"It took over our lives so much." Cathryn O'Reilly is sitting in the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff talking about the two years and seven months she spent on the picket line as a Dunnes Stores worker in the 1980s protesting against South Africa's apartheid regime. We've just seen Mandela Trilogy, a production that straddles musical and opera, telling the story of Nelson Mandela's life from a young boy in the Cape Province, to an anti-apartheid revolutionary. Written by Michael Williams, the folk opera by Cape Town Opera with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, is told in three parts, in Xhosa and English, and veers between traditional songs, jazz tunes and opera.
Some cast members join us, one being Tina Mene, who plays Mother. “It was hard those days,” Mene says, “I grew up in the rural areas, like Mandela. I would visit my mother in Cape Town during the holidays. I would have to have a pass to be able to go to Cape Town, and ID or a letter from the school to say I could go to Cape Town. When you reached a certain area, the white people would all get us out of the bus and they would search us . . . I experienced the hardness of that time. I don’t want to start talking about the oppression . . .” she trails off. O’Reilly and Mene chat about the injustices of apartheid.
Mandela Trilogy details aspects of Mandela's life that might be less familiar to people outside of South Africa who only came to know who he was as a prisoner, and then a released prisoner, and then president. Some of the most vibrant scenes take place in Sofiatown, the suburb of Johannesburg that was a centre of black arts and culture, with a heady mix of civil rights politics and jazz. Sofiatown was destroyed under apartheid, with its population forcibly relocated.
As the 1964 trial of Mandela and others is played out on stage, the opera does a good job of emphasising that terrible switch between political energy and hopefulness and protest, to oppression and imprisonment. When they’re in full voice, the chorus is hearty and bold and stunning.
Miranda Tini of the Capetown Opera Chorus is something of an elder within the cast. She started singing with the company in 1993, a year before the first universal suffrage elections in South Africa. "In those days," she says, speaking about growing up during apartheid, "we didn't even go to theatres like this. We were segregated. You couldn't even say your name. This is why it's very difficult to sometimes speak with white people. Because in those days you couldn't even look in the eyes of a white person. I'm getting very emotional when I'm talking about these things." Many of the cast don't need to dig deep to find that emotion. Even now, Tini is upset, "It's not over at all. It's still happening today."
Cathryn O’Reilly listens intently as Mene speaks about current challenges in South Africa. “Apartheid will always last until we die because we’re still experiencing it today in every way,” Mene says, “South Africa has changed a lot and we can do lots of things we couldn’t do in the olden days. We can now sing on big stages. In the olden days you couldn’t as a black person be an opera singer. Nelson Mandela has opened doors for a lot of things, he really fought for a lot of things. The struggle really helped us a lot, not for only black people but for white people as well, to really accept things as they are and be able to move on.
“It’s difficult for you not to think about it when you are reminded of it all the time. When you’re walking down the streets, when you’re looking for a job, it reminds you that you are a black person. When you’re sitting with a white person and you notice, ‘oh, okay, I’m still a black person’. Even though I’m free, I’ll probably never be able to be free like a white person.”
After the Dunnes strike, new contracts were drawn up by Dunnes Stores. Some workers who were on strike stayed with the company, and others left, O’Reilly among them.
Dunnes, O’Reilly says, “decided that the people who were on strike were now getting a new contract of employment. So, some people went back to work and some of us didn’t. I didn’t go back. I had my son, and I couldn’t get a job, obviously.” O’Reilly paraphrases a job interview, “‘Where was your last place of employment?’ ‘Dunnes Stores.’ ‘Why did you leave?’ ‘Well, I was involved in a dispute.’ So I couldn’t get a job.”
Instead, O'Reilly took up a community employment scheme. After training, she could then at least say that her last place of employment wasn't Dunnes. She got a job working with women who had stabilised their substance misuse, and then worked in Darndale with families where there were issues of addiction.
For the past 15 years she has worked in Cabra with families dealing with substance misuse. She says the strike shaped her and her co-workers as people, but doesn't know if she would have gone in a different direction if it hadn't happened. "At the time we weren't very politicised. Our life was like going into work, getting your wages, thinking what you'd spend it on at the weekend. It was such an eye-opener to all the injustices in the world, not just in Ireland or in South Africa, but to other injustices.
“Before the strike I’d probably have said ‘we can’t make a difference, there’s only a handful of us’, but I’d never be of that view now. You know what? If it’s only two people trying to do something, it’s two people more than there was yesterday.”
The Mandela Trilogy is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin from September 14th-17th. Tickets €35-€65. See boardgaisenergytheatre.ie