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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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
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