For years, Xoliswa Nduneni-Ngema’s jet-set lifestyle of travel and shopping was a veneer that covered an unhappy relationship with an allegedly abusive, cheating husband.
Now, she describes herself as “naked” as she lays bare her life in a memoir she says has been 30 years in the making.
“It has not been easy. I feel naked but at the same time the truth needed to be told. The world needs to know. You can’t write an honest book without putting everything out there,” she said.
Nduneni-Ngema, CEO of Joburg City Theatres, will release her memoir, Heart of a Strong Woman: From Daveyton to Sarafina!, on August 24. In it she details her rollercoaster relationship with international playwright Mbongeni Ngema, whom she married when she was 19.
He has declined to comment on her claims of abuse, saying he hasn’t yet read the book.
Nduneni-Ngema told the Sunday Times that writing the book — with Fred Khumalo — was a cathartic experience.
She was a township girl from Daveyton and Ngema was a rural thespian with a dream. Together they founded the Committed Artists company, which gave birth to the internationally acclaimed production Sarafina!. The international success of Ngema’s productions Woza Albert, Asinamali and later Sarafina! saw the couple living the high life. They were the first in their township to have a home with a swimming pool, they regularly hosted lavish parties and there were many international trips.
With the highs of shopping in London, Paris and New York, caviar and first-class flights, came the heartbreak of an unhappy marriage.
She said one of the hardest chapters to write was about a trip to New York, where Ngema took her to Hugh Masekela’s home and asked her if he could take a second wife. If he had a second wife, he said, he could stop cheating on her. Nduneni-Ngema said polygamy was not part of her upbringing. “All that glitters is really not gold, what happens behind the scenes I can only say is a gemors [mess]. Behind the scenes it was a very dark period.”
In the book she details how Ngema allegedly raped her at the Elangeni Hotel in Durban, and tells of an incident in Nigeria in 1991 when she says he beat her and threatened to throw her out of the hotel window.
The chapter on what happened in Lagos reads: “Two quick punches to my ribs. The pain, oh, the pain! ‘I am going to kill you, bitch.’ He was panting heavily, so I assumed he was done. But I was wrong. He smacked my face with his open palm. I saw red balloons floating in the air. ‘I’m going to kill you and no-one is going to do anything about it.’”
Hotel staff and guests heard the commotion but didn’t help. She believes Ngema’s “superstar” status meant people were too scared to approach him. Shortly after this trip, she mustered the courage to run away. She hid away in a flat in Berea, where she began writing her story. Nduneni-Ngema said she had not spoken to Ngema since she fired him from the Sarafina! production in 2019.
Ngema was interviewed for the book by Khumalo in January this year. Asked about the alleged abuse, he said he didn’t remember. When the Sunday Times contacted him, he said he hasn’t read the book and could not comment on something he hasn’t read.
“I’m waiting for my copy; I’ve asked the writer to send me a copy,” Ngema said.