Winnie: The Opera gets standing ovation in South Africa

From Saturday’s Globe and Mail

Opera about Winnie Mandela that got its start in Canada is now a triumph in Pretoria Winnie Madikizela-Mandela admitted this week that her only interest in the State Theatre in the old days was to try to bomb the building.

Things are a little different now. Instead of promoting the cultural priorities of the apartheid regime, the South African State Theatre offered the world premiere of a provocative new opera based on the life of Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of Nelson Mandela and a leading militant in the anti-apartheid struggle.

“You know, this is the first time I’ve ever come into this theatre,” the controversial 74-year-old “Mother of the Nation”
confided to the audience after the premiere on Thursday night.

“It was one of those structures we battled to try and bomb,” she said as her fans laughed and cheered. “The truth can be spoken now.”


Early indications are that Winnie: The Opera is a hit. The huge State Theatre was nearly sold out for the premiere, and the audience gave a prolonged standing ovation to the cast and producers. When they saw Madikizela-Mandela walking onto the stage at the end of the performance, the theatre exploded in cheers and songs in praise of her. “Amandla!” they shouted, reviving the old power slogan of the liberation movement.

The audience included Mandela’s current wife, Graca Machel, and a host of other politicians and celebrities.

Early reviews were positive. One Johannesburg newspaper, The Times, called it “a brilliant show” that “deserved the standing ovation.”

One of Madikizela-Mandela’s closest allies, South African youth leader Julius Malema, gave it a thumbs-up. “I would suggest to all of our young comrades to come and see this,” he told journalists.


This may have been the first time that Madikizela-Mandela sat in an audience for a re-enactment of the most infamous crime linked to her name: the kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Stompie Seipei, whose throat was slit by her bodyguards in 1988. The opera also featured her notorious speech in praise of “necklacing” – the practice of placing a tire around the neck of a perceived traitor and setting it on fire – and her later confession that things had gone “horribly wrong.”

But if any of these scenes bothered the opera’s heroine, she gave no sign of it. She was ecstatic in her speech, describing the opera as the best accolade she has ever received in South Africa.

She spoke briefly about the opera’s roots in Canada, where the producers first wrote it as a “digital opera” four years ago. They invited her to see the opera in Toronto in 2007, but the Canadian government refused to give her a visa. “I am proud that this production is finally having its world premiere here on our soil,” she said. “Never have I seen such talent.”


Seventeen years after apartheid’s collapse, the reaction to the opera seems to suggest that the wounds of the liberation battle are finally healing. The work is a balanced and nuanced look at the life of a contradictory woman who played a key role in the struggle. But it also uses humour and quirky characters for entertainment value – and the audience loved it.

The opera suggests that enough time has passed for South Africans to view the liberation movement with some critical perspective. Nobody in the audience, not even the stalwarts of the revolution, objected to the opera’s candid depiction of how the liberation movement had sometimes gone violently wrong.