Official Nelson Mandela exhibition comes to London’s South Bank

Simon Calder

Nelson Mandela, the hero of South Africa’s struggle to end apartheid and establish democracy, is honoured in a new visitor attraction on London’s South Bank.

Mandela: The Official Exhibition traces the story of the 20th century’s most iconic freedom fighter and political leader through previously unseen film clips and photographs. It includes artefacts such as one of his hand-printed batik shirts and the ceremonial headdress awarded to Mandela upon his release from prison in 1990.

The exhibition also contains symbols of oppression, such as the signs used to separate Europeans and non-whites during the decades of apartheid.

Graphic images depict the brutality with which the security forces put down protests against inequality and oppression.

The exhibition is designed to tour the world: after closing in London in June it will go to Paris. But a special UK alcove called Anti-Apartheid in Britain records the contributions of activists, trade unions and celebrities in fighting oppression.

The location is a fascinating space across the River Thames from Westminster Square, where Nelson Mandela’s statue is located. It is 26 Leake Street, beneath the arches of Britain’s busiest railway station – London Waterloo, and adjacent to the constantly changing “graffiti tunnel”.

Mandela: The Official Exhibition has been created with the help and support of the family of Madiba, as he is often referred to.

One of the producers is Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandel and the traditional leader of Mvezo. He said: "London and the United Kingdom more broadly was home to many South African exiles and activists in the anti-apartheid struggle.

"In the 1980s and 90s Trafalgar Square and South Africa House was the scene of many a picket and protest action and this news found its way to Mandela in his cell, either in encoded messages, by word of mouth and in the latter years, via news clippings. It was therefore no surprise that Madiba chose London as one of the first cities outside Africa to visit as a free man after his 27-year incarceration.

“I can say without the slightest doubt that Madiba would have given his stamp of approval to staging this exhibition in London.”

There are reflections on Nelson Mandela from Benjamin Zephania, Peter Gabriel and Jerry Dammers of The Specials.

Another collaborator is Zelda la Grange, Nelson Mandela’s long-term personal and presidential secretary. She worked on the section of the exhibition called Healing the Nation, which shows how the first black president of South Africa created a fragile unity from the wreckage created by Apartheid.

Ms la Grange told The Independent: “This exhibition brings the person to life again and has been able to invigorate the legacy.

“I hope people will be inspired by his life story. It is possible to forgive, it is possible to reconcile.”

Nelson Mandela's prison warder on Robben Island, and, later, lifelong friend, Christo Brand, has also provide insights and donated objects for the section of the exhibition titled 10,000 Days: The Prison Years (1964–1990).

After a worldwide tour, the exhibition will be permanently installed in Mvezo, Nelson Mandela’s birthplace.

Mandela: The Official Exhibition runs from Friday 8 February to Sunday 2 June. The address is 26 Leake Street; SE1 7NN (nearest Tube and train: Waterloo; 0844 453 9094, mandelaexhibition.com)