Mandela My Life: The Official Exhibition

In 2003 I went to South Africa for the first time, I volunteered in a home for abandoned babies. Although Australia does have its own horrible racist history, I had never been exposed to the level of racism as when I went to South Africa. Caring for the African children in the home, Black, Coloured and Indian, I loved them each for the little people they were. Their skin colour was irrelevant to me, I just loved them. I had never been raised in a way that saw people’s colour as a precursor to who that person was. To me all people were ‘somebody’ and deserved respect and kindness no matter what. Yet, the race divide was evident, even 9 years following Mandela’s election to the presidency and a ‘New South Africa’. I noticed the huge divide between black and white, the very reason I was in South Africa was to care for abandon children which was a direct result of years of racial discrimination and now lack of basic needs for those previously oppressed groups. There were so many systemic examples of this racism, but I had not experienced it on a personal level. I was immersed in a world of mostly black or coloured Africans and international volunteers, so although I knew it existed, I lived in a pretty harmonious community.  I recall staying with a white South African family. For those who don’t realise in South Africa there are White South Africans, usually of British decent, and there are Afrikaners of Dutch descent. I personally found there was more racism from Afrikaner people than White South Africans, that might not be true of all (and I’m sure there are lovely people in this group- I don’t want to assume anything of anyone) but that’s what I experienced. The family I stayed with were lovely, their son had migrated to Australia and worked with my Dad, so they had kindly offered for me to stay with them in Pretoria (I lived in Johannesburg) for the weekend. I went to stay with them only days after the death of one of our beloved babies and my love for him was the most profound love I had experienced to that point in my life. I was pretty sensitive to anything that saw him or any of our babies as ‘less than’. I went to dinner with some of their friends and I was so uncomfortable and shocked at the behaviour I was exposed to. While driving to dinner one of the men asked me what I was doing in South Africa. I explained that I was working in a home for abandoned babies. He looked disgusted, he turned to me and said, ‘ew, do you wash your hands when you touch the black babies?’. Somehow, I managed to simply and calmly respond, ‘do you wash your hands after touching a white baby?’ He did not respond. Later at dinner a black waiter came to take our drinks order. All of the ‘service staff’ in South Africa were black (another indicator of systemic racism), when he asked if he could take my order I replied exactly as I would at home, ‘Yes thank you, can I please get a diet coke?’, ‘yes ma’am’ he nodded, ‘thank you so much’ I replied, making eye contact, with a smile and a little nod of my head in return. One of the men looked at me, confused, and said, ‘why are you speaking to him like that?’ Again, I calmly responded, ‘how?’, knowing exactly what he was trying to say. ‘Why are you saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’?’, he asked me. I, probably equally confused and disgusted at this point, replied ‘because he’s a human being’. The conversation did not go any further. But I was extra nice to the waiter and I think I gave him an extra big tip that night. I simply couldn’t comprehend a world where I wouldn’t be polite to a waiter taking my order. I couldn’t understand how one person (or race of people) thought he was better than this other person to the extent where he couldn’t even say please. It might not seem like much but as a young girl fresh out of university it was such an eye-opening experience, and one that I have always remembered.

Door of Hope2 039
Volunteering in home for abandoned babies-2005
Each brick has the name of a student killed in the Soweto Uprising- Hector Pieterson Museum- South Africa

I have always felt a deep regard for Nelson Mandela. I was only a child when he was released from prison and became president, yet I knew he was special. But it was not until I lived in South Africa (and returned 3 more times) that I developed a deep respect, a passionate affection for all he stands for and he was cemented as probably my greatest hero. I learned all I could about South Africa, it’s people and its culture. I stood at Mandela’s cell. I saw the place where he hid his manuscript for ‘A Long Walk to Freedom’. I was blinded momentarily by the glare of the limestone quarry which damaged his eyes. I walked the streets of Soweto and saw his house. I stood in the place where Hector Pieterson, a 12-year-old boy who was peacefully protesting learning Afrikaans in school was gunned down with his friends. I sat in a church where innocent people tried to seek sanctuary from the up-rising and police entered and fired on them anyway. I learned about apartheid and the evil regime that made one race superior to another, at great cost. What struck me most about Mandela was not his sacrifice and his courage or will power, but it was his ability to forgive. Which yes took all of those things, but it took so much more. How does a man endure all that he endured and come out not wanting revenge but just wanting a better world? At his core he was not fighting for his own rights because he had been unjustly treated, he was fighting for an ideal that we are all equal. It would have been so easy to say ‘now we have power, it will be our way’ but he wanted a united country where all were embraced and respected. I’m not sure it’s quite ever gotten to the ideal that Mandela envisioned. There is still extreme poverty for the African people of South Africa, there are still massive social injustices that are a direct result of the system which Mandela (and others in the movement) dismantled. As I witnessed first hand the underlying racism and fear between the races does still exist (for some, not all). But it is far better than it was, there is peace. Mandela was a shining example to not only his county but to the world of peace, of true justice, of freedom.

As I have indicated I have been to a lot of museums and on tours in South Africa. I’ve learnt a lot about Nelson Mandela, or Madiba as he was fondly called by his people. But the exhibit at the Melbourne Museum was beautifully displayed and walked you through the journey of his life. For those who don’t know much about him, it is an absolute must! It is an opportunity to learn and to hopefully take on some of what he lived every day so that this world might in fact be a better place, through his lived ideals. For those who know a lot about him, it is a wonderful chance to spend some time with him, hear his voice, listen to those who loved him and let him inspire you once again.

Some of my favourite parts were;

  • Listening to his ‘if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die’ speech in court before he was arrested
  • the portrait ‘Treason Trial’, the 100+ people on trial for treason all look so happy. They were people who knew they were on the right side.
  • Mandela’s phone number list- which includes Robert Mugabe, King Masehoba and others.
  • Letters from Mandela
  • His slippers and cane (is that odd? He just feels like he’s your grandpa)
  • Listening to recordings of condolences left after he died- there were tens of thousands, but they selected 95 for each year he was alive.
  • Footage of the 46664 concert in 2003 (mainly because I remember watching it on TV in South Africa).


The exhibition is on until March 3rd at the Melbourne Museum and it’s a must see!

Note: I have referred to race as they do in South Africa in this post- White, Black, Coloured or Indian. I understand that this can be offensive to some and apologise. I in no way mean disrespect, but in order to talk about the system that existed in South Africa I felt it important to speak in terms used within the South African experience.

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