Canada Denies Winnie Mandela Visa to See New Opera About Her Life

Classic Arts News   Canada Denies Winnie Mandela Visa to See New Opera About Her Life
Just hours before she was to attend the Toronto debut of a new opera based on her life, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has been denied an entry visa by the Canadian government.

She had packed her bags yesterday and was about to leave for the airport, according to a report from Reuters, when the Canadian embassy in South Africa contacted her to say that she would not be allowed to enter the country.

Madikizela-Mandela, 70, was to have been the keynote speaker at "A Night in Soweto," a benefit gala given tonight to raise funds for the Toronto ensemble MusicaNoir. The other highlight of this evening's event is to be the first presentation of excerpts from The Passion of Winnie, a new opera composed by Bongani Ndodana-Breen, MusicaNoir's artistic director.

(The African-American actor LeVar Burton, known for his roles as Kunta Kinte in the television miniseries Roots and as Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation, will fill in as the gala's special celebrity guest.)

A collaboration between Ndodana-Breen, a Xhosa from South Africa's Eastern Cape province who is now settled in Toronto, and Warren Wilensky, a white filmmaker originally from Cape Town, The Passion of Winnie is a multimedia work exploring the life of Madikizela-Mandela, the activist who was South Africa's first black social worker, the ex-wife of South Africa's first black president, Nelson Mandela, and in her own right a powerful official of the African National Congress.

The Passion of Winnie, Part One — which receives its full world premiere performances this weekend (June 8 and 9) in Toronto as part of the new Luminato festival's "Illuminations" series — follows Madikizela-Mandela's early life and is told chronologically, beginning with her Xhosa village childhood and continuing to university in Johannesburg, meeting Nelson Mandela, their struggle against apartheid and eventual imprisonment.

To create the work's film element, Wilensky combined video loops he shot in a Xhosa village with documentary footage; Ndodana-Breen's score blends contemporary classical composition with jazz and traditional African elements. Playing the title role is Toronto-based mezzo Chantelle Grant; most of the other characters are sung by a small chorus.

"Winnie," as Madikizela-Mandela became universally known, was for years seen in much of the world as a hero of the anti-apartheid struggle, working tirelessly with the ANC while her husband spent 27 years in prison and spending considerable time in jail and internal exile herself.

By the mid-1980s, however, she had become more controversial, appearing to endorse the "necklacing" (placing a tire filled with gasoline around a victim's head and shoulders and setting it on fire) of blacks deemed collaborators with the Afrikaner regime. She assembled a team of bodyguards calling themselves the "Mandela United Football Club" which became notorious for its violence, and she herself was eventually convicted of kidnapping and assault in connection with that group's 1989 murder of a 14-year-old Soweto boy.

Not long after Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990, his marriage to Winnie began to fall apart; they were separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996. Nevertheless, she served as Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology in Mandela's first post-apartheid government in 1994, though she was dismissed within a year over allegations of corruption and insubordination. Yet she remained popular among radical blacks. She was first elected president of the ANC Women's League in 1993 and remained in that position until 2003 — when she was convicted of multiple counts of fraud and theft in connection with an embezzlement scandal.

"She is not the kind of woman who shies away from controversy," Ndodana-Breen told the Toronto Star last week. "She has not retracted any pronouncement she has ever made. She did what she thought was right at the time."

It is most likely due to her criminal convictions that Madikizela-Mandela was denied a visa. Citizenship and Immigration Canada declined to comment on any specific case, but the Associated Press quotes a statement issued by a ministry spokesperson saying "persons are deemed inadmissible to come to Canada for a variety of reasons including if they have been convicted of a serious crime. It is up to applicants to satisfy visa officers that they are ... admissible to Canada."

Wilensky spent two years researching Madikizela-Mandela's life before writing the libretto and has tried to keep it "as honest as possible," according to the Star. He added that her life is perfect for the opera stage, "including the aspect of the fallen hero and the bad choices that she made."

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