Fight against apartheid a story written by many more than Nelson Mandela, new exhibit proves

Nelson Mandela is the "main character" in a new Canadian Museum for Human Rights exhibit, debuting Thursday, which portrays the narrative arc of the anti-apartheid's leader life — but his story intersects with other tales of resistance and resilience in the exhibit.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights exhibit shares tales from those who joined the anti-apartheid crusade

A towering five-metre 'wall of laws' is covered with signs and laws that dictated how people lived in South Africa under apartheid. The installation is part of a new Nelson Mandela exhibit on display at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. (Aaron Cohen/Canadian Museum for Human Rights)

Nelson Mandela's fight against apartheid was never his battle alone.

He is indeed the "main character" in a new Canadian Museum for Human Rights exhibit, debuting Thursday, which portrays the narrative arc of the anti-apartheid's leader life — but his story intersects with other tales of resistance and resilience in the exhibit at the Winnipeg museum.

There are stories of brave freedom fighters who went underground to evade capture, children who shielded themselves in the face of armoured vehicles with the lids of trash cans and the Canadians an ocean away who campaigned for sanctions against the South African government and its system of institutionalized racial segregation.

Each of these stories are portrayed in the new Mandela: Struggle for Freedom exhibition, which media toured before an opening event at 7 p.m. CT Thursday.

"People tend to focus on Mandela, but the exhibit is also about the fact that many men and women joined in the struggle," said Isabelle Masson, lead curator at CMHR. "This struggle had an international component and some Canadians were involved." 

The exhibit is split up into five sections, titled Apartheid, Defiance, Repression, Mobilization and Freedom. (Jessica Sigurdson/Canadian Museum for Human Rights)

In a story divided into five chapters, the exhibit begins with the bleakness of apartheid, represented in a dearth of colour and a hulking five-metre wall plastered in laws that codified racial segregation in South Africa for decades.

Around the corner from the imposing installation, visitors are introduced to Mandela — the boxer, the lawyer, the strapping 19-year-old wearing his first suit.

Those were his early identities before he became an anti-apartheid activist — accused of treason and forced into hiding while his government actively used violence against its citizens — and, decades later, South Africa's first black president.

While underground, Mandela appeared to the world in a famous 1961 TV interview from a hidden location.

It's one of several iconic moments in Mandela's journey recreated in the exhibit.

The exhibit includes a re-creation of the jail cell that Nelson Mandela lived in for 17 of his 28 years in prison. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Visitors are encouraged to imagine themselves in the room, while a video of the actual interview plays in the background.

People can also flip through a copy of Mandela's passport and explore the hidden nooks in the clandestine room where demonstrators met in secret.

"Instead of putting this behind a velvet rope, we've taken those things away and really allowed our visitors to go into this space," said Rob Vincent, CMHR's manager of design and production. 

The tiny concrete jail cell where Mandela spent 17 years, of his total 28 in prison, and continued advocating for change, is depicted as well. On its walls is a video showing a silhouette of Mandela, walking and eating. The video changes once a person steps into the jail.

The story of Dolana Mogadime's mother, a South African-Canadian anti-apartheid activist, is presented in the exhibit through a video recording. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Further down, a replica of an armoured vehicle stands in contrast with garbage cans, the shields that young South African children held up in defiance against government brutality. 

Visitors can join the demonstration by creating virtual posters projected onto the wall and learn about the contribution of Canadians like Caroline Goodie Mogadime, a South African-Canadian teacher who became an anti-apartheid activist.

Her daughter, Dolana Mogadime, an associate professor at Brock University in Ontario, was moved to see her mother represented when she visited the museum Thursday.

After arriving in Canada in the early 1970s, Caroline Goodie Mogadime was part of the movement to boycott companies that benefited from South African policies. She also became a sought-after public speaker.

"What happened to some of us when we came here is that we carried the struggle from our own country and were part of that whole movement of change," Dolana said.

"Along with the prime ministers and the dignitaries, [Canada's former ambassador to the United Nations] Stephen Lewis and [former prime minister] Joe Clark and all these important people, were everyday people."

Visitors can make posters to join the anti-apartheid movement at the exhibit, which will be projected onto the wall. (Aaron Cohen/Canadian Museum for Human Rights)

The final section of the exhibit, titled Freedom, presents the successes of the movement against the backdrop of the struggles that persist in South Africa and Canada, like racism. 

Masson hopes people will leave the exhibit feeling inspired. 

Curator witnessed apartheid first-hand

"I hope that the exhibit will trigger some reflection and questions, and that there will be those connections made to current human rights struggles," she said.

She was living in South Africa in 1994 at the time of the country's first democratic election, in which Mandela was elected president — four years after his release from jail.

She never expected to tell the story of Mandela's fight for freedom to the world on such a grand scale. 

"At best, I'd imagine writing a book or an article," she said, chuckling. "Creating an exhibition is something I could never imagine being part of."

The temporary exhibition officially opens to the public on June 8, and will run until early 2019.


Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. He previously reported on a bit of everything for newspapers. You can reach him at