Emma Kingston as Eva. Picture: Supplied

I am delighted that my good friend Pieter Toerien is again staging a new version of the acclaimed musical opera Evita in South Africa, in late 2017. 

Pieter has asked me to share some reflections on the brief life and extraordinary global and country impact of Eva Duarte Peron, known universally as “Evita”.

When I arrived in late 2009 to take up my post as South African Ambassador to Argentina in Buenos Aires, Evita Peron had been dead for over 57 years.

She died in 1952 of cervical cancer, whose diagnosis was hidden from her, at the incredibly young age of 33. Yet, the iconoclasm of Evita and her memory loomed over Argentinian politics and her country like a giant shadow.

The president of Argentina to whom I presented my credentials, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, literally saw herself as the political embodiment of Eva Peron. 

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Monuments, street demonstrations and much of the boisterous political discourse were refracted through the lens of Evita and her husband, Juan Domingo Peron - who served as president of Argentina in both the late 40s and early 50s and again, briefly, in the mid-70s.

When I wrote a memoir on my years in Argentina (The Accidental Ambassador - from Parliament to Patagonia), I was so vividly aware of the phantom that the Perons cast over the huge and wealthy but in so many ways, unhappy, Argentina, I headlined the chapter on its politics, Vote for a Better Yesterday.

Tony Leon (left) reflects on his time in Argentina and the influence of Evita as Peter Toerien stages a new version of the smash-hit musical in South Africa. Picture: Supplied

But one of the reasons for the enduring popularity of the musical Evita is that, in so many ways, the story of Eva Peron has some very modern, and indeed some deep parallels for where both South Africa and the world find themselves, here and now, in 2017.

Evita never held any formal title or high office, beyond First Lady of Argentina. But she was in huge and consequential ways the rocket fuel that allowed her husband to orbit the political firmament of Argentina way above any of his contemporaries and, arguably, any of his successors. 

The political vehicle the Perons established is formally called the Justicialist Party, but every member and minister and president who has served under its banner is still called, today, a “Peronist”.

Evita, in many ways, prefigured the rise of populism that we see all around us today. Decades before social media was invented or widespread, she used her fame in the most dominant medium of her age, as a radio star, to climb the ladder to social prominence and catch the eye of the thrusting army colonel Juan Peron, whom she soon was to marry.

Emma Kingston as Eva . Picture: Supplied

But it was her resentments against the circumstances of her birth - the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy landowner raised in poverty - that provided her political mission with passion and purpose. Indeed, like the rise of inequality in the world today, Argentina back in her youth was perhaps controlled and owned by relatively few families. And, in the 20s, when she was a child, it was also one of the wealthiest countries on the planet.

In her ghosted autobiography, La Razon de Mi Vida (which had been compulsorily prescribed to every schoolchild during the first Peron government of 1946-1955) Evita made the resentments about the causes of her poverty plain.

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She wrote: “And the strange thing is that the existence of the poor did not cause me as much pain as the knowledge that at the same time there were people who were rich.”

If populism today is defined as identifying one set of villains for a country’s problems (such as “white monopoly capital”) or simplistic solutions (such as “give back the land”) then, in so many ways, Evita was an early outlier of this brand of rhetoric. 

Indeed, there was much good that she did in her few years in the centre of power - rights for women and workers, charitable acts and institutions targeting the most needy and destitute. But like all populist movements, its current had a dark and dangerous undertow.

Emma Kingston and Robert Finlayson. Picture: Supplied

You will get a real sense of the negatives that Evita’s brand of politics created through the medium in this musical of the narrator, another famous Argentine, Che Guevera.

But shortly before the musical Evita was first conceived by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, another famous writer, the Nobel laureate, VS Naipaul, visited Argentina in 1974. He perfectly captured the “hate as hope” brand of politics perfected by the Perons. 

When I read his short story on arriving in Argentina in 2009, I thought he also could have been describing some of the background noise of South Africa, then and today.

He wrote: “Eva Peron devoted her short political life to mocking the rich, the 400 families who among them owned most of what was valuable in the million square miles of Argentina. She mocked and wounded them as they had wounded her; and her later unofficial sainthood (as “Santa Evita”) gave a touch of religion to her destructive cause And in the end that was why Argentina (in 1973) virtually united in calling Juan Peron back, though the first period of his rule had ended in repression and disaster, and though he was very old and close to death He had become the quintessential Argentine: like Eva before him, like all Argentines, he was a victim, someone with enemies, someone with that pain about others.”

Of course, there is so much to enjoy in this spectacular show - the riveting music, captivating score, fine costumes, staging and our world class actors. But beyond the spectacle, there are deep and sometimes disturbing lessons and parallels to draw from the very drama of Evita’s life itself.

* Evita opens Tonight at the Teatro at Montecasino. Show runs till November 12