JOHANNESBURG, Mar 27 – Thousands of handwritten documents, photographs and videos of Nelson Mandela have been digitised and placed online in a massive archive of the life of South Africa’s first black president.
The digital archive was created by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Internet giant Google, which transformed the documents into a searchable collection that can also be browsed through seven online “exhibits”.
It includes everything from his Methodist Church membership cards from 1929 – the oldest documents in the archive – to his handwritten notes taken during the talks to end apartheid.
“Everyone, everywhere enjoys access to its contents free of charge,” said Verne Harris, of the Centre of Memory, who emphasised the project’s independence from its benefactor Google.
“We own the content,” he told a press conference. “We, not Google, determine what content is selected and how it is presented.”
Google gave the Centre of Memory a $1.25 million (937,000 euros) grant in 2011 to help with the work, and donated its engineering prowess to assemble the collection online through the company’s Cultural Institute.
“We believe in the power of digital technologies in bringing the legacy of Madiba to the masses,” said Mark Yoshitake, who managed the project, referring to Mandela by his clan name.
“It is content that has never been digitised before, content that has never been accessible before.”
Many of the documents – which can now be seen at archive.nelsonmandela.org – are housed at the Centre of Memory, where they have been carefully catalogued and stored but rarely available to the public.
With the Nelson Mandela Digital Archive, anyone can flip through his desk calendars from his years in the apartheid prison on Robben Island, see rare photos of him as a young man, and find videos of luminaries like Desmond Tutu as well as ordinary South Africans speaking about their experiences with him.
For a man whose public life was intensely political, the documents reveal his personal side.
On a 1980 calendar with a picture of a doe in the woods, Mandela wrote about his then-wife Winnie and their children: “Dream about Zami, Zeni & Zindzi. Zeni is about 2 yrs. Zindzi asks me to kiss her & remarks that I am not warm enough. Zeni also asks me to do so.”
The most recent pictures are from last year, including a photo with one of his newest great-grandchildren Qheya II Zanethemba Mandela.
Only about 12 percent of South Africans have regular Internet access, according to the World Bank, although many more use cell phones to go online.
Science Minister Naledi Pandor acknowledged that access needed to be widened so that more locals could benefit from the digital archives.
“This can’t be something that is the domain of those who have access” to the Internet, she said.
At 93, Mandela has not been seen in public since the closing ceremony of the 2010 football World Cup. He spends most of his time at his Johannesburg home or in his rural home village in the Eastern Cape province.
Last month he spent the night in hospital for a minor exploratory procedure to investigate persistent abdominal pain. His eldest granddaughter Ndileka Mandela told reporters that he was now in good spirits.
“He is going well, for a man his age,” she said.
“I’m going there now to tell him about it and to read him the speeches,” she said. “I’m sure he will be elated.”
Harris said that Mandela himself was not consulted on the specifics of the project, but that he had taken part in general discussions about making his personal archives available online.
“We avoid bothering Madiba these days,” Harris said, adding that he doubted Mandela would explore the online archives himself.
“Madiba does not use computers, never has.”