A poignant exhibit

2013-12-10 00:00

THE death of former president Nelson Mandela has given the Freedom Exhibition at the KwaZulu-Natal Museum an added poignancy.

Images of Mandela can be seen at the very end of the exhibit, which shows the struggle for freedom in the province from the days of the San Bushmen to the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994.

The exhibition also offers visitors to the museum in Jabu Ndlovu Street, Pietermaritzburg, the chance to see key areas in the struggle.

These include: the Manaye Hall heritage site in Imbali, where Mandela made his last speech on March 25, 1961 shortly before his arrest; and the Mandela Capture Site, near Howick, where the stunning sculpture created by artist Marco Cianfanelli has become a focal point for mourners.

The Freedom Exhibition — which has been funded by the Department of Arts and Culture and the National Lottery Distribution Fund — is the first exhibition at the museum to be presented in both English and Zulu.

Curated by Bridgette Johnson, the deputy director of exhibitions, “Freedom: A local history of the struggle for racial equality and freedom in South Africa”, took about three years of research, much of it done by Peter Croeser, and then two years of hard work by Johnson and the staff to put together.

“It’s been on the cards for a long time,” she said. “We wanted to show the freedom struggle on a local level … to make it relevant to local people.”

During the exhibition, visitors travel thousands of years through the history of KwaZulu-Natal, starting with the struggles of the San Bushmen against Nguni farmers and later white farmers.

This battle is beautifully illustrated in an interactive video presentation in which bushmen paintings have been animated.

There is also a look at the arrival of the Voortrekkers in KwaZulu-Natal and their impact on the lives of the local population. Among the exhibits is a model of a Voortrekker wagon making its precarious way down World’s View.

Another panel offers insight into the struggles of the Griqua people, the Anglo-Zulu War and the Anglo-Boer Wars. The latter includes photos from the museum’s special collection and library, which are rarely seen by the public.

“It was important for me to give people the chance to access these special collections,” Johnson said of her decision to create a digital photo album of Boer War images.

There are also panels devoted to Edendale and the Kholwa people, to Bishop Colenso, Sir Theophilus Shepstone, King Cetshwayo, Chief Langalibalele and the Hlubi Resistance of 1873 and the Bhambatha Rebellion.

“It was hard to cut down, without altering the story,” Johnson admits. “… and then of course this is the first exhibition which tells the story in Zulu.”

One of the most striking elements in the exhibition is a full-sized railway carriage dating from the period in which Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was thrown from his first-class carriage at the Pietermaritzburg Railway Station.

Inside the carriage, visitors can sit and watch a video that includes excerpts from Lord Richard Attenborough’s 1982 biographical film Gandhi, interviews with his granddaughter, the peace activist Ela Gandhi, and the late Dasarath Bundhoo, who helped raise the profile of Gandhi’s links to the city.

There is also a replica of a Sobantu house, which helps illustrate the effect of the 1913 Land Act and the Beerhall Riots of 1959, which are showcased in an edition of The Witness and spoken about on radio.

The museum staff have also cleverly made posters of the various bits of apartheid legislation and placed them opposite the story of heroism of the volunteer black soldiers who lost their lives when the SS Mendi sank off the Isle of Wight in 1917. A total of 646 people, many of them from Edendale, lost their lives.

One of the most poignant displays looks at the inequalities of Bantu education and the effect this had on the lives of many people. The display is set up as a classroom with old-fashioned wooden desks — the kind that you could lift up and store items in.

The video display is a “blackboard” and on it residents of the greater Pietermaritzburg area share their stories. Some reveal the tragedy of wasted potential, while others celebrate overcoming the challenges faced by their less than satisfactory education. Each desk is linked to one of the participants and contains items related to their stories.

“We went into the community to get the stories of real people who had to deal with Bantu education and forced removals,” Johnson said. “It was very emotional, both for our staff and for those involved.”

On the rear wall of the display is a giant black and white photo of a crowded classroom taken just last year in a school near the city. “It shows that in some areas things haven’t changed,” said Johnson sombrely.

Next to this display is a prison cell, behind which are stories about those who were banned, disappeared and imprisoned during apartheid.

There are also panels devoted to the Defiance campaign and the Freedom Charter and the haunting struggle songs, which are played in this area, were recorded by the museum staff.

Just before the exhibition ends in the triumph of the 1994 elections, visitors will see two very contrasting displays.

On the left-hand side are panels and an interactive audio-visual offering dedicated to the Seven Days War in 1990 that left deep wounds in the Midlands.

Those involved, both from the Inkatha Freedom Party and the United Democratic Front factions, as well as organisations and people caught up in the fighting share their stories.

They include Dr Bonginkosi Emmanuel “Blade” Nzimande; Inkosi Nsikayezwe Zondi, from KwaMapuza; MaNdlovu Mncibi, a businesswoman; David Ntombela, a leader in the IFP; Tim Smith, a priest from Elandskop; and Joan Kerchhoff, a founding member of Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness (Pacsa).

There are also weapons on show, similar to those used in the conflict.

“People who were caught up in the war are still suffering today,” said Johnson. “Many lost their homes and possessions, their businesses and family.”

Opposite the Seven Days War exhibit is a full-size minibus taxi, which was brought into the museum in four pieces and reassembled. “It was donated to us by the Taxi Scrapping Association,” Johnson said, “and it looked like it had rolled down a hill a few times … but somehow it was brought back to life.”

Inside the taxi is a television that screens a virtual tour of important places in and around Pietermaritzburg, including the Alan Paton Centre, The Old Prison, the Harry Gwala Stadium and the previously mentioned Manaye Hall and Nelson Mandela Capture Site, which visitors are encouraged to go along and see for themselves.

“This is the first phase of the exhibition,” Johnson said, “the second phase will celebrate 20 years of democracy in 2014. It will be proudly South African!”

She added that the KZN Museum was hoping to open the second phase in May next year.

To accompany the exhibition, the Lottery has helped pay for a book that will be available free to pupils to download. It will also be on sale for visitors.

• The KwaZulu-Natal Museum is open Monday to Friday from 8.15 am to 4.30 pm, on Saturday from 9 am to 4 pm and on Sunday from 10 am to 3 pm.

Admission is R10 for adults, R2,50 for children aged four to 17 years old and free for pensioners and toddlers.

Inquiries: 033 345 1404.

• arts@witness.co.za

EVER wondered who the people behind the names of Pietermaritzburg’s streets are? Well, a visit to the KwaZulu-Natal Museum will offer you a glimpse at the lives of these struggle icons.

A simple touch screen display shows the locations of the streets and then gives you an image of the person it is named after and their history.

Among those who you can learn more about is Jabulile Florence Ndlovu, for whom Jabu Ndlovu Street, is named.

A respected unionist, she became the target of Inkatha vigilantes and, in 1987, her home was attacked. She, her husband and her eldest daughter were shot and their home was set alight. Ndlovu died 10 days later as a result of her wounds.

There is also a section devoted to Bessie Head, for whom the Bessie Head Library in the centre of the city is named.

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