Mandela: Struggle for Freedom (Level 1 Gallery)

June 8, 2018 to August 25, 2019

This exhibition has passed.

A black and white photograph of Nelson Mandela standing in front of a podium. He is smiling and waving. Partially obscured.

Photo: The Globe and Mail Inc./Erik Christensen

Exhibition details

What would you do if you were imprisoned for 27 years? Would you be able to forgive your captors, or would you want revenge? Nelson Mandela chose forgiveness – and he never stopped trying to build a better world.

Mandela: Struggle for Freedom looks at Nelson Mandela and the movement that formed around him. Follow Mandela into hiding after he is declared an outlaw, and then join him inside a replica of the prison cell that was his home for 18 years. Experience the bittersweet joy of his release, after 27 long years of imprisonment. Finally, witness South Africa’s first democratic elections, and find out about Mandela’s efforts to rebuild a nation shattered by racism and injustice.

Explore what was happening on the streets during Mandela’s lifetime. Bear witness to South African children defending themselves from tanks with garbage can lids, and learn about the secret plan to break Mandela out of prison. Support for Mandela and his cause also came from outside South Africa. Hear from Canadians who joined the struggle for freedom and equality and see for yourself the importance of mobilizing and speaking out.

I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Nelson Mandela, at the Rivonia Trial, 1964

A man and a woman, raising their fists in a sign of victory, followed by a large crowd.

Nelson Mandela walking out of Victor Verster Prison with his wife Winnie Mandela on February 11, 1990. Mandela had been imprisoned for 27 years by the apartheid state.

Photo: Graeme Williams

What was Mandela's struggle about?

Mandela fought against apartheid, a system of white supremacy in South Africa. Under apartheid, everyone was put into one of four racial categories: “white/European,” “black,” “coloured,” or “Indian/Asian.” Non‐white South Africans were second‐class citizens with little or no political power. Restrictive laws governed every aspect of people’s lives, dictating where they could live, work and travel and restricting their access to education, health care and other social services.

Mandela rose up against apartheid and called upon all South Africans to join him. Although he was arrested and imprisoned for 27 years for fighting for freedom, Mandela refused to give up the struggle or give in to hate. Mandela was fighting against apartheid, but he was also fighting for something: a better world, in which the freedom, justice and dignity of all were respected. Even before his release in 1990, Mandela began negotiating with the government to end apartheid. Through those negotiations, he helped prevented a bloody civil war. Mandela went on to become the country’s first democratically elected president.


Black and white photo of a few Black men in a dusty outside environment. One is holding up a trashcan lid as a shield.

Students defending themselves against police bullets during the Soweto Uprising, June 16, 1976. This uprising reignited the resistance movement within South Africa and abroad.

Photo: Dr. Peter Magubane
Cover of a booklet resembling a passport.

Reference books, more commonly known as pass books, 1980–1985. Black South Africans had to carry pass books like these at all times. Pass books controlled where they could live and work, and had to be signed monthly by their employers.

CMHR Collection; photo: John Woods
Men and women musicians on a stage. The two singers in the centre have their right arms raised. In the crowd watching them are some protest signs.

Hugh Extavour, Diana Braithwaite, Faith Nolen and Maurice Gordon (left to right) performing at the Toronto Arts Against Apartheid Festival, 1986. Canadians from many different backgrounds joined the struggle. They boycotted South African goods, held rallies and used diplomacy to protest the injustices of apartheid.

Photo: Margie Bruun-Meyer
Two men talking. Both are wearing suits.

Oliver Tambo, president of the African National Congress, in exile (1960–1990) with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, 1987. Tambo visited Canada to increase support for the anti‐apartheid struggle.

Photo: The Canadian Press, Chuck Mitchell
 View from above of people standing outside in lines. The ground is mostly covered in grass and the exposed earth is of a reddish colour.

South Africans lining up to vote, 1994. People waited for hours in lengthy lines for the opportunity to cast their ballot. Most had never before been permitted to vote.

Photo: Getty Images, Gallo Images, Raymond Preston
Nelson Mandela extending his right arm to deposit a folded paper in a ballot box. A few people are standing around him.

Nelson Mandela voting, Inanda Natal, South Africa, 1994. Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa at the age of 75.

Photo: Getty Images, Peter Turnley
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One man, many voices

Mandela's courage is inspiring and his story is dramatic, but he did not end apartheid alone. In South Africa and around the world, people were inspired by Mandela's example. They recognized that there would never be freedom in South Africa unless many people took action. In South Africa, many died in the struggle for freedom. Here in Canada, numerous individuals mobilized against apartheid, calling for boycotts against South Africa’s apartheid regime.

We invited people to spend 27 minutes in a room roughly the same size as the cell in which Mandela spent most of his time in prison. Find out how it changed their view of Mandela’s struggle for freedom.

Video: 27 minutes for 27 years

Mandela: Struggle for Freedom is about one man, but it is also about the many who came together to oppose racism and injustice. 

Mandela: Struggle for Freedom is featured in the Level 1 Gallery until August 25th, 2019.

Fighting Apartheid with Posters

Many anti‐apartheid posters were screen‐printed, a printmaking technique characterized by a grassroots aesthetic. Created in South Africa and around the world, the messages of these posters still resonate today as people continue the struggle for freedom. Design your own poster!

A fist and a map of Africa, with Posters for Freedom written on it Partially obscured.

Ask Yourself:

  • How should I respond to injustice?

  • How can we heal after human rights have been denied?

  • How does the past affect my present?


The exhibition was developed in collaboration with the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa. Lenders include Robben Island Museum and Zapiro.

The Museum is grateful to The Asper Foundation, TD Bank Group, Air Canada and Travel Manitoba for supporting this exhibition.

Logos: Apartheid Museum, The Asper Foundation, TD Bank Group, Air Canada, Travel Manitoba.

The story of Nelson Mandela

By Matthew McRae

Mandela spent 27 years in prison for opposing South Africa’s apartheid system. He refused to give up his efforts to achieve equality for all people.

Un homme et une femme levant le poing en signe de victoire, suivis d’une grande foule.