This year marks the 40th anniversary of the June 16 youth uprisings in 1976, and no work of art has immortalised the date like “Sarafina!” Mbongeni Ngema’s critically acclaimed musical, with Leleti Khumalo in the lead, was first staged in 1987 at The Market Theatre in Johannesburg. It weaved the tale of the Soweto uprisings led by pupils, with Khumalo as the feisty Sarafina.Subsequently, Ngema took the play to Broadway, New York, in 1988, and earned Khumalo a coveted Tony Award nomination.
In 1992 Khumalo reprised the role in the big screen adaptation, directed by Darrell Roodt and starring Hollywood actress Whoopi Goldberg and Miriam Makeba.
I’m sitting with Khumalo in the swanky Hyatt Regency in Rosebank, Johannesburg, to talk about her illustrious career which has some poignancy – especially with June 16 coming up next week.
“Sarafina! introduced me to the masses. Sarafina! will always be the heart of me. It’s precious. I still get seven- or eight-year-olds coming to me saying, ‘hello Sarafina’.
“It shows that Sarafina will never go away. Whenever I hear that we are going to be commemorating June 16 and Sarafina is going to be there, it’s a validation that we have done so much for the country,” Khumalo says.
Reminiscing about those days, as a 16-year-old ingénue, Khumalo, now 46, says she was just having the time of her life and not focused on being a superstar or being at the helm of an instrumental piece of art in the South African history books.
Khumalo says they were young and excited about acting and going to Joburg as Durbanites.
“Going to Joburg was the thing, it was like going to New York. The fact that we were going to Jo’burg to work was the last thing on our minds.
“We started with rehearsals, but nobody knew which character they were playing. We were just rehearsing for a play. I don’t even think we understood what a play was. Later, we were given characters. I was cast as Sarafina and it wasn’t a big deal to me.
“Even when the play opened at The Market Theatre, we were just having fun on stage. Even in New York, I wasn’t taking it seriously, I was just having fun.
“I wasn’t trying to be a serious actress. Throughout the season it was all fun.”
These days, Khumalo has found her new acting home on the set of SABC1 telenovela “Uzalo”. She portrays matriarch Zandile Mdletshe (MaNzuza). This has been her big TV acting comeback, after taking two-and-a-half years off focusing on raising her twins, born in 2013.
Khumalo has also starred in films such as “Yesterday”, “Hotel Rwanda”, “Invictus” as well as the latest local film “Free State”.
“In ‘Free State’ I play a maid. When they told me about the role I was hesitant and I thought of it, eventually agreeing to the role.
“You know why I said yes? It’s because my mother was a maid and I thought I would be able to do the role some justice,” she shares.
Her secret to longevity?
“I respect my work so much, it’s that simple. Whatever production I do, I treat it like it’s the first time.”
Ster-Kinekor has announced that it will be hosting a free screening of the iconic South African film, “Sarafina!” at select cinemas on Youth Day – 16 June. The screening will take place at 12 noon, and tickets will be issued on a first come, first served basis.
The free screening will take place at the following cinemas: Maponya Mall, Southgate, Newtown Junction, Carlton Centre, Sandton, Eastgate, East Rand Mall. — sowetan.