“Overcoming poverty is not an act of charity, it is an act of justice”, said Nelson Mandela in a quote that closes ‘Mandela: The Official Exhibition” on London’s southbank. He went on to explain how poverty can be overcome: “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural, it is man-made and it can be eradicated by the actions of human beings”.
I kept returning to this quote while viewing Chiwetel Ejiofor’s, ‘The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind‘, a few hours later. The film tells the true story of William Kamkwamba, a Malawian boy who rescues his family from starvation after rapacious tea estate bosses cut down trees that protect local villagers’ farms from flooding.
Mandela’s words, of course, were intended to rebellion, encouraging the South African working class to overthrow apartheid and take power away from the privileged minority that oppressed them. The subtitle of the exhibition, which has been curated by one of Mandela’s children, is ‘A Revolutionary Experience’, and it brings Mandela’s socialist beliefs to the forefront of his biography. Indeed, we learn that Mandela became a communist in his early twenties and remained so for the rest of his life. There is moving footage of his tribute to Chris Hani, the Communist Party of South Africa leader, following his 1993 assassination.
The exhibition is also clear that Mandela believed that overcoming the extreme oppression of apartheid required armed resistance. That is why he co-founded ‘Spear of the Nation’, the African National Congress’ military wing in 1961. Perhaps more surprising for many visitors will be to read Mandela re-affirming the need for violent struggle even after his release from Robben Island prison thirty years later. It was a further two years before the ANC finally laid down its arms.
In ‘The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind’, however, the “actions of human beings” that overcome poverty centre on a teenage boy utilising a basic knowledge of physics and engineering to provide electricity for one village. His father, played by Ejiofor, does join other men from the village in protest against a government that has ignored their descent into famine, but these actions are portrayed as futile. The village chief who has the temerity to speak out publicly is brutally beaten.
It is not quite as much of a juxtaposition as it may seem, because both ‘Mandela: the official exhibition’ and ‘The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind’ are very human and uplifting real-life stories.
From the opening scenes of ‘The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind’ we see that William is a talented fixer of all things electronic. Elders bring their faulty radio sets to him and he wins the respect of older boys by squeezing just enough juice out of some ageing batteries to enable them to listen to a big football match. It is hardly ruining the suspense to reveal that he later turns his talents to building a DIY wind turbine, hooking up a junkyard pump to a car battery, wired to a bike and some blades fashioned from plastic piping.
All this is achieved by a boy who has enjoyed only a smattering of formal education, but manages to turn his parents’ inability to pay his school fees to his advantage – spending all day in the library learning directly from battered old textbooks. It is a powerful true story, but there have been plenty of those which gained heavy-handed Hollywood treatment and disappointed on the big screen. Ejiofor, in his directorial debut, makes no such mistakes. The despair and tension as William’s previously happy family begins to crack under the strain of famine seems very real, as are the moments of euphoria and tenderness. We returned from the cinema to our comfortable first-world home uplifted and enriched.
In contrast, despite having even more compelling material to work from – indeed, probably the most inspiring story of courage, conviction and sheer human decency in the modern age – ‘Mandela: the official exhibition’ somewhat underwhelmed.
There is some great stuff in it, make no mistake, including a wonderful little room on how British artists opposed apartheid. It reminded me that we don’t always get it wrong on this richly endowed little island and the interviews with Benjamin Zephania, Neneh Cherry and Jerry Dammers are particularly well worth watching.
Moreover, it is impossible to have an exhibition about Nelson Mandela that doesn’t get your anger rising, or bring a tear to your eye, particularly when reading the achingly loving letters he wrote to the children he was not permitted to see for sixteen years, even on the one annual family visit permitted to him. But, overall, it was all a bit loose. Like reading a biography comprised of disparate Tweets, Instagram posts and the odd YouTube video.
Maybe it is just an exhibition aimed at a generation brought up on social media. It certainly attracted a fairly young audience. But a previous exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall last summer was much better, in my view, and charted a clearer course through Mandela’s life.
In any case, from a day of learning about African heroes it was a film about a young Malawian boy that stole the markontour prize for weekend cultural treats. Being a great humanist, as well as a revolutionary strategist, one has to guess that Nelson Mandela would also have enjoyed the story of William Kamkwamba’s personal struggle against adversity, while always keeping his eye on the bigger prize of comprehensive, society-wide emancipation.