To some, she is a liberation idol, to others a black Eva Peron. Now, the most controversial woman in African politics is the subject of a film and opera.

When a handsome lawyer took a young social worker on their first date at an Indian restaurant - she getting her first taste of hot curry - it was unimaginable that bridges, municipalities, parks, squares, streets and theatres would one day bear his name.

Or maybe just about imaginable to anyone who knew the prodigious Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. What would have seemed more incredible is that his companion that day, a self-confessed country bumpkin, is about to join the likes of Richard Nixon and Anna Nicole Smith as the eponymous subject of an opera.

The producers of

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Winnie: The Opera

say that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has given the work her blessing and will be at the world premiere next week at South Africa's State Theatre. A film about her life, starring Hollywood's Jennifer Hudson, is imminent too, but perhaps it is the heightened sensibility of opera that best suits this political diva, a tragic heroine who has lived an epic life in epic times.

"What you have in her is both the sense of possibility and failure together; hope and disappointment," says Njabulo Ndebele, author of another artistic impression, a novel entitled

The Cry of Winnie Mandela

.

Mother of the nation. Arrogant adulterer. Heroine of the struggle. Convicted criminal. Black Eva Peron. Lady Macbeth.

All these epithets and more have been thrown at Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Whatever the critique of her flaws, the 74-year-old remains adored by millions of South Africans and an object of fascination around the world.

Her childhood, according to a British biographer, Emma Gilbey, "was a blistering inferno of racial hatred". As Gilbey tells it, she was born in a rural village in the heart of the Transkei to a mother who was ostracised because her European father had bequeathed her pale skin, blue eyes and long red hair. In turns sweet natured and foul tempered, the young Winnie attended a boarding school and became South Africa's first black female social worker.

Then came the love story that is now part of liberation mythology. The beautiful 22-year-old was standing at a bus stop in the sprawling township of Soweto when she was spotted by Nelson Mandela, a tall, imposing, married father of three who was 18 years her senior. The lunch date followed a week later and, with his easy charm and self-confidence, he wooed and won her.

But as people demanded his attention every few minutes, it was clear she would be marrying the struggle too.

They had only two years together before Mandela went underground and, in 1962, was captured and put on trial. He would spend the next 27 years in prison, constantly separated from his wife by the dividing glass screen of the visitor room.

The apartheid government also regularly imprisoned her, at one time holding her in solitary confinement for more than a year. "It is, in fact, what changed me," she once said. "What brutalised me so much was that I knew what it is to hate." She was tortured, subjected to house arrest, kept under surveillance and banished to a remote town in another province.

In 1982, Madikizela-Mandela became an active part of the African National Congress's (ANC) well-disciplined campaign against white minority rule.

"We have no guns - we have only stones, boxes of matches and petrol," she told a township crowd in Soweto. "Together, hand in hand, with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country." Necklacing was the deceptively innocent term for putting a petrol-soaked burning tyre around a perceived traitor's neck.

Most notoriously, she was found guilty of ordering the kidnapping of a 14-year-old boy, Stompie Seipei, who was beaten and later had his throat slit. Madikizela-Mandela was acquitted of all but the kidnapping, but the incident remains the greatest stain on her record; years later, she was convicted of more than 40 charges of fraud.

In 1990, the waiting was finally over. Mandela was released from prison and walked triumphantly with his wife in pictures that captivated the world. But the cracks were already beyond repair. In 1992, he announced the great love affair was over and in 1996 they divorced.

In keeping with tradition, however, she is still an integral part of the big Mandela family and a devoted grandmother.

At public events, she is often seen sitting beside Mandela's third and current wife, Graca Machel, and she remains one of the ANC's most popular MPs.

Now comes the canonisation - in last year's BBC drama Mrs Mandela, starring Sophie Okonedo, and in the forthcoming opera and film. Why the ever-growing fascination?

"First, she's incredibly beautiful - drop-dead gorgeous," says Justice Malala, a political journalist and analyst. "Then she meets Mandela, they get married and he's sentenced to a lifetime in jail. She endures a life of incomprehensible hardship and is the picture of a woman waiting for her man. It's a very moving love story.

"She's a sexy liberation icon, the way you want Che Guevara to be. She makes cinematographic sense."

But Malala, who has interviewed her and followed her on the campaign trail, found Madikizela-Mandela less than humble. "The first time was in her house in Soweto and it was very disturbing: too many sycophants, too many who believe she's God."

Those close to her are passionate in her defence. Hilda Ndude, a former ANC activist who has known her for more than 30 years, says: "Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is a humble person. She's able to speak her mind on what's wrong and right. She will take on any leader when she believes they are wrong - even Mandela."

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