Mandela fever hits France

2013-05-30 08:59

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A major exhibition on the life of former president Nelson Mandela opened in Paris last night as part of the South African season in France. Charl Blignaut was there – and wonders if we’re not milking the icon to death

We should know by now Nelson Mandela no longer belongs to South Africa.

His face is plastered across Paris this week for an exhibition that opened last night as part of the South African Season in France. The world has claimed Mandela as its own.

At a sumptuous opening at the imposing city hall – the Hôtel de Ville, adorned in gold and chandeliers – Luvuyo Mandela received the keys to the city on behalf of his great grandfather.

He and the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, opened the exhibition Nelson Mandela: From Prisoner to President.

It had been air freighted from the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg at enormous cost and will be open to the public until July. It will no doubt prove a hit, as it has done back home.

It is Mandela that anchors the Paris festivities.

“He is the impulse of the season,” says French Commissioner General Laurent Clavel.

“I will give you a little example. A major youth magazine here, Phosphore, ran a survey two months ago on what international figure the French youth like most. Of all the stars in the world Mandela came first. And these are 14 to 21-year-olds. They have not lived through that history.

“In this world today a selfless attitude is not common,” says Clavel.

The Minister of Arts and Culture Paul Mashatile also made no bones about the selection of Mandela in an interview with City Press.

“We will continue to use him appropriately to serve the people of South Africa. We will encourage France to celebrate Nelson Mandela Day.”

Mandela has moved beyond icon. He’s being beatified. And many people working on the French season are nervous the man is being oversold.

Which is why the most important part of the exhibition – which traces every phase in the life of Mandela – is probably the very last panel.

It reflects on his flaws. The panels accuse Mandela of being too authoritarian at times, of not doing enough to activate against HIV and Aids, of leaving the country to be run by his deputies during the time of the controversial arms deal and of the failure of the RDP programme to provide houses.

“Mandela has never been shy to acknowledge his weaknesses,” said curator Christopher Till.

Yet, ironically, it is precisely Mandela’s weaknesses that have appealed to normal people and elevated him to the position of near-saint.

Curiously, the exhibition does not reflect on Mandela having let white South Africa off too lightly at the TRC. It instead celebrates Johnny Clegg at a concert in Frankfurt where Mandela joined him on stage, it euphorically represents Mandela at the Rugby World Cup celebrating with Francois Pienaar, it presents a huge photo of Mandela visiting Afrikaner “homeland” Orania and hugging Betsy Verwoerd.

And that’s the problem with brand Mandela.

It negates the struggles of other ANC members and glosses over the very real sense of injustice about the forced forging of the rainbow nation.

Yet it feels it must, by its nature, promote the notion of negotiation and reconciliation. That’s what the world wants to buy into. The exhibition also uncomfortably pushes Mandela’s relationship with France to the foreground.

In the process it traces, in minute and accessible detail, the history of the struggle and offers little-seen histories like that of Dulcie September.

Outside the city hall stands a sculptural replica of Mandela’s cell on Robben Island. VIP visitors at the exhibition arrive and stand in it and allow the claustrophobia to sink in – yet only slightly.

The cell is made of a metal grid with sunlight streaming in and there’s no door to incarcerate them.

French VIPs moved through the exhibition glassy-eyed and fawning. Everyone laughed when the translator failed to pronounce Rolihlahla.

Yet this is the product Europe wants to see – and despite a dubious colonial history in Africa, France wants to believe it helped end apartheid.

Mandela said so, after all.[gallery ids="54588,54584,54583"]

“Look,” says the exhibition’s co-curator Melanie Potenza, “one needs to try not to look at Mandela through the jaded eyes of South Africans. People here actually know very little about him and this is a brilliant introduction. I have tried staging exhibitions about Oliver Tambo but there’s just not the same kind of interest. Mandela provides, like no-one else, a platform to cover a century of South African history to a captive audience.”

» Blignaut’s trip to Paris was paid for by the National Arts Council

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