The LSE is hosting a public exhibition titled “South Africa’s Democracy – Mandela’s Cherished Ideal” running for the month of September. The exhibition, displaying the highs and lows of South Africa’s journey into democracy, was put together by the Universities of Cape Town, Wits and Fort Hare
Paul Weinberg has witnessed one of the most famous moments of our democracy with his lens. The opportunity to walk through the exhibit by the Universities of Cape Town, Wits and Fort Hare entitled South Africa’s Democracy, Mandela’s Cherished Ideal, he has curated was equally special.
The Atrium Gallery on the LSE campus which hosts the display is a very neat space. As we congregated in one corner, Weinberg, opening with a joke, promised to take us on a journey as he began to explain the first few photographs on display.
Titled ‘Mandela Moments’ these were centred on the beginning of South Africa’s democracy – the release of Mandela and the first elections. One can only swell with pride upon seeing iconic images of Mandela’s raised fist as a free man after 27 years and Paul’s own photograph of his first vote in 1994.
Beginning the exhibition in the hope of ‘South Africa Imagined vs South Africa the Real’ as described by Paul, he commented that this exhibition dances between these two ideas. The images in the following set of photos demonstrated this in their stark contrast to this euphoric ideal. These pictures exposed the wounds that needed healing after years of segregation and oppression, including an image of two sisters reuniting after being separated for 20 years by forced removals.
Following this were images of perpetrators of horror, including Eugene De Kock documented at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, placed next to landscape photographs of a country haunted with the memories of atrocities carried out in the name of the law. The raw emotions attached to these images is hard to ignore.
Once the political struggle was over, the new government had to face the next struggle against AIDS. Paul reminded us of then President Thabo Mbeki’s dangerous declaration in 2000 that HIV was not linked to AIDS and the damage caused by the non-rollout of anti-retroviral treatments as a result. Moving portraits of this new generation of heroes, including the young activist Nkosa Johnson, with their own survival story etched in their faces.
The journey was then brought to a close by another modern struggle, against poverty and for justice, as starkly portrayed by an image of the burial site of the 34 victims of the recent Marikana massacre.
Further to the portraits there were display cases holding some real treasures. A reminder that the heroes of the political struggle were human beings behind their legendary status. Govan Mbeki’s guitar, on which he composed and played songs on Robben Island while serving the life sentence imposed on him at the Rivonia Trial, was proudly displayed. Also from that trial was a copy of the statement read out by Nelson Mandela from the dock in 1964 which included the famous quote:
During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die
Other items included boots that belonged to Chris Hani, the Head of the South African Communist Party at the time of his assassination in 1993, a regal photograph of Oliver Tambo, as well as a photo of Mandela’s final year law class taken at the University of Witwatersrand in 1949.
The exhibition itself is very moving and leaves a lasting impact in the heart of its viewer. I am struck by the ability of these photographic artists to capture the essence of what it is to be human in light and celluloid. It provides an excellent perspective into how far we have come as a nation, whilst also reminding us of how far we still have to go.
The exhibition runs until the 26th September and is open from 10am – 8pm, Mon – Fri.