The "Mandela: Struggle for Freedom" exhibit at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center celebrates the life of former South African President and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela. Photo by Elaine Hyde

A new exhibit presented by the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, "Mandela: Struggle for Freedom," shines a spotlight on the life and legacy of former South African president and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela.

The interactive exhibit, which debuts Saturday, Feb. 20 and is set to run through Sept. 12, 2021, is designed for guests 10 and up and incorporates special rooms that highlight the human rights struggle in South Africa during the apartheid era. 

"What's really cool about this, is that it is the story of apartheid with him as the centralized figure," said Sierra Wolf, communications associate at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. "You're getting this broader story of apartheid but you have an almost easy access into learning that, because you know who Mandela is. Everybody at least knows the name, at least a little bit."

Apartheid, translated as "apartness" in Afrikaans, was a system of racial segregation that lasted from 1948 until the 1990s and placed residents of South Africa into one of four categories: white/European, black/Native/Bantu, Indian/Asian and mixed race. Under apartheid, nonwhite South Africans were forced to carry documentation at all times to authorize their presence and purpose in certain locations.

The exhibit highlights moments such as the Sharpeville massacre on March 21, 1960 — an incident in which police fired on a crowd of peaceful protestors, killing 69 and wounding hundreds. This event sparked the anti-apartheid movement and led to key moments for which Mandela is remembered, such as the burning of his passport as a symbolic protest against apartheid.

Among the museum's artifacts and displays are a voting ballot and ballot box from the first elections following Mandela's release, the photograph that inspired the uprising against apartheid and the Freedom Charter that led to Mandela's arrest for treason. Visitors can also examine a life-sized replica of the cell Mandela inhabited for 27 years until his liberation on Feb. 11, 1990.

Marcy Larson, the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center's vice president of marketing and business development, said the exhibit is important for many reasons, including Americans' lack of education on the subject.

"It doesn't appear that there is widespread knowledge about the apartheid regime and the 50 years that it took to resist it and move South Africa to a democratic society, and there's still work to be done," she said. "Two, there are commonalities. We do face inequities amongst the races here in the United States. There are not apartheid laws but there are things that have been done throughout the years that represent the legacy of slavery and unequal opportunity. So, there are parallels. 
I think the final message is that the way to create change is through social movement and through action, and that everyone has a voice, and everyone can make difference," she added. "Ultimately it was a youth movement that really got Mandela released and and moved South Africa to democracy so I think there's hope through action and that's the primary message that I want people to take away."

The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, which operates on the founding principle of "Remember the Past, Transform the Future," aims to preserve the legacy of the Holocaust by honoring the lives of its victims and educating the public on the importance of human rights and putting an end to genocide.

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