Messianic musicals

Chris Thurman Thursday, 19 May 2011

It would be wrong, however, to assume that we have reached a post-apartheid moment in which these iconic figures are seen as “national treasures”, belonging to all South Africans irrespective of political affiliation.

This election season, the ruling party adopted a variety of strategies to persuade voters that it should remain in power. Interestingly — and perhaps tellingly for a local government election centred on service delivery rather than ideology or historical loyalty — the ANC did not have recourse to its usual “messianic” message: we are the party of the struggle icons, those visionary and brave leaders who saved the country through their sacrifices. Madiba was not trundled out, as he was in 2009, to help the  ANC reinforce its grip on power.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that we have reached a post-apartheid moment in which these iconic figures are seen as “national treasures”, belonging to all South Africans irrespective of political affiliation. Moreover, it would be naive to affirm that this county’s artists are in a position to assess the lives of political leaders over the second half of the 20th century without being co-opted into the machinations of contemporary politics. Nowhere was this more clearly demonstrated than on opening night of Winnie: The Opera at the State Theatre, Pretoria, a few weeks ago. This production, which had a short run but will no doubt be revived, is notable for striking arias, ambitious choral harmonies and orchestral themes in which composer Bongani  Ndodana-Breen has aimed to “explore indigenous SA musical ideas in the orchestral/operatic realm”. Equally interesting is the attempt, in Mfundi Vundla and Warren Wilensky’s libretto, to take an objective approach in portraying the “Winnie phenomenon”. The opera begins and ends in a court room at the Truth & Reconciliation Commission hearings: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is being asked to account (and apologise) for the death of Stompie Seipei and other human rights abuses. We then witness various episodes from her life — as a young woman from the rural Eastern Cape, in love with a Tembu prince whose political activism has made him a celebrity in Johannesburg; as the victim of detention, police abuse and subsequent house arrest; as a militant who declared: “With our matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country”; and as the subject of incessant media attention. Ultimately, Winnie (Tsakane Maswanganyi) is vindicated. Yes, she has blood on her hands, but no-one (the opera seems to tell us) escaped from apartheid uncorrupted and guilt-free. Though a few liberties are taken in creating a suitably operatic narrative, this is by no means a facile “pro-ANC” production. It came as a disappointment, then — to me, at least —  when the real Madikizela- Mandela appeared after the performance to cheering, singing and thunderous applause from Pretoria’s political elite, who had graced the occasion with their presence. Perhaps it was to be expected that the department of arts & culture, major funders of the production, should want a return on their investment in the form of marketing for the ANC. And one doesn’t mind the bland messages from the ministry, or indeed from The Woman herself, in the programme. But it is to
be hoped that, when this evocative and provocative work is performed in future, it will not be a vehicle for propaganda.  Meanwhile, the genre of the “messianic musical” will take on two different manifestations in the months ahead. That world- famous Tembu prince, and SA’s opera in which three distinct phases of the great man’s life are treated in a different musical
style: his early years in the Transkei (a Xhosa-classical oratorio, composed by Allan Stephenson); his pre-Robben Island activism (Sophiatown jazz from Mike Campbell); and his imprisonment and “walk to freedom” (scored by Peter Louis van Dijk). There is also a revival of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. This perennially popular — and controversial — musical matches iconoclasm with a basic sympathy for the people whose joys and sorrows are recorded in the Christian gospels. Yet if the narrative of Christ’s life affirms the possibilities of spiritual salvation, its worldly message is clear: you can’t rely on a political saviour.