Nelson Mandela: One Man's Memory

Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory

When Nelson Mandela previewed the Prison Archive

Mandela's Prison Archive
In 2004, the Nelson Mandela Foundation was mandated to locate, document and facilitate public access to the many archives that contain traces of Nelson Mandela's life and those who lived it with him. The Prison Archive was it's first project. In Mandela's own words 'Very often, the memories contained in archives diverge from the memories people carry with them. ... Engagement with archives offers both joy and pain. The experience of viewing my prison archive has been a personal one for me. Readers are invited to share in it'.

It is 13 August 2004, and the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory project team is finalising preparations for the launch of the “466/64: A Prisoner Working in the Garden” exhibition.

An audience with Nelson Mandela has been arranged to brief him on the exhibition and to share some of the materials to be put on display.

Mandela listens attentively to the explanation offered by the project manager, Verne Harris. In attendance is photographer Matthew Willman.

Mandela’s personal assistant Zelda le Grange notices a hair on Mandela’s shoulder and leans forward to brush it off. Mandela smiles: 'They just fall out you know. There is nothing you can do about it.'

When the documents and photographs are presented to him, he examines each one in turn, first silently then in a flow of reminiscence. His curiosity is palpable, and the stories abound.

View from the front of the Maximum Security Prison on Robben Island.

He pauses longest over the collection of images from the 1977 visit to Robben Island by a select group of journalists.

'I remember that day', he says, 'the authorities brought these people to prove that we were still alive.'

When preparing his autobiography 'Long Walk to Freedom' ten years earlier, Mandela had forgotten about this media visit.

A note of anger enters his voice as he condemns one of the people involved in the visit. Le Grange admonishes him: 'Khulu, you know you can’t talk like that.' 'No', he responds, 'we must be honest about these things'

He holds the portrait photograph of himself, also taken on the 1977 visit, for several minutes. The project manager alerts him to the Prison Service caption on the reverse side,

Mandela interrupts:'You should have let me read it. I could have shown off that I can speak proper Afrikaans.'

Finally, a 2004 birthday gift from former fellow-prisoner Mac Maharaj is presented to him.

It is a framed copy of a National Geographic photograph which his fellow-prisoners had given Madiba as a birthday gift on Robben Island forty years before.

View inside Mr Mandela's 2x2 meter cell located in Section B prison block

A view of the cell as it exists today as part of the Robben Island Museum.

He chuckles as he views the image of an exuberant young woman running naked on a beach. 'Ah yes, I remember this well.' And then, after a pause, 'we are not ashamed of these things.'

The audience is over. As the project manager packs away the materials, Mandela holds onto the National Geographic photograph. 'Can I keep it?' he asks.

Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory
Credits: Story

Research & Curation: Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory staff

Photographer: Matthew Willman

Text & Images from the publication: 'A Prisoner in the Garden : Opening Nelson Mandela's Prison Archive.' The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory (2005). Johannesburg: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-143-02495-7

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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