The Digital Mandela

Finding ways to deconstruct the legacy from reality when it comes to South Africa's democratic president, Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in Montreal, 1990. Image via Montreal Archives Flickr.

This week’s Digital Archive is inspired by Duane Jethro’s recent post on the Mandela Ray Ban Statue in Cape Town, in which he refers to this new art installation as “vandalism of Nelson Mandela’s legacy.”  This is just the most recent in a string of excellent pieces which have forced a rethinking of the construction of Madiba’s legacy.  Take, for example, Benjamin Fogel’s 2013 piece for The Jacobin, in which he points to the existence of “two Mandelas”: one, “the revolutionary, the lawyer, the politician, flaws and all,” and the second, a “sanitized myth: the father of the nation, the global icon beloved by everyone from the purveyors of global humanitarian platitudes to even the erstwhile enemies of the African National Congress.”  The latter Mandela, Fogel argued, “is removed of his humanity and touted as an abstract signifier of moral righteousness.”

The challenge for scholars, then, comes in finding ways to deconstruct the legacy from reality (whatever that really means).  One institution which has endeavored to aid in deconstructing Madiba’s legacy is the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.  Founded in 2004, in correlation with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, this organization aimed to “create a public facility to deliver to the world an integrated and dynamic information resource on his life and times, and promote the finding of sustainable solutions to critical social issues, through memory based dialogue interventions.”  These aims were furthered in 2011 when the Centre of Memory partnered with the Google Cultural Institute to launch a digital archive.


Arranged along a series of chronological snippets of Madiba’s life, each virtual exhibits presents rich textual descriptions of certain episodes in Mandela’s life, enriched by primary sources, including textual and multimedia sources, that correlate with those chronological spans.  Though the site is, without a doubt, incomplete, with large gaps in content for Madiba’s early involvement with politics to his imprisonment, it is an easily navigable and digestable interface.  The design is coherent through each of the various sections, allowing the primary sources to be highlighted, providing relevant content while also leaving room for the audience to explore the site more fully through the somewhat hidden digital archive.


The striking thing about the Mandela Centre of Memory is the rich digital archive that it is built on, featuring many historical documents and media that have not yet been incorporated into the storytelling component of the site.  In particular, the never-before-published draft of Long Walk to Freedom is available through the archive, providing an inside look into how Mandela (and his co-writer Richard Stengel) viewed himself, especially during his presidential term which, as Fogel suggested, “is glossed over as some sort of miracle period in which he was able to unite black and white; his own political successes and failures in his one and only term go unexamined.”  Similarly, the inclusion of a number of Mandela’s journals from his time in prison, some of which have been previously published in Conversations with Myself or A Prisoner in the Garden, helps to get to the core of not only what life was like for Madiba in these trying times, but also, in a way, how he viewed himself.

Getting to the sources, without having to go to the physical site, allows for deeper engagement with the “real” Mandela (or Mandelas, as may be more appropriate); a much needed intervention, if we are to understand the true vandalism of public uses of Mandela like the Ray Ban sculpture.

Further Reading