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South Africa Opens New Mandela Exhibit

From Left: Mandla Mandela, grandson of former president Nelson Mandela, Graca Machel, wife of Mandela, and president Jacob Zuma attend the opening of the revamped Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg, Nov. 18, 2013.
From Left: Mandla Mandela, grandson of former president Nelson Mandela, Graca Machel, wife of Mandela, and president Jacob Zuma attend the opening of the revamped Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg, Nov. 18, 2013.
Anita Powell
Officials in South Africa have opened the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg, just 11 days before the South Africa premiere of a Hollywood film based on the life of the anti-apartheid icon.  Mandela is now 95 and homebound because of health problems, but officials say he has much to teach his nation, and the world.  

The Nelson Mandela Foundation unveiled the new exhibit of Mandela’s life to a veritable who’s who of South Africa.  

Current President Jacob Zuma lauded the man who overturned South Africa’s apartheid government and became the first black president in 1994.  Top politicians and diplomats praised him; singers belted out tunes in his honor; and members of Mandela’s family said they were touched by the attention.

The airy, modern new space presents a variety of artifacts, from the impressive to the banal, the official to the personal.  Photos show Mandela at most stages of his life - from a uniformed schoolboy to a confident young lawyer, from longtime prisoner to president.

Visitors may also learn a few intimate details about the man who has been so extensively written about.  

For example, after his release from prison, where he spent 27 years for his opposition to apartheid, he not only spoke optimistically, he literally doused himself in optimism.  One of the pieces on exhibit is a half-used bottle of CK One cologne - a fitting choice, considering the fresh, citrusy scent was revolutionary, in that it was one of the most successful unisex scents ever.  

Visitors will see a replica of his immaculately neat office, pore over letters he wrote in his tiny, dense handwriting, and gaze upon his Nobel Peace Prize, which he won in 1993 for bringing an end to the racist system of government.

But perhaps what is more interesting is kept underground at the center, thousands upon thousands of documents, written by and about Mandela and this critical period of South African history.  Conservationists and researchers are working constantly to save these documents and include them in the historical record.

During the ceremony, Mandela’s grandson Mandla praised the effort.

“For me particularly as a member of the family, and many members of the family, this is an emotional moment for us, because we are seeing the preservation of my grandfather’s legacy for future generations," he said. "For me, in person, my grandfather has always been the magnet, the unifying factor around us as a family, and it is one thing for me that today, we see people from all walks of life unifying, coming together in his honor, in the realization of his legacy."

President Zuma praised the man who he followed and admired as an aspiring politician.  Several of the photos of Mandela on display show in the background a young, bearded and surprisingly hirsute Zuma, who today is bald.

Zuma said Mandela taught his nation a valuable lesson.  Like many South Africans, Zuma referred to Mandela by his clan name, Madiba.  

“It is in Tata Madiba that the humanist value of Ubuntu, which teach us that ‘I am because you are,’ continue to find expression," he said. "It was Tata Madiba who led us in the important program of reconciliation and reaching out to one another. It is from him and his generation that we were reminded once more that; what unites us far outweighs that which divides us; that humanity is one and that our destiny is linked."

Centre of Memory Director Sello Hatang says he hopes the new center and upcoming film will show Mandela is a complicated man.  He said the movie managed to capture that well.

“Madiba is a difficult character, he is complex.  And they managed to capture his complexity," he said. "And we believe that the movie will at least open other windows into the life and times of Nelson Mandela, which were never opened before.  And this includes his flaws, because one of the things we tend to do is to want to treat Madiba as a deity, that he is perfect, that he has no flaws.  And here is a man who actually demonstrates that he also has flaws, and he helps us realize that we can also be human through, we can do extraordinary things being just us, human beings."

The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory is free to the public, but is only open by appointment.

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