Mandela exhibition gives goosebumps

22 December 2008

It was a hot summer day outside, but I felt goosebumps all over. I’d walked into the exhibition of Nelson Mandela at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, and stood mesmerised by images of him from the moment he left prison.

He truly is the world’s hero, and although very frail now, at 90, he still engenders powerful feelings of affection and patriotism.

The exhibition, called “Mandela – Leader, Comrade, Negotiator, Prisoner, Statesman” was opened in November and will run until next November, says marketing manager of the museum, Noelene Bhyat.

At the opening, the director of the museum, Christopher Till, said: “The exhibition attempts to breathe fresh life into a story that has been well told in countless books, documentaries and other exhibitions around the world.”

The exhibition not only looks at Madiba’s strengths and unifying greatness, but also contemplates his weaknesses, acknowledged by him. Historians question his reluctance to deal with Aids while President, the switch from the Reconstruction and Development Programme to the Growth, Employment and Redistribution programme, and the arms deal.

“The strength of the exhibition is the way it attempts to provide a layered glimpse of Mandela in all his various guises and reincarnations,” explained Till.

The exhibition uses classic interview footage, like the one recorded in the 1960s by the BBC, or the one of Mandela meeting with then president PW Botha in the mid-1980s, or the 1989 video showing president FW de Klerk announcing the unbanning of the ANC and other organisations.

When asked by the BBC interviewer what the black man wanted, Mandela said simply but assuredly: “We want one man, one vote.” In answer to a question whether this would mean driving out whites, he answered: “South Africa is a country of many races, there is room for everyone.”

But the one I found most moving was the huge screen replaying images of him: giving his first speech after walking out of prison in 1990; hugging actress Charlise Theron and other celebrities; riding in a carriage with the Queen of England through the streets of London; greeting the late Princess of Wales, Diana; and countless images of people raising a fist or singing in celebration of him.

The overriding characteristic of all the images is his inimitable smile.

The researchers took almost two years to research and collect the hundreds of photographs and displays of original artefacts that make up the exhibition, says researcher Jacqui Masiza. The team consisted of scriptwriters, editors, picture researchers, and a curator. Pictures were sourced from the ANC journal, Mayibuye, Bailey’s Archives, Robben Island, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Museum Africa, the SABC and the BBC.

Historians Phil Bonner and Luli Callinicos were brought in as well.

The largest artefact is a rich red Mercedes Benz presented to Madiba when he left prison, made by the workers in the assembly plant in East London.

Perhaps the most surprising footage is of him shaving and making his bed, serving to emphasise the ordinary man behind the public image.

The exhibition will be travelling after its stay at the museum – its first stop is Spain.

The Apartheid Museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays 10am to 5pm. Entrance is R60 for adults, R30 for seniors and students. The exhibition runs until November 2009.

Source: City of Johannesburg