JOHANNESBURG — Nelson Mandela is one of the world’s most revered statesmen, an icon here and throughout much of the rest of the world. Now 93, the political prisoner turned president has retreated from the public eye. This hasn’t stopped a massive ongoing effort to digitize the leader’s legacy and make it available to the world.
The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Google’s Paris-based Cultural Institute recently launched the Nelson Mandela Digital Archive. The site was made possible by a $1.25 million grant from the technology giant and has been more than a year in the making. Although the archive admits that the site “is still a work in progress,” what is already available is the most extensive online record of Mandela’s life.
“Nelson Mandela said he didn’t want this to become a mausoleum. Those were Madiba’s words,” Chief Executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation Achmat Dangor said, using Mandela’s Xhosa clan title. He was addressing a group gathered to celebrate the launch of the archive. “This is an attempt to illustrate his life and assist people accessing his story,” Dangor said.
The documents and videos, which up to now could only be viewed at the Centre of Memory’s Johannesburg gallery, range from copies of the original manuscripts of his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” and its sequel “Conversations with Myself,” to a collection of desk calendars he kept during his 27 years in prison. Some of the calendar notes are mundane, and others profound despite their seeming simplicity. There are his jotted totals of electoral votes from the 1980 US presidential election, one that directly affected the viability of the apartheid government that was jailing him. On first meeting the then-president, and the man he would eventually succeed, Mandela merely noted, “Met State President F.W. de Klerk for 2 hrs 55 m.”
The site is broken down into sections spanning Mandela’s early life, prison years, presidential years and what he has done in retirement. There is also a segment where people recount meeting the man and a collection of inscriptions from books given to him as gifts. David Rockefeller signed his memoirs with “admiration and affection,” while Cornell West addresses the struggle leader as “Bro’ Nelson Mandela.”
The archives also contain videos, mostly of Mandela in the last decade, and an animated graphic novel aimed at telling his history to children,
Google has transcribed most of the documents it has put online, allowing English-speakers to read those in Xhosa and Afrikaans and also making the entire archive searchable.
Right now the archive is a wide and often disparate assortment of material. The Centre of Memory is currently running it as a pilot and is still hammering out what the future of the project will look like.
One of the guests of honor at the archive’s launch voiced disappointment that the project was focused only on Mandela. South African author Beata Lipman told the Mail & Guardian, “We all know what Mandela did for the struggle, but it’s not as if he acted alone. There were many others like Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo who gave their lives for South Africa but are not honored in the same way.”
The Mandela Digital Archive is just one project of Google’s Cultural Institute. The organization is also working to digitally preserve the history of France’s Palace of Versailles and has created detailed 3D models of 17th century French towns in Google Earth in a project it calls “La France en relief.”