‘Mandela’ exhibit tells story of South African freedom fight at Illinois Holocaust Museum

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There’s a wall in “Mandela: Struggle for Freedom” that will seem especially familiar to Americans viewing this recently opened exhibition.

Black-and-white public restroom signs spell out “Black Male Toilets” and “White Female Toilets.” Green signs bear the red cross, international symbol of neutrality and medical assistance, but one points right, toward the “European Hospital,” one left, toward the “Non-European Hospital.”

Laws, in this collage of daily oppressions, are spelled out in crisp white text. “Black people must have identity passes, starting at age 16” and “can be fined or sent to prison for not carrying their passes” (Natives Act, Act No. 67 of 1952). “Black people must have state permission to work anywhere” (Bantu Laws Amendment Act, Act No. 42 of 1964). “It is illegal to protest or campaign to change state laws” (Internal Security Act, Act No. 74 of 1982).

It’s an especially effective section in this in-depth look at the South African people’s journey toward self-determination, on view at the Illinois Holocaust Museum through Sept. 12.

But throughout, the way Nelson Mandela and his countrymen and women cast off apartheid contains profound echoes of the American Civil Rights struggle, a fight that, as Mandela himself writes, does not end just because laws are changed.

Mandela died in 2013 after guiding his country to defeat white minority rule, becoming its first freely elected president and winning the Nobel Peace Prize, to telescope a momentous life. This exhibition debuted in 2018 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth and was developed by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, in Winnipeg, in collaboration with the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa.

As a result there are moments where visitors to the Skokie museum will be offered more information about Canada’s role in the international battle against South African apartheid — Afrikaans for “apartness”— than they might want.

But the exhibition made sense for the Holocaust museum — reopened this month with limited capacity, mandatory masking, etc., after the second wave of pandemic-forced shutdowns — because of its focus not just on mid-20th century Nazi atrocities but on the sweep of human resistance to oppression, discrimination and genocide.

“We want people to become more active and engaged citizens, looking at issues of human rights, social justice,” said Arielle Weininger, the museum’s chief curator of collections and exhibitions. “Coming up after Mandela, we’re having another major exhibition about the LGBTQ rights movement.

“So Mandela as an international figure who worked for equality and justice his entire life is certainly somebody who’s appropriate to be honored by our museum.”

Beyond making sense to show at a time when the United States is grappling anew with its own legacy of apartheid toward Black citizens, the exhibit, Weininger said, is valuable for the reason that good history always is valuable: to help new generations learn the lessons of the past.

“Unfortunately, as we move further away from the time period, I think younger audiences in particular are not familiar with this struggle that went on for the freedom of South Africa,” she said.

Illustrated by artifacts such as the segregation signs, the hated “pass books” Black South Africans were required to carry, and plenty of photographs, the exhibition tells the story mostly in chronological order.

Coming out of centuries of European colonialism, South Africa is a land where the white minority of 15 percent of the population controls the laws, the government and the great majority of the land. The election of the National Party, dominated by Afrikaners of Dutch colonial heritage, in 1948 seems to kick the repression into high gear.

And so we see that, just as American Civil Rights work predated the era we might first think of, there were protest movements in the 1950s. One photo shows Black protesters giving the thumbs-up of solidarity riding in “Europeans Only” train cars during the Defiance Campaign of 1952. Others chronicle the horrors of the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, when police opened fire and killed 69 people protesting the pass book, resettlement and other controlling laws.

Through these years, Mandela was a lawyer and activist, although not the internationally known figurehead he would become. The exhibit, frankly, could stand to be more direct with its biography of the man himself, especially in telling how he came to the struggle.

Instead, we are left to make assumptions from the information in photo captions: In 1944 he helped form the Youth League of the African National Congress; he and Oliver Tambo as lawyers represented Black South Africans who defied the segregationist laws; he was a boxer for fun and exercise, “a heavyweight,” and the associated photo cries out to be shown in a larger version.

The story moves swiftly and powerfully forward. Mandela is part of a sensational treason trial and goes underground after being acquitted. In an early 1960s British TV interview conducted in the dead of night, we see him wondering aloud whether non-violence, the movement’s path to date, will be “adequate.”

A map details his travels through Africa and into Europe to speak on behalf of the cause, even as a militant wing begins a campaign of sabotage against symbols of oppression. And then, after authorities capture Mandela posing as a driver, he is sentenced along with other leaders to life in prison.

His cell at the notorious Robben Island prison is reproduced at life size. And during his 27 years as a political prisoner, the movement only grows. Street protests and international outcry increase pressure on the white government, and Mandela’s resolve and symbolic power and increasing renown play a significant role. Through a letter read aloud by a daughter, he publicly rejects the government’s conditional offer of release in 1985.

That it all took so long only increases the power of the moment when we see, on video, Mandela, finally released in 1990, walking away from prison. Four years later came the election that made him president. A ballot box and colorful ballot from that election, bearing the party symbols and candidates’ faces, are potent artifacts to witness in person.

While the particulars of the South African story are different, throughout we can see the reflections of America’s own appalling racial history. A key difference: South Africa went through the wrenching work of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with the abuses of the past.

And a key similarity is that the past is never fully past. One of the closing quotes in “Mandela: Struggle for Freedom” comes from his 1994 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.”

“The truth is,” Mandela wrote, “that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road.”

sajohnson@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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