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October 30, 2009

SPEECH: Professor Kader Asmal

The Nelson Mandela Museum was established on the 11 February 2000, almost a decade ago. In this time we have travelled a long road towards creating a museum that aptly honours the legacy, values and principles of Nelson Mandela – in the area where he was born and raised, and has chosen to retire.

Today we launch a new exhibition about Mr Mandela. This exhibition presents a new look at Mr Mandela. It shows fresh images and embraces multimedia concepts. The footage, rare photographs, three dimensional objects, notes in Mr Mandela’s handwriting, silk screens and historic texts…these represent a shift in our approach to exhibitions and narratives. They set a new standard by which our future exhibitions will be judged.

This exhibition strips back the layers of Mr Mandela’s life to reveal him as a comrade, leader, prisoner, negotiator, and finally, a statesman. It shows the human values that underpin the man. This was a man not afraid of debate, or criticism; a man who was tuned into politics by LISTENING, listening to the elders relating stories of heroism in the context of the colonial wars.

Nelson Mandela is a man brave enough to be part of a collective, but to be an individual too… A man who was not afraid of making mistakes, not afraid of change, nor of changing direction should the situation require.

While in prison, when he began speaking to representatives of the apartheid regime, some elements in South Africa called him a ‘sellout’. Nevertheless, Mr Mandela continued on the road he believed would best serve the interests of ALL South Africans. He understood where these elements were coming from, but was powerful enough in his self-belief to move forward with reconciliation as the end goal.

This exhibition that you will view today is like a map of Mr Mandela’s life, the crossroads he reached and the directions he took. The ‘chapters’ of the exhibition reveal the routes he chose, and the consequences of his decisions.

One of his enduring strengths as a leader was his ability to do what he believed was right, though not necessarily popular.

Perhaps this strength was largely due to his upbringing, here, in the Eastern Cape, at the knee of a Regent who exercised his authority in a traditional system that emphasised collective decision-making. There was also a dichotomy at play here, in that he was raised a Christian and schooled at a Mission Station.

It was here, in the area immediately surrounding Mthatha, that this extraordinary man was forged. And it is fitting, therefore, that this exhibition is housed at the Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha.

When Mr Mandela was elected President of the new democratic Republic of South Africa he began receiving gifts from people, governments and institutions. Mandela’s footprints left imprints all over the world, and the world wanted to acknowledge his contribution.

He accepted the gifts on condition that he would donate them to the people, and that they would be displayed near his home village of Qunu. Instead of building a new space to house the collection, it was decided to create the multi-faceted Nelson Mandela Museum at Qunu and in Mthatha.

Ten years to the day after his release on 11 February 1990, the Nelson Mandela Museum opened its doors. Mr Mandela insisted it was not just to be a static collection and tribute to him, but a living memorial to his values and vision. It was to inspire and enrich all who visited it, and should share the heritage and resources linked to him.

His gift is a living one, one that embodies his commitment to the principles of human rights, freedom, peace and democracy. This constantly evolving legacy is housed in the Nelson Mandela Museum, where his footprints are traced from his birthplace of Mveso, to his childhood home in Qunu and finally to the Bhunga building in Mthatha.

It is a landmark building with a history as complex as that of Mandela himself. Built in 1930, it has seen successive political organisations come and go, from the colonials to the Transkei Parliament that sat here during apartheid, presided over by members of Mandela’s clan. It is only fitting that it now not only houses the physical artefacts of Mandela’s life, but also serves as a centre of learning, a place where Mandela’s philosophy is spoken of and passed on to all who visit.

We always knew that developing this institution would involve a phased approach. Plans were dependent on funding, on infrastructure, on adequate staffing…on all sorts of things that resulted, sadly, in delays in implementing all the ambitious plans. Previous councils had to make do with what was available.

The Museum Council that I have led decided to take matters to a completely different level, considering we were on the eve of the Museum’s first decade. We aimed to diversify our audience and increase the Museum’s footprint, and, of vital importance, present new exhibitions and displays.

The council adopted a programme of renewal in which we focused on issues such as good governance. It has borne results as this year we achieved an unqualified audit. Well done to everyone involved. Our oversight and governance have proved effective.

We also embarked on a programme of renewal relating to the buildings and infrastructure. Today we are pleased to report that we have been told that the Department of Arts and Culture has set aside a multimillion rand fund to facilitate this process, starting with emergency work on further upgrading our security, health and safety.

We decided it was essential to renew our displays, and this exhibition, the second permanent display in the history of the Museum, delivers on that commitment. We continue to work on improving the curatorial and storage facilities for the collections, diversifying audiences and increasing the Museum’s footprint.

In 2008 we held a year-long festival celebrating 90 years of Mr Mandela’s life, when we announced the programme of renewal. We opened two new exhibitions, held a colloquium on Mr Mandela, hosted an artist in residence programme, and announced a plan to collect all books in all languages by and about Mr Mandela to house right here in Mthatha.

All of these ambitious plans are beginning to bear fruit. This extraordinary exhibition that we’re here to launch today is the product of a transformation grant from the Department of Arts and Culture – our major funder – combined with other funding identified by Council to augment the transformation of this historic space.

Over the past few months we have left no stone unturned in ensuring that our infrastructure and staff are ready and able to keep for posterity these treasures associated with Mr Mandela’s life.

The Museum has upgraded its storage facilities. We have prioritised the staffing capacity, and in the new financial year, will appoint curatorial staff. We’ve been assisted in this regard by our partner in the US, the Michigan State University Museum, which has developed an annual fellowship programme that allows a senior student of curatorship, museum studies, and public history to work in the Nelson Mandela Museum for a period of time as part of their graduate programme.

Much has been done; a lot more needs to be done. We are in a recession period. Outputs require resources. We appeal to people and entities of goodwill to dig deep and give generously to ensure that the Museum continues to grow from strength to strength.

We invite people to support the building renewal campaign so that we can restore this historic building. We ask you to support the Museum’s library. We’d like to expand our outreach to schools and learning institutions. Ideally, we hope to change our exhibitions at least every two years. You can do this by becoming a friend of the Museum or a benefactor of the Museum.

The present exhibition comes in good time for the Museum’s 10th anniversary in February 2010, and in good time for the 2010 World Cup.

The strength of the exhibition is the way it attempts to provide a layered glimpse of Mr Mandela in all his various guises and reincarnations. We hope that you will explore this notion and come out with the feeling that perhaps you have understood a little more about one of the world’s most famous men.

On behalf of my outgoing council, the Museum and the arts and culture sector, I’d like to declare this exhibition open.

This is my last function as Chairperson of the council. I therefore wish the Museum and staff well for the future.

Thank you.

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