What Happened When Nelson Mandela Previewed His Prison Archive

"The experience of viewing my prison archive has been a personal one for me. Readers are invited to share in it."

By The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory

Nelson Mandela : Prison Archive Records (2004) by photographer Matthew Willman on behalf of the Nelson Mandela FoundationThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

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."

Nelson Mandela's returned notebooks (2004-09-21) by photographer Matthew Willman on behalf of the Nelson Mandela FoundationThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

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.

Nelson Mandela viewing Robben Island calenders (2004-09-21) by photographer Matthew Willman on behalf of the Nelson Mandela FoundationThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

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.

Nelson Mandela views exhibition at the Centre of Memory (2004-09-21) by photographer Matthew Willman on behalf of the Nelson Mandela FoundationThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

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

Nelson Mandela's hands in conversation (2004-08-13) by photographer Matthew Willman on behalf of the Nelson Mandela FoundationThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

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."

Nelson Mandela recollecting with Verne Harris (2004-08-13) by photographer Matthew Willman on behalf of the Nelson Mandela FoundationThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

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.

Nelson Mandela examines Robben Island photographs (2004-08-13) by photographer Matthew Willman on behalf of the Nelson Mandela FoundationThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

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

Nelson Mandela remembers Robben Island (2004-08-13) by photographer Matthew Willman on behalf of the Nelson Mandela FoundationThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

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

Robben Island group of prisoners (1977-04-25)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

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

Nelson Mandela viewing photographs from Robben Island in 1977 (2004-08-13) by photographer Matthew Willman on behalf of the Nelson Mandela FoundationThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

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."

Nelson Mandela reading caption on Robben Island photograph (2004-08-13) by photographer Matthew Willman on behalf of the Nelson Mandela FoundationThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

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 photographed without his permission - Robben Island (1977) by © National Archives of South AfricaThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

Reverse of 'Prisoner in the Garden' photograph (1977-04-25)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

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

Verne Harris interviews Nelson Mandela (2005)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Verne Harris interviews Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela with Mandela Prison Archive documents (2004-08-13) by photographer Matthew Willman on behalf of the Nelson Mandela FoundationThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

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

Nelson Mandela with birthday gift presented by Verne Harris (2004-08-13) by photographer Matthew Willman on behalf of the Nelson Mandela FoundationThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

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.

Nelson Mandela's Cell, 1977 (2) (1977-04-25)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

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.

Nelson Mandela with 86th Birthday Present (2004-08-13) by photographer Matthew Willman on behalf of the Nelson Mandela Centre of MemoryThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

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."

Nelson Mandela's memories (2004-08-13) by photographer Matthew Willman on behalf of the Nelson Mandela FoundationThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

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.

Credits: Story

Discover more about Nelson Mandela here

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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