Phindile Xaba

[intro]His body of work was inspired by the African paradigm, nuance, and idiom.[/intro]

Wonga Mancoba, 69, a painter whose body of work was inspired by the African paradigm, nuance, and idiom, has passed away in Paris after a long battle with his health.

Wonga was born to South African exiled painter, sculptor and thinker Ernest Mancoba and his wife Danish sculptor, Sonja Verlov, in Paris in the attic of famous Swiss sculptor Giacometti. He would follow in his parents’ footsteps and become a refined painter.

His first visit to South Africa

Wonga was not able to visit South Africa for the first 50 years of his life. He visited with his father, Ernest, for the first time in 1994. This and subsequent visits had a remarkable impact on his artistic expression. He had already tackled the theme of slavery in black and white but his themes were visibly anchored on indigenous knowledge and alive with colour.


His subject matter, Sophiatown; ‘Ghost’ Areas Act and Taxis was inspired by his trips to the continent before his illness. Just like his father, he believed in humanism or Ubuntu. He was once quoted in an art publication – Catalyst as saying: “When people come into contact with art that speaks to them, which puts them in touch with deeper aspects of themselves and their own humanity, then I believe we will have a better society; a more whole society where violence is a stranger; a place where people are truly people by and because of other people.”

Born in Exile

Before leaving South Africa in 1938, his father had won significant prizes for his art. He went to Paris to expand his knowledge, there he met a Danish sculptor Sonja Verlov, married her and she gave birth to their only child, Wonga. Ernest was interned by the Nazis during the Second World War, which he survived.

The small family tried to come back to South Africa after the war but the Smuts government refused to allow Mancoba to bring his European wife to South Africa. He became stateless and so did she.They eked out a living for a few years in Denmark, and were active in the significant art movement CoBrA but their small son – Wonga – was the subject of racism there. They returned to France where a friend, Ms Penso, lent them a small rural cottage.

Ernest often did farm labouring work to help them survive but they both managed to continue to produce remarkable art. In 1961 they were given French citizenship, moved to Paris to a small shop/studio where they continued to produce remarkable art. In 1984 Sonja passed away.

Photo by J Faujour

Photos by J Faujour


Shortly after a South African art historian, Elza Miles, saw a work of Ernest’s on a CoBrA exhibition in Paris and identified the name as South African, traced Mancoba, found him and managed to bring him back to South Africa in 1994 for a retrospective exhibition. It was his first visit in 56 years. He was 90 years old and was accompanied by Wonga. Ernest passed away at the age of 98 in 2002. Wonga was then active in supporting efforts in South Africa to understand his father’s significant artistic and intellectual legacy.

Wonga’s ill health

Over a year ago, Wonga, now in his 60s, had a series of small strokes and was hospitalised in Paris for many months. He was cared for by long standing friends of the family, Alain Spielmann, Charley Chevalier, Corinne Penso and Elske Miles, Elza’s daughter amongst others. Sadly on 12 February he passed away. Wonga was single and had no children. He is survived by his cousins, Zodwa Mkalipe and Ntando Mancoba, who live in Soweto and Matatiele, respectively.

Penny Mkalipe, the family representative and Wonga’s niece said: “It was with sadness to hear about our uncle and brother’s passing. We wish to thank all for the support shown during this time of our bereavement. Two family representatives travelled to Paris, France to participate in funeral arrangements. The funeral and memorial service were held on 2 March, in Paris to honour his life, at Pere Lachaise.

Thereafter, the family representatives will bring his ashes to South Africa, where he will be laid to rest with his father, Ernest Mancoba, and grandparents, in Benoni.”