The Madala of the South African Stage Crews


Alfred Mbulelo Ndabambi is affectionately known as Alfie by many of his colleagues in the Theatre and Events industry. He was born on 12th of June 1947 in the town of Ugie in the Maclear district of the Eastern Cape. There were four boys and four girls in the Ndabambi family and amongst them, three of the boys; Patrick, Sipho and Alfie, would eventually find work in the theatre. 

In 1957, with a large family to take care of and few job opportunities in the Eastern Cape, Alfie’s father left the family in Ugie and decided to try his luck in Johannesburg. Before long he found employment as a permanent driver with Rennies Travel. 

In the meantime, Alfie was attending Primary school in Ugie and later moved on to continue his High school education in Matatiele, situated in the mountainous region bordering Lesotho. During school holidays he travelled to Johannesburg to visit his family and would often tag along with his brothers, curious to see what happened in the theatre where they worked. 

Towards the end of his education, Alfie was enrolled in a Boarding School in the Eastern Cape town of Tsolo and at the age of twenty one, he finally left school and moved to Johannesburg. His brother Sipho was working with Academy Theatre Productions on ‘The Boy Friend’ a musical production, which was being staged at the Brooke Theatre. Left with no crew to work on the productions being staged at the Academy Theatre, Company Manager, Tim Heale was looking to hire extra crew members, so brother Sipho introduced Alfie to him and thus Alfie’s lifelong career began.

Academy Theatre

At the beginning of the 1970s, the shows being staged at the Academy Theatre were a series of well-known farcical comedies, originally staged at the Whitehall Theatre in London. The South African productions were directed by British actor Rex Garner, who also starred in the plays. In 1972 Alfie was then hired to join the crew for ‘Ko Ko Sai’, a Japanese revue being staged at the Colosseum Theatre in Commissioner street, which subsequently went on tour to Durban and Cape Town. During the Johannesburg run, there was talk around town about a new musical that was in production. It was of particular interest because it was a South African story destined to be performed by an all-black South African cast. Curious to know more about it, Alfie went along to watch a rehearsal, Originally called ‘The Warrior’, the title was changed to ‘Ipi Tombi’ and eventually became a worldwide hit for producers Bertha Egnos, Phil Godfrey and Bertha’s daughter Gail Lakier.

Ipi Tombi

When he came back to Johannesburg at the end of the ‘Ko Ko Sai’ tour, Alfie got in touch with Staging boss Steve Collins, whom he had met whilst he was working for the Academy. As it turned out, ‘Ipi Tombi, which was still running at the Brooke Theatre, was booked to go on an international tour, but the Johannesburg production had been so successful that the producers decided to put together a second company and take it on tour around South Africa . Once again, an additional crew was required for the second show and Steve proposed that Alfie should join the crew and take over the ‘running of the corner’: A responsibility never entrusted to a Black crew member before. During the apartheid years, black members of staff were rarely allowed backstage, but in this case the entire show was promoted as having an ‘All African cast’, so Alfie effectively became the Stage Manager for this touring production.

They toured throughout the country with a stopover in Lesotho and ended the run in Bloemfontein. Owing to the huge success that ‘Ipi Tombi’ was receiving internationally, company number two was also sent on an international tour and yet a third company was formed to continue the run locally with a stint in Zimbabwe. It was for this show that Alfie took on his first experience in an acting role. 

Kevco Studios

When the show finally ended, Alfie dropped into Kevco Studios, the set building company owned by Kevin Maybury and his former mentor Steve Collins that had recently started operating. to see what work was available. It was 1981 and he first started doing casual work with Kevco, at which time the company was busy constructing the stage for the new Superbowl at Sun City, as well as constructing sets for various theatre productions being staged. By 1982 he had become a permanent employee, working on sets for the wide variety of shows that Kevco was contracted for including the sets for the newly opened Extravaganza Theatre at Sun City. During this period Kevco began working with Johann Kruger, the Audio Visual genius who was producing product and car launches in the groundbreaking form of Industrial Theatre through his company Multivisio. In 1986 Kevco was bought out by Multivisio and Alfie continued working with the company until that too closed in 1993.

Just Sets

Alfie then decided to retire and Steve asked him how he would manage and what he would do with his time. Alfie had bought a townhouse in Naturena and told him that he had realised there was an opportunity in the area to open a Tuck shop, as there were no shops or amenities close by. He had seen a second-hand caravan for sale that would serve the purpose perfectly. The price was R.4,500, so Steve bought it for him. Before long Alfie realised that he didn’t have enough space to keep the caravan secure, so he decided to give up the tuck shop and went back to work part-time for Colin Fowler and Chris Hicks of Just Sets. 

Then Alfie got a call from Helen Surgeson of Gearhouse, head of Emperors Palace technical services for their theatre. She asked him to come and help out at the theatre as they needed someone to work as Flyman on a freelance basis. 

Joburg Setco

Once his temporary services at Emperors Palace came to an end, he was offered a full-time job at Joburg Setco; a set building company, which was being run by Morgan Bevan and his old boss from the Kevco days; Kevin Maybury. This was in 2003 and he stayed with them until 2012, when Alfie decided it was time to cash in his provident fund. 

Gearhouse -SDS

 Yet again, however, retirement was not to be and the following April, he got another call from Steve Collins, who was working with Sets Drapes Screens a Gearhouse Group Company specializing in set construction. He told Alfie that SDS boss Pieter Joubert needed someone experienced to work on set covering in the workshop. 

Over the years, Alfie worked for all the top set building and staging companies in South Africa on a vast number of projects from theatre productions to major events. He was trained by the best in the business, on presentations for the most eminent designers and producers, including world renowned AV guru Johann Kruger to Theatre Designer extraordinaire, Tony Farmer. Finally, at the age of 72 Alfie said enough is enough and decided to say farewell to an industry that have served him well over the years. Cheers Alfie and Hamba Kahle…

 Story by : Claire Robins

Sep 12, 2019

The Gearhouse Group of Companies