniser.

He proposed to and married Xoliswa, then aged 19, promising her relatives that he would fund her social science education at the University of Natal in Durban.

He travelled to London, San Francisco and Los Angeles on a tour with Woza Albert! crew, with an ambition of performing on Broadway in New York City. He partly kept his word, and moderately paid for Xoliswa’s university education.

But upon his return to Jo’burg, Xoliswa discovered his infidelity from colleagues. The woman Mbongeni was having an affair with was musician Tu Nokwe.

Her father, Alf Nokwe, was an exalted socialite, public speaker and TV actor. Her mother, Patty, was also an actress, both on stage and on the small screen. Her elder sister, Marilyn Nokwe, was a musician and a vocalist for the famous Stimela band.

When Xoliswa confronted Mbongeni about Tu, he physically assaulted her. Xoliswa and Mbongeni had registered production company Committed Artists in Fordsburg, as they developed a new musical play called Sarafina! Xoliswa held a casting session in their Daveyton house.

Tu, who had a dance crew from Umlazi known as Amajika, showed up at the session. The Amajika crew included a humble and congenial teenager, Leleti Khumalo, who was handpicked by Mbongeni to perform the title role in Sarafina!

Leleti and her sister Sboniso had been raised by the Nokwe family, after their father died.

In Xoliswa’s absence, band members began sexual affairs with some members of the cast. It shocked Xoliswa, who was now 25.

Band members were men in their 20s, while members of the cast were teenage girls, who had been left in their care.

Sarafina! opened to rapturous reviews at the Market Theatre on 12 June 1987. Xoliswa’s mother, who had nursed Leleti during an ulcer infection, confessed her suspicion to Xoliswa that Mbongeni was sleeping with the under-age lead actress.

In an altercation after one of the plays, Xoliswa viciously assaulted Leleti and was stopped by an intoxicated Mbongeni, who, in retaliation, mercilessly battered Xoliswa. She returned to Durban for her studies and cut links with Mbongeni.

The Sarafina! travelling show became exceedingly successful in New York City. After it performed at the famous Lincoln Centre, the show finally moved to Broadway, fulfilling Mbongeni’s ambition.

Upon his return to South Africa on February 1988, Mbongeni tracked Xoliswa down, at Standard Bank in Durban, her new workplace after graduation. She rejected his advances for a reunion.

Since parents would never customarily release their teen daughters to a man, Mbongeni’s intention was to secretly manipulate Xoliswa to recruit female performers for a new permanent Sarafina! stage show to be established in London.

Xoliswa requested him to drive her to her residence. Instead, a vindictive inebriated Mbongeni drove to the luxurious Elangeni Hotel, while threatening to kill her. He pleaded for sex in his hotel room.

Upon Xoliswa’s rejection and demand for a divorce, he punched her repeatedly, fractured her spinal cord and almost paralysed her. He then raped her.
“At that time, I refused to use the word rape,” she writes.

“A part of me said I was still married to him, and a married woman cannot be raped by her husband. That was how I thought and reasoned at the time, but it was indeed rape. I had not consented.”

After the filming of the Sarafina! movie, Mbongeni married the film’s title actress Leleti Khumalo in 1992.

Jeff Anthony is a novelist, a Big Brother Africa 2 Kenyan representative and founder of Jeff’s Fitness Centre @jeffbigbrother

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