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‘Mandela My Life’ Is A Welcome Tribute To A Hero, But Avoids Difficult Questions

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Review: Mandela My Life, Melbourne Museum.


What is the role of commemorative exhibitions that focus on the life of a single change agent I asked myself, as I viewed Melbourne Museum’s latest blockbuster, Mandela My Life: The Official Exhibition.

The result of an international collaboration between Museums Victoria, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and IEG exhibitions, the exhibition is billed as a major international event that “will commemorate, illuminate and most importantly share Nelson Mandela’s living legacy with the world” on the centenary of his birth.

At first glance I doubted that these aims could be achieved. The tone of the exhibition could be accused of being hagiographic, given the ostensible reason for the exhibition – to celebrate the centenary of Mandela’s birth – as well as its narrative structures, which blended Mandela’s own words with the editorializing of the Mandela Foundation. This lent support to the claim that this exhibition was the “official” version of how to interpret the meaning of Mandela’s life.

Organised chronologically, the exhibition follows Mandela’s life. It begins with his birth in the Transkei region of South Africa, where he was initiated into his tribe’s traditional cultural practices and knowledge systems and attended a mission school.

The exhibition then follows him as he decides to leave his homeland for Johannesburg, where his experiences under apartheid radicalized him, leading on towards his role as a leader in the African National Congress, and his eventual imprisonment. His resilience while in prison and his leadership of the new post-apartheid South Africa led him to become the revered figure he is today.

This simple chronological narrative is given emotive force by three elements that come into play.

The first of these is the sound of Mandela’s voice at key moments. These include his famous Rivonia Trial speech in which he stated that he was prepared to die for the anti-apartheid movement.

Others are his memories of his childhood in the Transkei, his reflections on his time in prison, and his speech when he was freed, where his conciliatory approach to ending apartheid set the tone for what was to follow. Mandela’s voice guides us through the exhibition, supported by a rich display of personal photographs, letters and personal objects carefully preserved by the Mandela Foundation.

These are then contrasted with the evidence of apartheid from material borrowed or reproduced from other collections and media organisations, which provides the second element. The role of these sources is to lend authority to the human rights claim that apartheid was an unjust system – they are the evidence of what goes wrong when equality between humans is not respected.

The third element is the visitor – a visitor who already knows the end of the story and believes in its righteousness. Mandela was on the right side of history.

None of this is wrong of course. But the desire to eulogize, as often appears to be the case in this exhibition, does not allow space for questions that might allow for a fuller explication of the nature of Mandela’s legacy and its relevance beyond South Africa.

For instance, the final gallery shows a series of 16 paintings by John Myer, retelling Mandela’s life story and giving body to South African’s pride in the achievements of this extraordinary man. This could have been the moment, however, when his legacy could have been broadened out and key themes explored and thus gone beyond the outpouring of grief on his death, captured by the 95 messages of condolence, one for each year of his life – available in the penultimate gallery via a table full of telephone handsets.

Beyond the obvious answer – he was a hero who fought apartheid and won – what is it that those fighting for human rights can learn? What are the difficult questions his activism raises for those fighting on behalf of the oppressed? And, finally, are there other contexts in which his life might have meaning?

In an Australian context, some of the answers were alluded to in the speeches on opening night, which pointed to the relevance of Mandela’s activism for Australians fighting for Indigenous rights. Such speeches go some way towards explaining why the Melbourne Museum, which is aligned with human rights museums and whose First Peoples Gallery is an eloquent articulation of the need for treaty, is host to this exhibition.

But I would also argue that Mandela’s life is relevant to all of us at this particular juncture in time – a time when we need to hang on to the hope that change is both necessary and possible and that the actions of ordinary, everyday people can bring it about. This is as true for situations of unequal power relations as for other complex problems, such as what to do about climate change.

Mandela was an extraordinary man – but he was also supported by many others, both within and outside South Africa, all of whom believed in the necessity of change. Mandela is important because we need to have figures who show us that hope, resilience and leadership is still possible when those values are valued by all of us.

The exhibition does not make these points itself – but perhaps it is enough that such points can be made by those who visit it and reflect upon it. Even so, I wish there was less emphasis on the authorized, official nature of the exhibition, which, for me, closed down the potential for some really interesting discussions on the nature of change and how to achieve it.

  • Andrea Witcomb: Professor, Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies, Deakin University
  • Mandela My Life is being exhibited at the Melbourne Museum until March 3 2019.

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From The Singing To The Shooting: ‘Will Never Forget For As Long As I live’

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Oupa Moloto poses in one of the classrooms at Morris Isaacson High School where the protests started; image by Motlabana Monnakgotla

Forty-four years ago on this day, bullets tore through a peaceful school protest in South Africa ending in bloody riots and an uprising that got the world’s attention. Two of the students from the time shudder as they reflect on that cold, dark morning in June.

Forty-four years ago on this day, ‘Soweto Uprising’, South Africa’s famed student protest, led to bullets, fire and tears and an iconic photograph the world came to associate with the country’s brutal apartheid regime.

On June 16, 1976, a day etched in blood in South African history, 13-year-old school student, Hector Pieterson, was shot dead in the police firing that ensued, a moment captured for posterity by photographer Sam Nzima.

Even today, there are those who distinctly remember the coldness of that dark day, when all that the students protested was being taught in Afrikaans, a language they felt was oppressive.

Oupa Moloto, now 63, who was then a student at the Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto where it all started and who was thrown into prison after that horrific day, recalls it vividly. He thought it was going to be a peaceful protest, but it turned out to be a day filled with bullets, police dogs, burning tyres and angry students.  

Moloto had first spoken to FORBES AFRICA in 2016 when he had shared all the details. The memories of that day will never fade away.

“Finding ourselves singing in the streets as young people, challenging the government of the day, it was just excitement. The sadness that is going to remain with us and going to be indelible in our lives is when the police started shooting at young people, that is the one incident that one will never forget for as long as I live,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.

The protests started in Soweto and quickly moved to other townships in South Africa such as Alexandra and Tembisa. Towards the end of the week, the whole country was standing up against the government and everybody got involved; even adults and children in Bulwer, a small town in the KwaZulu-Natal region where Duduzile Dlamini-Ndubane was a student at Pholela High School.

Duduzile Dlamini-Ndubane in KwaZulu-Natal

She says they were told not to go to class by a group of male students on that Wednesday morning, and she was not too sure how they had received the information on the nationwide protest against teaching in the Afrikaans language.

“We made our way to the school grounds, we started singing, some students didn’t even know what was happening but nonetheless stayed with the group. We were then chased out of the school grounds and told to go back home. It was a noisy protest but no police came and there were no injuries,” remembers Dlamini-Ndubane.

Today, she is a professional nurse based in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa and Youth Day to her is a constant reminder that unity is key.

“When we unite behind a great cause, we change not only the current situation, but we make history. Youth need to unite and fight the right causes to change the world for the greater good,” she says.

Back in Soweto, Moloto says the struggle of today is an economic one for young people.

“Students are looking for economic freedom, hence #FeesMustFall; they want to get into the institute of learning without being in debt because they believe education can help them to be part of the economy of the country,” he says.

“When Hector died in 1976, he belonged to no party, he was just a student who died for all political affiliations of the time.”

However, going back to the Soweto Uprising, Moloto disagrees on how the commemoration of it has changed from then to now.

“In 1977, when we were commemorating, it was more of a unity, all political parties would gather at Regina Mundi to celebrate, today, the fight is no longer in a unified fashion. The municipalities and organizations have their own way of commemorating like AZAPO visits the Tsietsi Mashinini grave and the City of Johannesburg visits the Hector Pieterson Museum. That lack of unity is what concerns me. As long as we are not united when we commemorate, this day does not have an impact,” he says.

“When Hector died in 1976, he belonged to no party, he was just a student who died for all political affiliations of the time; we need to unify.”

After that eventful day, the liberation movements benefited because thousands of students joined political parties inside and outside of the country. June 16 was a catalyst in South Africa’s struggle for democracy, and scripted by the students in the nation’s history books.

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Heroes & Survivors

Why Palliative Care Is Also Pertinent In The Pandemic

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Eric Kabisa of the Rwanda Palliative Care & Hospice Organisation sets off with his team; image supplied

The real heroes are also palliative care providers who go out of their way for patients with chronic illnesses, like this Rwandan team of professionals that conducts home visits offering critical care to those afflicted even more during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It’s a Tuesday morning in mid-May, and the team from the Rwanda Palliative Care & Hospice Organisation (RPCHO) is preparing to visit the homes of terminally-ill patients in need of palliative or specialized medical care. The team, led by the organization’s Executive Secretary, Eric Kabisa, comprises a doctor, a nurse, a social worker and a psychologist.

For this team, their work tending to needy patients is more than just a job – it’s a deep calling.

This small team cares for over 70 patients with life-threatening illnesses; visiting them in their homes, providing medical consultation and nursing care as well as addressing some of their basic needs. They also offer counseling services to patients and care-givers.

FORBES AFRICA joins Kabisa’s team, all masked-up and ready with supplies, for the home visits. This team also includes nurse Peace Kyokunda.

The Covid-19 pandemic has no doubt disrupted the momentum of their work and though RPCHO was part of the essential services that had the green light to operate during the government-imposed lockdown in the country, Kabisa explains why the team had to temporarily stall the home visits.

“Since March 14, when the first Covid-19 case was discovered in Rwanda, we had to stop the home visits and would only do phone consultations. This is because we did not want to put our patients, most of who have very low immunity levels, at risk.”

For cases that needed urgent medical attention, Kabisa and his team would ensure an ambulance was dispatched to pick them up and rush them to hospital whatever time of day or night.

Technology was the only point of contact with the patients during the lockdown period as the team would offer counseling sessions and even guide care-givers via phone on how to handle the patients.

Sadly, the lockdown was not without casualties. Nurse Kyokunda narrates how they lost one of their patients during that period.

“One of our patients who suffered from cancer needed morphine to manage his severe pain but for two weeks, he could not access it… Even though we got him an ambulance to take him to hospital, it was too late. He died at the emergency ward,” she says, her voice laden with emotion.

As soon as the Rwandan government eased the lockdown restrictions, the palliative care team was ready to resume their duty-trips, exercising utmost precaution.

With supplies including cartons of milk and adult diapers, among other things, we set off to visit the first patient with them.

Soline Kabagwira lies silently on a mat spread out on the floor of her small living room. A combination of cervical cancer and HIV/Aids has left her scrawny and frail.

The house is quiet save for the birds chirping outside her small window and young children playing in the distance. Her own two children are up and about doing chores their mother would probably have been attending to had she been well.

On seeing Kabisa and Kyokunda, Kabagwira barely manages a faint smile and can hardly move. She welcomes us but does not allow us to take any pictures.

We are the first group of people to visit her since the lockdown.

“This pandemic robbed me of something precious; people’s company. Before, people would come to see me, talk to me and even pray for me. That would give me hope, something to look forward to. But now, it’s quite lonely, no one comes by anymore,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.

Besides the loneliness, her days are filled with thoughts of what would happen to her children after her time.

“Who will take care of them when I’m gone?” she asks, shedding silent tears.

Kabisa and Kyokunda empathize with Kabagwira and take time to counsel her. They speak words of reassurance and comfort while exuding utmost professionalism. By the time we leave, Kabagwira is calm and gently falling asleep. We leave, but with an assurance of another visit soon. (Unfortunately, FORBES AFRICA learned that Kabagwira breathed her last on June 5.)

On our trip that day in May with RPCHO, we also meet Antoinette Bayambaze, another patient suffering from cervical cancer. Since the start of the lockdown in Rwanda, her condition has been moving from bad to worse. She is unable to speak but her daughter Angeline Nyirasabimana graciously agrees to share her experience from a care-giver’s perspective.

With a family of her own to take care of, Nyirasabimana has had to find a way to juggle between being a wife, mother, businesswoman and care-giver to her terminally-ill mother. She had somewhat mastered the art of wearing each of these hats, but the Covid-19 pandemic threw her off balance.

“This period has been particularly difficult for us. With the lockdown measures, I could not go to see my mother who lives very far from me. The palliative care team also had to stop the home visits. My mother did not take our absence well as she did not understand much about the pandemic. Her condition quickly deteriorated,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.

Being far from her mother when she needed her most weighed Nyirasabimana down.

“It was tough helping my mother remotely. Taking care of a sick loved one demands physical presence. There are some situations that just cannot work with social distancing,” she says.

Apart from the distance, Nyirasabimana could not easily access pain medicine as well as supplies such as adult diapers crucial for her mother, which was a main cause for concern during the lockdown.

“It was tough helping my mother remotely. Taking care of a sick loved one demands physical presence. There are some situations that just cannot work with social distancing.”

The RPCHO does not work in isolation. In fact, the government considers it a crucial link in the palliative care chain.

Dr Francois Uwinkindi is the Director of the Cancer Diseases Unit at the Rwanda Biomedical Center. He works closely with Kabisa and his team to ensure patients with life-threatening diseases in the community get the care they need.

For many cancer patients, accessing the Butaro Cancer Center of Excellence located in northern Rwanda for treatment and drugs was an uphill task during the lockdown period, forcing the government to come up with various solutions.

“Drugs that could only be found at the Butaro Cancer Center were now available at the Rwanda Cancer Center located at the Rwanda Military Hospital in Kanombe. The government would also provide transport services for patients who needed to go for treatment at the Butaro Cancer Center,” says Uwinkindi.

The Rwanda government also explored the option of using drones to deliver drugs to cancer patients in the rural areas, saving many lives in the process.

Post Covid-19, Uwinkindi is of the opinion that technology is the way to go. “Where necessary, we should exploit ‘telehealth’ and continue with consultations via phone or video calls. This greatly reduces costs and time,” he says.

All in all, palliative care teams around the world have had to find creative ways to work around the Covid-19 pandemic to provide crucial services to patients with chronic illnesses, recognizing that palliative care is a necessity, even during a flu pandemic.

– Tesi Kaven

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Current Affairs

Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza Has Died

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This is a developing story.

Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza has died, the government of the Republic of Burundi announced in a statement that was posted on their twitter account.

“The Government of the Republic of Burundi announces with great sadness the unexpected death of His Excellency Pierre Nkurunziza, President of the Republic of Burundi, at the Karusi Fiftieth Anniversary Hospital following a cardiac arrest on June 8, 2020,”

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