What more is there to say about Nelson Mandela, the Nobel Prize-winning icon of the anti-Apartheid struggle?
Plenty as it turns out. A major new exhibition uncovers a wealth of fresh material in an intimate portrayal of Mandela’s life, from his childhood in rural Eastern Cape to the moment the world stopped for his funeral.
“Mandela: The Official Exhibition” opened in London February 8, the first leg of a global tour that will end in Mandela’s home village of Mvezo, South Africa. The retrospective draws on hundreds of artifacts and original photography, much of it supplied by family and friends, and in many cases on public display for the first time.
The event also derives authenticity from the involvement of some of Mandela’s closest confidantes. His grandson Mandla Mandela, now an MP for the African National Congress, was a co-executive producer. One section of the exhibition was curated by Mandela’s private secretary Zelda La Grange.
“It is our responsibility to make sure our firsthand experiences of the person are told in an authentic way…to record this history for generations to come,” said La Grange at the launch. “Generations to come are depending on us to get this story right.”
Recreation of the rondavel community in Eastern Cape province where Mandela was raised. Credit: Courtesy of Mandela: The official exhibition
Walking in Madiba’s footsteps
The event is split into chronological chapters, beginning with Mandela’s early years as a farm boy growing up in a traditional rondavel hut, and having to leave home after his father’s death at the age of 12.
Apartheid-era sign on display Credit: kieron monks
There follows a disturbing recreation of the Apartheid era, complete with recovered “Europeans-only” benches and shop displays, and yard signs warning black people to stay away. This is juxtaposed with the story of Mandela’s political awakening as an activist with the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s governing party.
One famous image captures the young lawyer burning his pass book — a document black South Africans were forced to carry — after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. Visitors are shown the safe houses where Mandela and his ANC colleagues plotted their campaign of sabotage against the Apartheid regime, which led to the Rivonia Trial and a sentence to life imprisonment on Robben Island.
The most affecting chapter covers “Prison years 1964-1990,” with much the collection supplied by Christo Brand, a prison guard who became one of Mandela’s close friends. The display includes the thin straw mats that Mandela slept on, and the pickaxe he used to break rocks, as well as a tennis racquet that provided some relief.
Also on show are the letters Mandela sent to his family, including one addressed to his son Magkatho after his other son Thembo was killed in a road accident.
Book of letters Mandela kept on Robben Island. Credit: kieron monks
The extent of Mandela’s personal sacrifice is an under-appreciated element of his story that this exhibition sought to redress, says La Grange.
“To miss 27 years…what that does to a person’s relationships and family life is almost unbearable,” she says. “It’s unbelievable to think he was capable of forgiveness once you comprehend what he went through.”
A more uplifting section of the exhibition is devoted to the solidarity movement in the UK, showing protests outside the South African embassy, posters calling for a boycott of South African goods, and the Nelson Mandela 70th birthday tribute concert at Wembley Stadium — which drew a sell-out crowd of 72,000.
No Disney character
Mandla Mandela, as co-executive producer, was determined that the exhibition present his grandfather as the radical he knew, rather than the airbrushed “Disney character” he is sometimes portrayed as.
He points to an exhibit detailing Mandela’s correspondence with Moammar Gadhafi, who he considered a “brother-in arms” along with Fidel Castro, and Yasser Arafat. Mandla is keen to assert that “Madiba” was a fighter rather than a Ghandi-style pacifist in the struggle against Apartheid. He is also skeptical of the newfound appreciation of his grandfather from politicians that might once have been his enemies.
Mandla Mandela, grandson of Nelson, at the London launch of ‘Mandela: The Official Exhibition,’ for which he was co-executive producer. Credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
“In 2018, we had a visit in South Africa from (British Prime Minister) Theresa May,” he recalls. “She visited Robben Island and came out weeping.”
“Really? She is from the same party that called for Madiba’s incarceration. In the true Madiba spirit we are able to forgive…but we are alive to that hypocrisy.”
Another point Mandla hopes to communicate with this exhibition is that Mandela succeeded as part of a movement rather than as an individual. “Madiba says he was merely a voice and a face for a collective,” Mandla says. “We have the freedom we have today because of ordinary men and women in South Africa who fought for it.”
“The next generation need to consciously ask ourselves what we are doing to further their vision.”