The internationally acclaimed dramatist Mbongeni Ngema says he’s a rehabilitated man after acknowledging being an abusive partner in his past marriages, and has now joined the massive fight against gender-based violence.
“If there are elements of criminality in the community, you need to bring in seasoned criminals to rehabilitate the other criminal. This is why in this instance I am putting myself forward and I am saying that I have done it before,” the writer of the award-winning musical drama Sarafina! said.
The self-confessed traditionalist also had a lot to share on his thoughts about the plague of gender-based violence in South Africa, beginning, to some extent, with his own experience.
PAST MARRIAGES AND ALLEGATIONS OF ABUSE
The 64-year-old Ngema has for years deliberately chosen not to entertain, at least in the public space, allegations of abuse by his former wives Leleti Khumalo and Xoliswa Ndudeni-Ngema.
The latter reveals more allegations in her memoir, Heart of A Strong Woman, which was launched recently.
Ngema is still not willing to respond directly to any of the allegations, but he has generally owned up to his bad deeds.
“In a nutshell, even though I have no desire to respond to any allegation – be it in a book or news articles – I am not clean and I may just brush some of it off and say this is being exaggerated … it didn’t happen that way, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that I am right, either,” he said.
On what he thinks could have gone wrong, Ngema said in reference to his marriage to Ndudeni-Ngema: “We were both very young … I got married at the age of 24. There are two reasons I got married – I needed a passbook to qualify to be in Johannesburg [during the pass laws era under apartheid] and I was in love.
“But when you get married at that young age, you’re not really prepared for marriage. In the old days, a young Zulu man would be conscripted to the army until about age 40. A man would have to have fought enemies and bathed his assegai in the blood of the enemy, then he would get a head ring, and only then could he get married.
“At that age you are mature, therefore you can take care of a wife … But at 24, what do you know about taking care of a wife? So many things can go wrong because she is young and you are young yourself.”
This is how far Ngema would go into his past marriage experiences, which have been overshadowed by allegations of abuse.
‘I was part of that myself … I am not holy’
He is not proud of it and his crestfallen face says so. He twists his fingers as he relates a story of what he now regards as his past life.
“When you are younger, and I am speaking from experience, when your girlfriend misbehaves or cheats on you, you beat her up. This was the only way of resolving issues and it was a societal problem.
“I was part of that myself and because I am not pure. It is for that reason that today, at my age, I am acknowledging what we did in the past and I recognise that it was not the right thing to do.
“I am not holy, but at this age in my life I look back at myself, because your history will always follow you like your shadow.
“While I am proud of many things I have achieved in my life, there is this aspect that I am not proud of because this is what I did, which is wrong in the society.”
MEN AS VICTIMS OF CIRCUMSTANCE
Ngema blames it on bad conventional moralities and the existence of good and bad cultural ideologies.
“As Africans, we were brought up knowing that a woman is yours; she is your possession…
“You put [her] here and you must find [her] there just like your cellphone, which you’d expect to find where you left it. And if it is somewhere else, you start wondering who moved it.
“Jealousy turns some men wild, and they act in a way that is beyond themselves. When you sit with them later, they will say: ‘It was not me who did that, I was possessed by something.’”
However, in the same breath, he said that “a woman was never beaten up in Zulu tradition … At least when I grew up I knew as a little boy that it would never happen.
“But with Western civilisation and as we flocked to the cities and townships, with African families being broken apart and societal norms being eradicated, all of that culture was wiped away from African people and a new [culture] began to emerge, which is what you see today.”
Ngema said in most cases those who abuse women lack self-mastery.
“When they commit these crimes, they find themselves driven by certain forces that are beyond their comprehension. If you can sit down with men who commit this crime, later when they are calm and [ask why they did it], nine out of 10 will tell you they are sorry. That is why I think they are [also] victims of this syndrome.”
A NEW JOURNEY
Through his Mbongeni Ngema Foundation, the playwright has formed an organisation called Stimela SaseZola – named after his early 1990s hit song – to fight the scourge of gender-based violence.
He has also partnered with gender-based violence survivor and activist Josina Machel and her nonprofit organisation Kuhluka Movement, as well as businessperson Basetsana Kumalo and the Justice for All Women movement.
Ngema said he realised that mostly women were at the forefront of the fight against gender-based violence and they often struggled in certain settings.
“Like when they want to host workshops and campaigns in deep rural villages and they have to talk to traditional leaders. I believe traditional leaders would listen to me better when I engage with them and, once the door is open, we will all come through and help our men,” he said.
The multitalented composer, lyricist, theatre producer, director and scriptwriter said he would use what he knows best – the arts – to fight gender-based violence.
Asked what he would say if he was in a room full of young men, he said: “I may just play them a song with the relevant message … When people see me, they don’t see a person who’d come and preach to them; I am not that. I want to use the medium I know because then I believe people will listen.
“I recently released a new album titled Vintage, with one of the tracks called To Be A Woman, which is addressing this subject of gender-based violence.
“The only way I know is to write songs, write plays, movies, television drams … that’s me and that’s exactly what I intend doing.
“We need to encourage men to do self-introspection, stand up and get on the trajectory of converting and rehabilitating our own and say: ‘Actually, this is not cool … there are other ways.’
“Why don’t we go back and think about how things used to be before our culture was eradicated?”
Ngema suddenly looked excited as he explained the journey he was embarking on. He stood up and headed straight for the piano, sat down and started playing and singing Lizobuya from The Sound of Freedom, the album for Sarafina!
After a brief performance, he says: “Stimela SaseZola ... Let’s hop on this train … I am calling on all men to board this train with me. We need to work on the psyche of men and fight gender-based violence.”
- The 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children campaign starts on Wednesday