Is this Mandela exhibit PR fluff or a weapon against populism?
Something is amiss, and the truth is a new exhibition in London is a slick production to reinforce the Mandela brand
Hidden beneath Waterloo Station in central London, there lies a synaesthetic celebration of colour and protest. Ever since the mysterious activist Banksy staged his ode to street art known as The Cans Festival there in 2008, every inch of the enveloping walls and ceiling of the 300m Leake Street Tunnel has been covered with graffiti; an endless array of tags and murals no matter their political slant or pejorative tone.
It is here, tucked within this subterranean kaleidoscope, that Mandela: The Official Exhibition will call home for the next six months before embarking on a five-year world tour culminating in Madiba’s home village of Mvezo in the Eastern Cape.
Inside, a well-told story is given a fresh polish. Interactive panels stitch Mandela’s journey from Umtata to Houghton with all the famous stops along the way. Immersive pieces such as the recreation of a Robben Island prison cell or a traditional rondavel allow one to play freedom fighter for a day. A bench marked “EUROPEANS ONLY” sits beneath Ernest Cole’s iconic image that captures the everyday brutality of racial segregation. The sounds of struggle songs reverberate around the narrow passages that serve as monuments to the Father of the Nation.
But why now? A good story is always worth retelling but, for those well versed in the narrative, the exhibition does not offer anything we didn’t already know. In a post-Fallist world, what is the relevance of launching this multinational tour and returning to Mandela’s legacy in such depth in 2019?
For Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandla Mandela, it serves as a timely reminder of his grandfather’s legacy.
“The iconic global voices that echoed throughout the 1980s and 1990s, that brought down the Berlin Wall, that fought against apartheid, and that strove for equality and freedom, are sadly absent in today’s climate of populism and parochial world views,” Mandla said. “My grandfather’s struggle was picked up around the world and required the efforts of many people working in unison. I look around the world today and I see challenges that are not being met. We, as a family, feel that Madiba’s message is one that is just as relevant now as it was when he was fighting for democracy back home.”
In the US, Donald Trump’s calls for seclusion and deportation are met with thunderous applause. The UK lurches towards an uncertain Brexit deal with hate crimes along racial and religious lines rising by 40% at the last count in October 2018. In Xinjiang, China, thousands of Uyghurs and Muslims from other ethnic minorities are locked up in “re-education camps” in what what has been described as a “cultural genocide”. Close your eyes and throw a dart at a map of the world. There’s a good chance you’ll hit a spot where some crime against civil liberty is being committed.
Mandla is unmistakably a Mandela. Tall and broad-shouldered, his round face is quick to smile and laughs as my broken Grade 7 isiZulu stutters out a poor excuse of a respectful greeting. His expression hardens when speaking about the exhibition’s intent. “My grandfather often said that one is never truly free when there are subjugated people around the world,” he said, his point emphasised by the black and white chequered Palestinian keffiyeh around his neck. “Politicians are looking inward and their supporters are clamouring to build walls. People are suffering in Yemen, Myanmar and Western Sahara. Let this great man’s message be a beacon for those who do not resonate with destructive nationalism.”
Mandla recounts the time he stood with his mother, Rayne Mandela-Perry, at Trafalgar Square in central London in his youth and marvelled at the scores of anti-apartheid protesters demonstrating outside the SA High Commission. “That was the first time I understood the importance of collaboration across national borders,” he said. “This is why this city was chosen as the first destination for the exhibition. It is our way of giving thanks to this city. We hope we can use this platform to reach a new audience.”
Despite his positive energy, I find it difficult not to digest Mandla’s message with a touch of cynicism. There is no doubting how infectious the Madiba Magic is. I am a member of the “born-free” generation and was raised on rainbows and sporting triumphs. But something is amiss here.
The truth is, this exhibition presents as a slick PR production to reinforce the Mandela brand. Its message may be authentic but I can’t shake the feeling it has little chance of achieving the lofty ambitions the organisers have set themselves.
For one, it runs the risk of disappearing down an echo chamber. Chauvinistic fans of Farage, Bolsonaro or Putin are unlikely going to find themselves meandering through an exhibition championing inclusivity in one of liberal London’s hipster flytraps. Even if they did, what are the chances they would have their worldview turned?
“It’s always a challenge attracting the people who need to be here the most,” said Steven Swaby, the exhibition’s lead content developer and author of the written material throughout the show. “But this is a story about human decency and its message is universal. Besides, if we can alter a handful of people’s ideals or inspire someone to make a difference then it would be worth it. That is the essence of Mandela’s legacy.”
Perhaps, but what the exhibition is peddling is not a comprehensive study of that legacy. It delivers on the promises made on the tin – to promote the life of the great statesman – but it fails to offer a contemporary interpretation of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation project. If a foreign investor had no prior knowledge of the state of SA today and attended the exhibition they would leave thinking that the country had reconciled its differences. Yes, it had dangled on the brink of civil war and annihilation, but from the ashes newfound hope and unity have sprung forth.
All images of people living in squalor in the exhibit are in black and white. Once the violence of the early 1990s is covered with an impressive display from the “Bang Bang Club”, one enters a realm bereft of hardship and suffering. In the final two rooms, Mandela’s multicoloured shirts are flanked by photos of the Springbok victory in 1995 and smiling faces of all hues. This is SA as Mandela intended to leave it. It is not the one that exists today.
According to Swaby, the omission of any modern context was the result of a lack of space. “We definitely wanted to include more,” he said, absolving his team of any oversight, deliberate or otherwise. “But we had to leave a lot out. Hopefully we can touch on those important issues through talks and other initiatives.”
Zelda le Grange, Mandela’s personal aide for more than 19 years, concedes that the lack of present-day context could portray a distorted image of the country, but she does not believe that it dilutes the exhibition’s key tenets. “The reality is there are still people suffering and there is no denying that,” Le Grange said. “But we are trying to use Mandela’s legacy as a lesson to politicians in office now. He was a great man but he was not immortal. We’ve had nine wasted years [under former president Jacob Zuma] and naturally people are frustrated. But by learning from our past we can make the right decisions in the future.”
‘You are never going to satisfy radicals’
Another blind spot fails to confront the altered, and somewhat controversial, lens through which many South Africans now view Nelson Mandela. When Julius Malema called him a “sellout” in 2016, the backlash was not universal. In fact, there were many who found themselves nodding in agreement as the targets of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Freedom Charter continue to remain hopeful pipe dreams. This could go some way in explaining the timing of the show.
Le Grange is not concerned by the cynics and refuses to pay them lip service. “Those people who use rhetoric like that haven’t achieved a quarter of what Madiba achieved in his life,” she said. “Let them say what they want. They have the freedom to do so because of what Madiba and other heroes of our nation did. You are never going to satisfy radicals and I’m not going to run around stamping out the small fires when they arise.”
That indifference is echoed through the exhibition. This is not a show for South Africans who are reminded of Mandela’s legacy every time they pull a bank note out of their wallet. Instead, this is putting on a smiling face for the rest of the world. A reminder that despite the nation’s shortcomings, we can still claim ownership of one of history’s most formidable characters. Any lesson that may be gleaned from his story is merely icing on the cake.
“There are Nazis proudly march through the streets of major cities,” Mandla pointed out. “Powerful governments are falling into the hands of dangerous people. This is why the exhibition is important. We are reminding the world that there are examples we can follow.”
This exhibition is not going to stop Nazis marching nor will it silence those who call Mandela a sellout. This mainstream, well-funded production is a neatly packaged commercial jamboree wrapped up as a history lesson. One wonders if Morgan Freeman was asked to collaborate.
But as a South African who now calls a foreign land home it was impossible to ignore the swelling pride I felt seeing local people’s eyes light up as they digested the words and images of Mandela’s life. Sure, they are presented as if they were an Instagram story; that is the modern way. But with the rising tide of populism and demagoguery it is reassuring to know that history does not belong to monsters.