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June 19, 2013

Paris Exhibit Captures Mandela's Journey

by Lisa Bryant

The fragile health of former South African president Nelson Mandela has been making headlines in recent days. But a new exhibition in Paris takes a step back -  looking at Mandela's evolution from political prisoner to one of the world's most beloved and respected politicians. Produced by the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, the show kicks off a year of cultural events in France featuring South Africa. Incidentally, the French capital recently made Mandela an honorary citizen.

In front of Paris city hall sits a bleak reminder of South Africa's apartheid regime. It's a reproduction of the Robben Island prison cell where Mandela spent 18 years in captivity.

It's part of an exhibition here tracing Mandela's personal and political journey from activist, to prisoner, to his country's first black president. Laurent Clavel, of the Institut Francais, is the General Commissioner of this year’s season of cultural events. He spoke about Mandela’s legacy.

"This exhibition is showing how much Mandela has become a world icon and how much his message and his struggle is universal. This exhibition is a tribute to the legacy that Nelson Mandela is leaving to the world."

It's a legacy marked by amazing achievements, but also by loneliness and loss, starting with Mandela's childhood in the eastern Cape region. His father died when he was nine.

When Mandela was 23, he escaped from an arranged marriage and went to Johannesburg. He earned a law degree and joined the African National Congress, becoming a leader in the campaign against apartheid. In the early 1960s, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. Clavel compared how Mandela’s personal story was linked to that of South Africa.

"During his days, his years in jail, he went through a personal journey. He became someone who has promoted reconciliation, peace and liberty for everybody. And this exhibition [reflects] that, because you go through all these different steps understanding the journeys that Nelson Mandela has been through and understanding how Nelson Mandela's story is profoundly linked to South Africa's story."

For Mauritanian Faty Sow, who wandered through the exhibition with her husband, Mandela keeps African dreams alive.

Sow said what Mandela stands for is immense. It's not only his personality, but also his image as a father, as standing for liberty. It's about everything for her. 

The exhibition looks at Mandela's transformation into a hero and icon. But it also explores his weaknesses - like his tendency to be autocratic and his slowness with which he reacted to South Africa AIDS threat. Clavel said that it also traces France's own evolution in its relations with South Africa.

"France at one stage was doing business with the apartheid government, regarding arms, for instance. And when France was not totally against the apartheid, And also when France became a leader in the struggle against apartheid. France has been very instrumental in implementing the boycott, the economic boycott, cultural boycott against apartheid, and we know the effect of that."

For French exhibit visitor Xenian Uruty, Mandela's struggle for equality also resonates in France.

Uruty said racism is more subtle and less violent in France than it was in South Africa and, perhaps, the United States. But the path to equality is a long one here, as well.

Mandela’s health may be fading, but to many in Paris, as in South Africa, his legacy seems to be very much alive.