Singing Winnie in Toronto

We all regret things we’ve said. Politicians tend to deny ever saying them. Until, that is, someone plays the video or the tape. The usual defence follows — it was out of context. Some own up eventually. But Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was unapologetic about her infamous speech at Munsie-ville outside Johannesburg in 1986: “Together hand-in-hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country.” The incident has been rehashed numerous times and as a reflection on the personage today is hardly controversial. After all, we have members of Parliament widely believed to have personally executed people. The question that divides us is whether we believe they killed for us or some other cause.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s most famous (or infamous) political speech is paraphrased in a new opera, like this:

For what I’m about to do

Oh Africa, my Africa

I know I will be demonised

And hated in my day

But what now I propose we do

Believe me, I have thought this


Rise up and take a stand

All our husbands sons and daughters

Are now rotting in their jails

By the rubber tire necklace

By the burning petrol necklace

With a box of common matches

We will liberate this land

We’ll find freedom

We’ll find freedom, ah!

Viva Mandela!


You said it mama,

And now you are done

It’s far too late to say “why oh


It’s late at night

And the dark fight has begun now

All your secrets

Your hidden silent schemes

And your wildest dreams

Your dark desire

Feeds the comrade’s fire

Your wildest dreams they are one


This climactic final aria to The Passion of Winnie (Part 1), by South African composer, Bongani Ndodana-Breen with libretto by South African-Canadian Warren Wilensky, sees its world premier in Toronto on Friday.

Any writer who has attempted a biopic will know life doesn’t always provide a well-structured drama and such endeavours are made particularly complex when the subject is still alive. David Kramer, having seen several treatments over the years for proposed musicals on Nelson Mandela, says they tend to struggle with the Robben Island period. What does one do — have a 27-year interval?

The Passion of Winnie ducks the problem by painting the past with the broadest of brushes. True to opera, it is preoccupied with narrative action and not the psychology of the characters.

We start in the village where Winnie Madikizela was born. Her father, Columbus, warns her about the outside world. She boards a steam train for iGoli to the refrain “You strike a woman, you strike a rock” and a backdrop of South African landscapes. She stumbles into a first-class carriage and is ejected.

In Johannesburg she beds down in a dormitory at the Helping Hand Hostel, where she chances upon Nelson. Wisely, Madiba isn’t a character part. Only Winnie, played by Chantelle Grant, who has a remarkable resemblance to the young Winnie Mandela, and her father, Columbus (Mxolisi Welcome Ngoli) are solo parts; the other roles are covered by chorus members. Sharpeville and the passbook protests are shown in archival stills. Winnie’s chilling arrest is played out in darkness with sounds only.

This is Ndodana-Breen’s second “digital opera” (the first was Orange Clouds with filmmaker John Greyson) fusing film, digital media and opera. Five projectors create a montage of archival footage and images captured by Wilensky in rural South Africa on three screens custom-made for the production. At times film sequences interact with the live performers. A chamber orchestra of 16 musicians and eight vocalists, hidden behind a scrim backdrop, are at times lit to make ethereal appearances during the show.

Ndodana-Breen’s modern classical style incorporates traditional Xhosa rhythms, Cape Town jazz, township jive and anti-apartheid street chants. This young, debonair composer has rocketed to success. His work is performed around the world; last year the Miller Theatre in New York put on a programme entirely of Ndodana-Breen’s compositions.

It remains to be seen how overseas audiences will respond, especially the right-wing expats of Toronto. Canadians are less familiar than ourselves with damaged individuals. However, Madikizela-Mandela is well on her way to rehabilitation. Awards and glowing tributes, recently by Carl Niehaus on mother’s day (following hard on the heels of his obsequious apologist plea for Robert Mugabe), have been rolling in. In many ways this is a natural response to tragedy. Countless persons suffered and suffering is not a competition; scores of people paid the ultimate price, but Ma Mandela is undoubtedly an elite member of the few subjected to sustained periods of sadistic brutality. Yet, through her own flawed actions, she has not reaped the rewards others have, in many cases quite disproportionate to their efforts in the struggle.

As dissatisfaction with the success of the national democratic revolution spreads, perhaps there is finally a broader appreciation, even from unlikely quarters, of what she embodies.

Part 2, though, is going to be far trickier for Ndodana-Breen and Wilensky as they enter muddier waters and the grim activities of the Mandela Football Club. Brett Bailey once had plans for a musical about Winnie called Ipi Stompie? Carl Niehaus won’t approve. But hopefully, we all regret things we’ve written.

Meanwhile, Canadian website CTV reported on Tuesday that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who was scheduled to attend the opening of the opera, was denied a visa by the Canadian government. She was also unable to fulfill an invitation to speak at a musical fundraiser titled A Night in Soweto.

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