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MN Orchestra to play in 'the heart, the spiritual home' of post-apartheid South Africa

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Regina Mundi church
Mass-goers pray in front of a stained glass window depicting the late South African President Nelson Mandela at Regina Mundi church in Soweto in March 2013.
Carl de Souza | AFP | Getty Images file 2013

When the Minnesota Orchestra performs its capstone concert in South Africa Friday evening, it will be in one of the most historic churches in the country.

Regina Mundi Catholic Church played a central role in the organizing and the protests that led to the end of apartheid.  

"That church is the heart, the spiritual home, of the anti-apartheid movement in Soweto," said South African composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen. 

Ndodana-Breen's piece, "Harmonia Ubuntu," is a composition based on the words of the late South African President Nelson Mandela. It will form the centerpiece of the Minnesota Orchestra's performance Friday evening, commissioned especially for this event, in this space. The orchestra is nearing the end of its two-week, five-city tour of South Africa, timed to mark the centennial of  Mandela's birth.

Regina Mundi is located in the township of Soweto, a 40-minute drive from the wealthy center of Johannesburg. 

This corner of Soweto is crowded, run-down, with violence in its history. The 1976 Soweto Uprising happened here, when young people took to the streets to protest the oppression of apartheid, the white-minority mandated system of segregation that ruled the country for decades.  

"During the Soweto Uprising, the students actually fled from the police into the church, assuming that the church would provide a kind of sanctuary that the police would respect," Helena McCormick, who taught African history at the University of Minnesota, said. 

"And they didn't."

Regina Mundi became a central organizing place which soon attracted the attention of the police, McCormick said.

Regina Mundi gathering mourns Steve Biko
Mourners in Regina Mundi raise their arms and chant during a memorial service for the slain South African Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko on Sept. 18, 1977. Biko died while in police custody the week before.
AP file 1977

The police repeatedly entered Regina Mundi and opened fire. There are still bullet holes in the walls and ceiling. The fiberglass screens that used to serve as windows are still here, their colored plastic riddled with bullet holes. The church has a small museum, filled with photographs of the protests.

Regina Mundi isn't fancy. Built in the early 1960s, it's a neatly kept utilitarian A-frame that can seat 2,000 people.

And it's filled with history. This is a place where organizers, including Nelson Mandela, now-Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Oliver Tambo worked to overcome apartheid.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu
South African activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu delivers a sermon on June 16, 1985, at the Regina Mundi Church.
AFP | Getty Images file 1985

There are stained-glass windows running under the eaves that depict scenes from the struggle. Standing by the altar, caretaker Danny Dube lifts the altar cloth to reveal where the three-inch-thick marble has been snapped off.

"This was broken by a police officer banging his rifle butt on this altar table, telling everybody to get out," he said. 

Amid the violence, there was peacemaking here, too: One of the early Truth and Reconciliation Commission panels met here, allowing victims of apartheid to confront their tormentors. The idea was to offer restorative justice as a way to transition the country from apartheid to democracy.

Regina Mundi caretaker Danny Dube holds bullet-riddled fiberglass panels.
Regina Mundi caretaker and guide Danny Dube holds bullet-riddled fiberglass panels damaged during police assaults on the building in the 1970s and '80s. Students protesting apartheid-era Bantu education laws used the church for political meetings that attracted police attention. Dube said the exit marks on the bullet holes show officers were shooting inside and outside the church.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

The Minnesota Orchestra will play here Friday, just in front of this altar, on a specially built stage. It's hoping to help classical music back into the broader South African public experience.

Under apartheid, classical music was reserved for the white Afrikaner elite. Since apartheid's fall almost a quarter century ago, classical audiences in South Africa have remained overwhelmingly white. This does not surprise historian McCormick.

"Under conditions of colonialism, everything becomes political, including music," she said.

Regina Mundi church
A statue of Jesus presides over the entrance of Regina Mundi Church in Soweto in April. During the apartheid era, Regina Mundi opened its doors to anti-apartheid groups and provided shelter to anti-apartheid activists. Because of the refuge it offered, Regina Mundi is often referred to as the people's church or the people's cathedral.
Marco Longari | AFP | Getty Images

Many modern South Africans have no knowledge of classical music, she said. Minnesota Orchestra conductor Osmo Vanska hope the Minnesota Orchestra tour will change that.

The Funeral Of Former South African President Nelson Mandela
A stained-glass tribute to Nelson Mandela is depicted on the walls of Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto.
Oli Scarff | Getty Images file 2013

Vanska chose the program for the Regina Mundi concert carefully. It will play the classics of Beethoven, Sibelius and Bernstein. There will be a celebration of South African choral tradition, with songs by a choir made up of members of the Minnesota Chorale and Johannesburg's Gauteng Choristers. And there will be Ndodana-Breen's "Harmonia Ubuntu."

A few years ago, Vanska worked with the South African National Youth Orchestra Foundation and was impressed by the musicians' talent. With this tour, he hopes to build an audience for them and other orchestras, few of whom ever visit the country.

The Regina Mundi concert is sold out. The orchestra has arranged for free tickets and transportation for many people to come to the show. Bongani Ndodana-Breen predicts it will be a raucous night.

Soweto, South Africa
The inside of Regina Mundi church in Soweto.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"I mean I think its going to be quite something to watch," he said. Because African audiences aren't quite as restrained in their appreciation as Western audiences are." 

Mandela's daughter Maki Mandela believes the people of Soweto will enjoy the concert. She is excited about the piece honoring her father: "For me, it makes me want to jump out of my skin, to pinch myself. Can this really be happening?" 

Listen: Minnesota Orchestra in Soweto

Classical MPR will broadcast Friday's concert on the air.

• When: Friday, Aug. 17

• Time: 7 p.m. Central

• Where: Classical MPR (on the air | live stream)