Walking Mandela’s road to freedom

Nelson Mandela - the subject of an inspiring exhibition at Melbourne Museum. Picture: KEITH BERNSTEIN

By Cam Lucadou-Wells


This is as close as most can get to following the soaring example of humanitarian and former South African president Nelson Mandela.

The richly-detailed exhibition Mandela: My Life takes you from Mandela’s free, uncomplicated life as a child in the Transkei to the constraints of apartheid in the cities.

An evocative catalogue of photos, film and audio lay bare the power of Mandela’s defiance.

A notice shows the indignities of apartheid – the segregation of races. It’s titled ‘Anyone disobeying these laws will be imprisoned, fined and/or whipped’.

These laws have to be seen to be believed. “Africans” must produce passbooks on demand by a police officer, for instance. They were not allowed to buy land.

A ban on “Africans” buying land, or getting the same rates of pay as “white persons” – “even if they do the same work and work the same hours”.

Even a prohibition on a “white” and “non-white” drinking tea together in a cafe, and “Africans” attending a birthday party if the numbers make it “undesirable”.

The last rule on the notice by order of the South African Ministry of Justice states: “No white man may teach an African servant to read.”

As legend has it, Mandela and many others rise up against the indignities of discrimination.

As a lawyer, he braved arrests, charges and trials. He became one of the leaders of the People’s Congress Alliance resistance, earning the monniker the Black Pimpernel and heading underground to build a militia.

In the early 1960s, his capture and the Treason Trial of Mandela and 155 other defendants captured world headlines. Some of the breathless newspaper front pages convey the high drama.

International condemnation and sanctions built until his release decades later. Most of his captivity was in an isolated cell on Robben Island – the experience captured in film and photographs.

A film interview with a former jailer is telling for showing Mandela’s warm humanity.

His life as statesman and president is embodied with scores of artefacts, videos, his famous Madiba Shirts – and 95 phone calls from around the world paying tribute to him after death.

By the end, you can’t help feeling elevated by knowing this extraordinary man a little better.

The internationally-touring exhibition is at Melbourne Museum until 3 March 2019. Bookings: ticketek.com.au and 1300 364 001.

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