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The exhibition helping preserve Nelson Mandela's legacy

VISIT: Chief Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandela at the Brixton Recreation Centre

Life & Style: How would you sum up the concept behind the exhibition?

Chief Mandela: The Royal House of Mandela wanted to do something remarkable to mark the centenary of Madiba’s birth by sharing stories we’ve come to know from him as a family man.

There are different sections, starting with his early years in Mvezo, which a lot of people have never really focused on before: Madiba’s birthplace, the countryside where he grew up, the traditions that helped form the man he became.

The various sections of the exhibition that follow cover him meeting his first wife – Evelyn Mase, my grandmother – and how she raised three children after they lost one as an infant, his political activism and the defiance campaign, the work he did to fight apartheid, his trial, his fleeing the country and returning to South Africa, then his arrest and imprisonment.

We cover his prison years and his arrival on Robben Island, his eventual release, his presidential years and how, after he stepped down, he continued to lead humanitarian efforts through the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

We close the exhibition bidding farewell to Madiba as he passed on.

L&S: Can you tell us about some of the key exhibits?

CM: We have one of the rarest pictures ever seen of Madiba – taken by Peter Morey, who we’re very grateful to for his donation of the picture – in his traditional royal robe and headpiece, which is considered the crown of the Mandela chieftaincy and the leopard blanket that he has over him has always been a symbol of African royalty.

There’s a tennis racquet that Madiba gave as a gift to a friend who was a warden on Robben Island and, of course, you couldn’t have an exhibition without some of Madiba’s famous shirts, which were his signature and which he wore with pride.

L&S: Do any of the exhibits have a particular emotional resonance for you?

CM: Yes, the watch he wore during his presidential years is dear to my heart. He later gave it to me as both his grandson and as Chief of the Royal House of Mandela to show continuity in the family. He then bought another watch identical to the original, which he kept himself.

L&S: Are there things you have learned through helping put the exhibition together?

CM: We’ve discovered letters that my grandfather wrote from prison – either to the family or to friends and colleagues – that never arrived. In them, he shares concerns for the family. We’ve also gone to Mvezo and the surrounding areas to illustrate where Madiba came from. His culture and traditions are embedded in those villages and the lessons he learned are included as part of the story. The Nelson Mandela Foundation has applauded us for being the first people to look at Madiba’s early years and to unlock an understanding of them.

L&S: Does it feel significant that the exhibition is opening in London first?

CM: It does, yes. After Madiba fled the country, he came to London and had meetings with activists here.

My mother was part of the anti-apartheid protests in Trafalgar Square, which I attended during holidays. She lived here in the 1980s in Leighton Buzzard, and interacted with London-based activists leading the antiapartheid campaign, and on my visits we would go the protests in front of South Africa House.

Over the years, I was introduced to many activists in London who were instrumental in the anti-apartheid campaign and, of course, the Release Mandela campaign culminated in a concert at Wembley Stadium. As a family celebrating Madiba’s centenary, it’s important to come to a place where so many walked hand-in-hand with us in the fight for freedom.

LEGACY: A viewing the Soweto sculpture by Raymond Watson

We are a free democratic South Africa today because of the role played by the citizens of Britain, who ushered out into the streets to protest against a brutal regime and called for Madiba’s release. Also, my grandfather had a good friendship with the Queen, so we wanted to launch the exhibition here in London before taking it to other cities around the world.

L&S: What does your grandfather’s legacy mean to you, both on an international and a personal level?

CM: The most important thing for me is that my grandfather dedicated 67 years of his life to serving humanity as an activist for human rights, peace and justice. His birthday of July 18, when he was born in Mvezo a hundred years ago, has been declared by the United Nations as Nelson Mandela Day and has become a global calling on humanity to dedicate 67 minutes of their time to serve their own communities. If there is one thing to be learned from Madiba’s legacy, it’s that of service. We, the current generation, should adhere to the call of service to humanity and to our communities.

L&S: What are your fondest memories of your time with him?

CM: I was fortunate to be able to call this global icon my grandfather and to be able to share breakfast, lunch and supper with him was always a phenomenal experience, because he was such a wonderful orator of history. Through his own experiences, he built character within us.

He was able to share a story from his own childhood, his development or his incarceration – and that experience would shape a certain understanding of how we approach our lives. I feel privileged to have sat with this statesman of the 21st century and to have learned from him first-hand.

L&S: What responsibilities come with the Mandela surname?

CM: The Mandela name is a continuity of tradition. Mandela was my grandfather’s grandfather and we trace our surname from him, through Madiba’s father, Madiba himself and his sons through to the next generation.

There’s a sense of responsibility of being of service to our people, our community and ensuring that we continue to be the voice of human rights, advocate for peace and uphold justice. From our family history, we know and appreciate the challenges that lie ahead.

I love how Madiba in his book Long Walk To Freedom is sitting on top of the hill at the end, and when he looks back at the journey he’s made, he realises the many mountains that had to be climbed and the rivers that had to be crossed. As he looks ahead, there are still so many mountains and so many rivers.

Now he’s no longer with us, those are left for us to climb and cross. We have to pick up the baton and charge forward, continuing the work that was very dear to his heart.

L&S: How did he feel when you were made a Chief?

CM: It was a special moment for him. I think he made his shortest speech ever at my coronation, because he was very emotional.

He said that to see me being crowned ensured two things: his father’s homestead had been rebuilt, but most importantly, his father’s chieftaincy – which had been unjustly removed – was corrected, therefore he would go to his resting place a happy man.

It laid a huge responsibility on my shoulders knowing what the place meant to my grandfather and I think my accepting the chieftaincy truly taught me that Mvezo was very dear and close to his heart. We have restored his father’s homestead and his father’s chieftaincy and we continue to better the lives of the people of Madiba’s birthplace.

L&S: What do you hope people will take away from the exhibition?

CM: As well as being inspiring and educational, it is a call to action. It’s not just about being inspired, then walking away – it must invoke in you a sense of action and accountability.

It can no longer be that we close our eyes and pretend not to see atrocities, genocides and oppressive regimes.

People who oppress human rights, operate against peace and advocate injustice must be held to account.

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