It is not for nothing that the first activity by the Nelson Mandela Foundation since Mr Mandela’s passing, a photographic exhibition titled For Madiba with Love, took place on 2 February.
Titled “Legacies of a leader and a movement”, Sunday’s event paid tribute to the late Mr Mandela’s long association with the African National Congress and the birth of South Africa’s democracy 20 years ago.The day also marked the 24th anniversary of the announcement by former President FW de Klerk that Mr Mandela and other political prisoners would be released, and that several liberation movements would be unbanned.
Speaker after speaker at the opening of the exhibition, by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Turnley, noted the significance of what Nelson Mandela Foundation CEO Sello Hatang referred to as “a breathtaking moment” in South Africa’s history.
Turnley arrived in South Africa in 1985, and over the next 30 years documented the disintegration of apartheid and South Africa’s transition to democracy. Introduced by legendary South African photographer Peter Magubane to Winnie Mandela in 1985, Turnley also became a close and trusted friend of the Mandela family.
The exhibition, in collaboration with the Thebe Foundation, is a collection of photographs dating from Turnley’s arrival until the democratic elections of 1994. The exhibition looks at the South Africa of then from a variety of perspectives: portraits of the Mandelas; violent police action; a man about to be necklaced; the delight on a poverty-stricken girl’s face at her father’s antics; the contrast of a privileged, white schoolboy and the two black women passing by him. Each of the photographs is accompanied by Turnley’s detailed thoughts and recollections.
Guests at the launch event included Magubane, Ahmed Kathrada, advocate George Bizos, Barbara Hogan, US Ambassador to South Africa Patrick Gaspard and rock star Steven van Zandt.
In opening the proceedings, MC Leanne Manas noted of the date: “This was the day in history that Mandela found out he would be released,” before turning to Hatang to confirm that the event’s timing was not coincidental.
In his welcoming remarks, Hatang said the date was one for reflection and, as Mr Mandela is mourned following his passing two months ago, to mark his legacy.
Saying that “we will always miss” Mr Mandela, Hatang said the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s challenge was not just to preserve, “but also to using his life’s work as a resource”, with the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory a space of both memory and dialogue.
Turning to Turnley, Hatang said: “David, thank you for giving Madiba’s journey significance through your art.”
The first keynote speaker, Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel, said that 2 February “is very deeply etched in the history of our country”, and represented “the first fruits of the struggle”.
Manuel said Mr Mandela had appealed for people keep looking for ways to be active citizens: “That’s all that’s asked of us – understanding the role we have in shaping South Africa.”
ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte, the second keynote speaker, was Mr Mandela’s assistant for four years following his release, which she described as “an enormous privilege”.
She described how Mr Mandela was released in a time of war in South Africa, an “ugly” time, and how he embarked on a mission to broker peace and persuade all sides to buy into the idea. In every major decision, Mr Mandela consulted widely, with Duarte saying: “Here was the ultimate democrat.”
Van Zandt was then invited to take the podium. The founder in the 1980s of Artists United Against Apartheid, he said he had been spurred into action after visiting South Africa twice in 1984, “hoping to find the reform we had been hearing about”.
The issue of apartheid was publicised in the US through music, and helped pave the way for economic sanctions against South Africa. “I’m proud at what we were able to accomplish,” said Van Zandt.
He pointed out that the US was “only 30 years ahead of you in civil rights”, adding that “in fact” voting rights are being rolled back in his country.
In introducing Turnley, Thebe Foundation CEO Mokgethi Tshabalala said the Thebe Investment Corporation, through its foundation, was “very proud” to be part of the exhibition. Mr Mandela had been a founding member of Thebe in 1992 and “22 years later, we are proud to still be part of the legacy of Madiba”.
It is important to remember who Mr Mandela was and what he stood for, said Tshabalala. “David has captured his legacy through his images.”
“The pictures you see on the walls today reflect 30 years of my making photographs in this country,” said Turnley, who was “completely humbled” to be at the event.
He spoke of his learning of the word “apartheid” in 1968, as a 13-year-old in the American Midwest, and of hearing of the imprisoned Mr Mandela from his father. He told how in 1978 he encountered Magubane, who had travelled to the US and exhibited his photographs of the 1976 uprising in Soweto.
“When he was talking, I saw a man who didn’t have an axe to grind ... I was completely inspired,” he said. It would be Magubane who introduced Turnley to Winnie Mandela, and spark a lifelong friendship with the Mandela family.
His son Charlie (20) was born and raised in South Africa and, said Turnley, his son grieved when Mr Mandela died: “In some real sense, the pillar of his life had passed away.”
As Turnley photographed Mr Mandela’s funeral, he came to the conclusion: “The people who’ve been the pillars of my life, are now largely gone. It’s now up to us ... to do the right thing.”
The event also marked the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the National Library of South Africa for a de-acidification project to preserve Mr Mandela’s papers. The project is funded by the US Embassy.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Director: Research and Archive, Verne Harris, said: “For me, the de-acidification of paper records is of fundamental importance.”
He added that this project is “made in heaven”, combining the records of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, the funding of the US and the expertise of the National Library.
US Ambassador Gaspard told the audience that “the whole point of our contribution” was not to preserve words, but to preserve democracy.
National Librarian John Tsebe, who co-signed the MoU with Hatang, said that due to embrittlement, more than 60% of the library’s paper records were now in danger of being lost. But the library – only the third in the world to do so – has been de-acidifying its records since 2009, and was “proud” to be assisting the Centre of Memory.
“We have the capability that memories are kept alive for time immemorial,” said Tsebe.
In his closing remarks, Hatang said 2 February 1990 is a date that leads one to reflect on where one was on that day. It was appropriate to reflect similarly on the day of Mr Mandela’s passing – with a caveat: “Where were you when Nelson Mandela died – but what are you doing to preserve his legacy?”
For the Foundation, the challenge lies not only in preserving Nelson Mandela’s legacy, along with the many incredible archival pieces and documents that form a part of his memory archive, but to also use his legacy and life work as a resource – a point of reference to draw upon as South Africa endeavours to move closer and closer towards touching on the ideals of social justice and democracy, and creating a place for all to call home.
By being an accessible, multi-purpose and tangible space of memory, as well as a safe space of open dialogue, the Foundation aims to preserve but also help repurpose and remake legacy, using Madiba’s life and lessons to reimagine a new South Africa, afresh.