The musical story of Winnie Mandela, a wife of freedom

A South African opera tells the story of Winnie Mandela, the ex-wife of South Africa's iconic Nelson Mandela, who adopted his cause of freedom as her own.

Themba Hadebe/AP
Soprano Tsakane Maswanganyi played Mandela in the opera.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

If anyone in South Africa has lived the ego-inflating highs and crash-and-burn lows – the building blocks of opera – it is Winnie Madikizela Mandela.

Formerly married to the nation’s top freedom fighter (they divorced in 1996), Mrs. Mandela was also married to the cause. Her ex-husband Nelson Mandela was jailed for 27 years at a time when the apartheid regime would have done almost anything – including torture and assassination – to preserve its racist, whites-first system.

From the first scene of the $1.4 million “Winnie, the Opera” at Pretoria’s State Theater (an international tour is expected), I was won over. The music was gorgeous and the lyrics African National Congress-approved. The story humanizes a woman reviled for her complicity in the beating death of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei.

Normally, such a crime would sink a political career. But revolutions are all about turnarounds, and Mandela is enjoying one. Black South Africa is taking a more forgiving view of its wartime tactics – including the “necklacing” of enemies with burning tires. That means a redemption of sorts for hard-liners like Mandela. All’s fair in opera, it seems.

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