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Holocaust Museum Houston Is Hosting the U.S. Premiere of

Mandela: Struggle for Freedom

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Photograph by Graeme Williams, courtesy of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

HMH Mandela Exhibit Video
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HMH Mandela Exhibit 
With Dr. Kelly J. Zúñiga,  CEO of HMH

Running through to January 3, 2021, the American debut of Mandela: Struggle for Freedom is currently on view at the Lester and Sue Smith Campus of the Holocaust Museum Houston (HMH). The powerful multi-media presentation invites visitors to witness Nelson Mandela’s long struggle against apartheid, bringing the effort full circle by highlighting its relevance to many of today’s issues.

Nelson Mandela’s courageous efforts to emancipate South Africa from white minority rule were ultimately successful, but not before he suffered numerous hardships. Arrested and jailed for his beliefs, Mandela spent 27 years in prison before being released. His continued fight against apartheid resulted in its abolition in 1994, the same year he became the first black president of South Africa. His determination also resulted in his winning the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with then South African President F.W. de  Klerk.

UWC-Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives, photograph by Eli Weinberg

Photograph by Graeme Williams, courtesy of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Photograph by Graeme Williams, courtesy of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

The exhibit allows visitors to experience the conditions Mandela and black South Africans were subjected to daily through various features:

Five zones-Apartheid, Defiance, Repression, Mobilization, and Freedom, includes interactive exhibits, artifacts, oral histories, videos, and art. Each of its five zones corresponds with a color of the South African flag, beginning with the stark black-and-white of apartheid and ending with the full color of freedom.

Wall of laws is a 16-foot-high wall covered with signs and laws that were based solely on skin color and dictated the way people were to live. The number and diversity of the laws are evidence that apartheid was used for social segregation, labor exploitation, and to control every aspect of life.

The scene of young Mandela’s famous first TV interview in a clandestine apartment, in 1961, is recreated in front of the actual film footage of the interview. Because freedom fighters had to remain underground, it features a covert area with hidden objects, peepholes, and coded phone messages.  

A tiny prison cell replicates the eight-foot by seven-foot cell in which Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. Upon entering, the walls come alive with silhouettes of Mandela moving about in his daily routine. On view are tools of hard labor, censored letters, the cell’s meagre contents, and evidence of a little-known plot for Mandela’s escape. 

Tanks against trash-can lids combines music, rhythmic toyi-toyi dance, and rich shweshwe fabrics to enliven the story of action and uprising. As a massive tank-like truck emerges from one wall, visitors can grab a trash-can lid as their only protection, recreating the experience of the students in the Soweto uprising. 

On view as well are original artifacts, including a battered ballot box used in the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, a letter in Mandela’s own hand sent from prison to a leader of anti-apartheid mobilization, a notepad Mandela used during negotiations for democracy, and a message he wrote in the Canadian Senate during a visit there shortly after his release from prison in 1990. Because poster-making was a major component of South African resistance, visitors can create their own posters using a digital touchscreen table. Once a poster is done, it can be projected among others on display.

Photograph by Jessica Sigurdson, courtesy of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights
Photograph by Jessica Sigurdson, courtesy of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

“We’ve waited nearly two years to host this extraordinary exhibition,” said Dr. Kelly J. Zúñiga, CEO of HMH. “The fight for social justice and human rights is not over, as witnessed from recent unrest in the United States and around the world. While many young people have never heard of apartheid, the movement behind Mandela spread across nations. This exhibition shares an important piece of global human rights history, so its lessons can reverberate today with a new generation.” 


By allowing the public to witness life in a manner similar to that of Nelson Mandela and other black South Africans through inter-active exhibits and recreations, an emotional bond is forged between the visitor and those who actually lived life under these brutal conditions. In so doing, Mandela: Struggle for Freedom creates an unforgettable and moving experience that should not be missed.

Developed by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) (Winnipeg, Canada) in partnership with the Apartheid Museum (Johannesburg, South Africa), the Houston exhibit is sponsored by Wells Fargo. For more information, please visit

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