Nelson Mandela exhibit opens at Illinois Holocaust Museum

SKOKIE (WLS) -- Nelson Mandela was released from prison 31 years ago, this month. He had spent 27 years behind bars, most of them in a seven-by-eight-foot cell. Today, a new exhibit about Mandela is opening at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.

"The exhibition is divided into five zones: apartheid, defiance, repression, mobilization, and, ultimately, freedom," said chief curator Arielle Weininger. "It covers both the larger story of the anti-apartheid struggle and then one of its main characters, Nelson Mandela."

Taking an exhaustive look from the political inception of apartheid through Mandela's 27 years in prison all the way to his democratic election as president, the exhibit gives insight into one of the most remarkable political leaders of the 20th century.

One of the museum's board members, John Davis, was the first journalist to interview Nelson Mandela after his release from prison in 1990. Davis was working for CBS Chicago at the time, but pitched himself to be in South Africa to cover Mandela's release. Once there, he befriended a bellman at his Johannesburg hotel, who happened to be a member of the African National Congress.

"He lived in Soweto; his name was Jacob. And, diminutive, little guy," Davis said. "But Jacob gave me a date-certain, and almost a time-certain, a Sunday. 'February 11, 1990, the old man is getting out,' he said. 'And so, you must get down to Cape Town.'"

Davis followed the lead and, sure enough, Jacob's information was good. Once in South African, while watching Mandela walk toward the mayor's office, Davis again saw Jacob. The bellman pulled him into the lobby to meet Mandela personally.

"I came full face with Nelson Mandela just as he had finished his full speech on the balcony right there," Davis said. "I became a little emotional, he became emotional, so we embraced each other."

Hear the full story of Davis's encounter with Nelson Mandela in the video below:

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John Davis, now a board member for the Illinois Holocaust Museum, was the first journalist to interview Nelson Mandela after his release from prison in 1990.

Davis said that, over a 40 year career in journalism, meeting and interview Mandela was one of the highlights. He would then interview him several more times over the following decade.

"He struggled mightily for freedom and to have the kind of voice within the South African government that Blacks at the time deserved and all people in South Africa deserved, but were not granted," Davis said.

The museum exhibit will be on display through September 12. The museum is open for visitors, while adhering to CDC guidelines for covid-19 safety.

"Our founding principle is: remember the past, transform the future," Weininger said. "Learning about the history of apartheid in South Africa through one of its main figures, Nelson Mandela, is perfectly suited for our museum."
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