The cast of Sarafina! - Where are they now and what are their thoughts on today's youth
“Freedom is coming tomorrow,” sang unflinching Leleti Khumalo with her clenched fist in the air in Sarafina! – defining and giving voice to a buoyant young generation.
From the anthemic soundtrack to the rousing musical choreography and depiction of 1976 Soweto uprising against apartheid, the 1992 historic film has always been significant in empowering the youth to strive for a better future.
Now almost 30 years into the brighter future that the big screen adaptation prophesied the youth still faces a variety of new challenges.
But the unwavering spirit of Sarafina! still lives on in the youth as they confront Covid-19 uncertainties and racial injustices through Black Lives Matter protests.
Now in her 50s, Khumalo observes positive mental health as an area of concern among today’s youth.
“I believe that there is such a big difference between us, the 70s kids and the youth of today,” Khumalo opines.
“I tend to feel sorry for them because they suffer from more peer pressure that we did.
“They need constant guidance. There is a lot of youth suicide, and it shows you how important mental health is. They are facing a lot.”
Playing the titular role in Sarafina gave Khumalo her big acting break in her late teens. She recalls that when she learnt that she will be playing opposite Hollywood A-lister Whoopi Goldberg in the production it made her physically ill from nerves.
But to Khumalo’s surprise when she walked on set in Soweto to film her scenes with Oscar-winning actor – who portrayed inspirational teacher Mary Masombuka – she was a pleasure to work with.
The biggest lesson she took from working with Goldberg was to always take a mentorship role when working with rising actors.
“I was working with Whoopi Goldberg… I immediately got sick; I was trembling, sweating, literally feeling at my worst,” Khumalo recounts.
“But oh my word, she was so lovely to me, she called to ask me if I was ok, and I told her how nervous I was about shooting with her.
“Long story short, Whoopi was so good to me, she made me feel relaxed. I did not see an actor in her that day, I saw a mother. She nurtured me.
“This is why when I shoot with young people, I do not intimidate them or try to use my star power.”
Despite her illustrious career that yielded roles in Generations, Yesterday and Uzalo, Khumalo is still referred to as Sarafina! – and she doesn’t mind it.
“The strategy is to remain humble… It was not an intention of mine to be a role model, but I am aware that I am,” Khumalo says.
“It is a fantastic feeling. I have had such a humbling journey. I was not doing the job to be known; I did it because I love what I do.”
Recently Khumalo started her journey as co-executive producer of Imbewu: The Seed. She also leads the cast of the hit e.tv daily drama portraying matriarch MaZulu.
“When I started this journey, I was not sure where it was taking me. Sarafina! launched me. It was the beginning of my career and I’ve been enjoying it,” Khumalo shares.
“I’ve had a few bumps here and there, but I have been growing within the industry, I had no idea that I would end up as a producer because all I wanted was to be a South African actor.
“I was fortunate enough to have starred on an international production.”
Other leading ladies that had their big breaks in the production have gone on to dominate local screens. Sindi Dlathu is currently shaking thing up in The River after her long run on Muvhango. Baby Cele leads the cast on Uzalo having has big roles on Backstage, Zabalaza and Isidingo.
Dieketseng Mnisi who leads the Lord’s Prayer song in the film is enjoying her stint as MaNtuli in Skeem Saam.
“The scene where I was conducting ‘Our Father who art in heaven’ song at that moment nothing else made sense but conducting, everything from my hands to my feet were in character. That was definitely one of my favourite moments and memories,” Mnisi says.
Aside from Skeem Saam Mnisi has starred in Yizo Yizo, Zone 14, Rhythm City and Stokvel.
“It has been a blissful journey, very hard at times but fulfilling. I think my resilience has pulled me through. If it were not for that I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Mnisi says.
“The late Gibson Kente (father of township theatre) taught us everything we know today and it’s been a long journey since then.
“I have grown from ‘mistress it’s a pity’ in Sarafina to Ma Ntuli in Skeem Saam – a character that challenges me on a daily basis.
“I also had to learn Sepedi and having to portray such a strong character (mother) is the best experience.”
While others have lambasted youth of today for lacking direction, doyen of theatre, film and TV John Kani has faith in them and believes the future of SA is in good hands.
Kani, whose acting career is respected both locally and internationally, was comparing youth of today and those of 1976.
The revered actor, who was part of the historical film told Sowetan he was impressed by of how youth of today was not afraid to ask difficult questions. He said youth of today was passionate, committed, focus and knew where they were going.
“I’m so pleased, I see that even in political parties young people are in the decision-making positions and I am impressed. When they ask me about the future of the country post-apartheid overseas, I always say it is in safe hands. We have the youth that knows exactly what this democracy cost and knows what to do,” Kani said.
“They may not look like they are listening at times, but they know what is expected from them. Sometimes, I feel they are angrier than me. That’s the youth that I’m proud of.”
In the film, Kani played the role of a school principal and enjoyed every moment of it. The celebrated actor said when he looked back now after being part of such a historic moment he did so with great pride and incredible humility knowing the contribution that he made at very difficult times.
Kani said before he was approached to join the film cast, he was invited by Ngema to watch the rehearsal of the stage show and he was impressed by the talent of the likes of Leleti Khumalo and Sindi Dlathu.
“The rehearsal was full of young people who ooze wonderful energy. They were taking up the mantle, saying ‘we are here, listen to us and we know what our parents went through, and we will never forget’,” he said.”
Kani joined Sarafina! cast after Whoopi Goldberg suggested his name to both Ngema and film director Anant Singh. Kani said shooting Sarafina! was an amazing experience that reminded him of the youth uprisings.
“If you can look close, the arts has always played a critical role in the struggle for liberation of South Africa and it continues to do that in reconciliation, nation building and spread the message of Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.
“To show Sarafina! especially during Youth Month [June], it brings back that passion. I wish I could keep it [the experience and everything happened] in a glass container, just release the fumes every June, so that people can smell the teargas perfume which was common in our townships. This will make them relate directly to that energy and stop using the month of June as memory lane but mostly as what do we do now.”
Somizi Mhlongo remembers the glory days of hit musical Sarafina as his university.
Perhaps his deft hand at mentoring young musical talent on Idols SA stems from being given the crème de la crème of acting and musical education from industry heavyweights John Kani and Mbongeni Ngema.
“When people talk about their days in university, I talk about Sarafina because that is where I learnt how to do what I do. I was there from the time I was a teenager until I was 21,” he says.
“I did not go to school but Mbongeni Ngema is an institution, he taught us for free and it had so much value. Sarafina is my pride and I will forever be proud.”
Mhlongo who shot to fame after his brilliant portrayal of Fire joins me in conversation during one of his breaks between his jam packed schedule. Despite the Covid-19 induced lockdown he is filming multiple shows.
“I can’t tell you what I'm up to right now because my haters will bewitch me,” he jokingly says.
The 47-year-old flamboyant entertainer tells me that he was exposed to the world’s stages at an early age, something most black children did not have the privilege of experiencing.
Meeting Nelson Mandela just after his release from prison is one of his highlights from being a part of the cast of Sarafina.
“When Mandela came out of jail he came to Germany to watch the show with Winnie (Madikizela-Mandela). He invited us to his suite and he told us a short story (folk). For me this was special because I was sitting in front of this man who was seen as Jesus,” he says.
Mhlongo adds that portraying a young person who was fighting for his freedom has stuck with him.
"When I think back to what the youth of 1976 went through to fight for what we have, I think we should also continue fighting for the future of our kids," he says.
As a father of a young woman and being a role model to young people in the LGBTIQ+ community, openly gay Mhlongo is in tune with the ills that plague South African youth.
"I think the struggle that today's youth is facing is more than just discrimination against race and sexuality. The youth of today is uncertain about their future, the future does not look good, it looks bleak," he says.
“To be honest, our generation is to blame because we were supposed to secure the future for them."
Mhlongo has observed that high level of unemployment is leaving many young people demotivated.
"I think the youth needs to take charge and push us aside if that is what is necessary, they need to be the change they want to see," he says.
Although it has been years since the cast of Sarafina has worked together, Mhlongo said he has made lifelong friends.
"I'm still friends with Baby Cele, Sindi [Dlathu], Leleti [Khumalo] and [Dieketseng] Mnisi. They all play different roles in my life, when I need financial advise I go to someone and when I need relationship advice I go to someone else," he shares.
For Dumisani Dlamini, his casting in Sarafina came about when he was trying to impress young women with his dancing skills at a party in Durban.
"I was dancing at a party and Mbongeni Ngema called me to the side. I was a bit annoyed because I thought he was going to be angry that women were giving me attention for my dance moves," he chuckles.
But surprisingly to Dlamini, Ngema wanted to give him the chance of a lifetime to join the cast of Sarafina as Crocodile.
When speaking to Dlamini about his glory days, one can see how his real life charisma rubbed off on his character.
“I spoke to my mom and I went to Johannesburg where I learnt how to choreograph,” he says.
Like Mhlongo, he was dazzled by performing on stages overseas.
“Our parents were so happy. I learnt a lot, how to be open minded and understanding of different cultures,” he says.
He said Sarafina jump started his career which has allowed him to work on big South African productions.
“I'm glad that I am a big star because of Sarafina today. I've worked on Isibaya, Hostel Season 2, Muvhango and Yizo Yizo,” he says.
Travelling around the world has blossomed his love for the finer things in life. Today he owns a perfume store called the Perfume Room in Soweto, selling to people across the township.
In commentary on today's youth Dlamini said he believes they are misguided because they are not led properly.
“My dream for the youth is to see unemployment to go down and for more young people to believe in the power of God. I also want to see more schools for creative children because a lot of them do not have access to better schools,” he says.