Opening an archive

Opening an archive

When is book by someone? In the case of Nelson Mandela, a number of books bear his name as author but where the contents have been compiled by other people. Yes, his words in letters, notes, speeches and interviews have been used; but no, the act of authorship which produced the product that is the book was not his but that of some other person or persons. An example here is Conversations with Myself, ironically entitled in this respect, although a very interesting book, which has been put together by other people and not Mandela. Another example is situated just the other side of the authorship line, having similar origins in a wide variety of different kinds of writings by (and a few about) Mandela, but appearing under the authorship of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. This is: A Prisoner in the Garden: Opening Nelson Mandela‘s Prison Archive. Why the difference? Why should one be presented under Mr Mandela’s name and the other not?

A Prisoner in the Garden is a beautiful book, containing a large number of photographs, both things that originated as photographs, and also photographs of letters, diaries, calendars, notes, legal documents and more, accompanied by a narrative text that is expressed quite sparely and is all the more powerful for this. It is striking in a more than visual sense, for the beauty of the images of the many documents provided sits uneasily with the fact that they emanate from and testify to nearly 30 years of incarceration.

The book is described as a set of ‘living records of 27 years in prison’, bringing together items scattered in many archives and personal collections, facilitated by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Commemoration Project in association with its a parent body the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Its Foreword is by Mr Mandela himself, commenting that the Centre was founded to locate, document and facilitate access to the many archives containing traces of his life and those associated with it. He concludes,

“Anyone who has explored the world of archives will know that it is a treasure house, one that is full of surprises, crossing paths, dead ends, painful reminders and unanswered questions. Very often, the memories contained in archives divert from the memories people carry with them. That is its challenge. And its fascination. 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.“ (page 9)

The distancing in this statement is interesting, that he has had the experience of viewing his archive, and that he invites readers to have this experience too. This is a clue to the question of authorship, that these materials were not in his possession but assembled from many places and so he sees them together as it were for the first time.

The Memory Project did its work as part of launching an Exhibition, of the same name as the book. It was in this context that the documents and photographs were shown to Mandela for him to examine, a process in which he also reminisced about them. When the Centre was launched, this was as part of Mandela announcing that his prison archive would be systematically made available, so the Exhibition and also the book from the Exhibition are this coming to fruition. Another clue about authorship lies here, that the project was conceived from word go around providing public access to materials that were at basis seen as public documents. All those years of being incarcerated and cut off, but at the same time under constant surveillance, has ontological reverberations in terms of the relationship between the public and the private man.

The result is presented as the reader being given privileged access:

“Inevitably, the official record has marked emphasis, as well as silences, reactions and contradictions, and an investigation of these is often richly rewarding, using even further archival clues and materials. This book explores many of these paths, often leading the reader into parts of the Prison Archive that lie outside the official record, and yet, in many instances are interweaved with state archives” (21)

In addition, the Project is concerned with ‘opening the archive’ in a further sense. Recognising that the relevant materials from Mandela (and also the host of others who were part of the freedom struggle but are not really featured in this context) are scattered and often inaccessible, the Exhibition and the book are linked to Centre work in locating all of these and making information about them available. Another clue about authorship exists here, that this is the work of the Foundation and those who staff its Memory Centre, with the book like the Exhibition being a factor in this work rather than in any autobiographizing activity by Mandela himself.

On the Nelson Mandela Foundation website, its pages are primarily organisational information-given and it is not a ‘working’ website in the sense of readers using it to generate research-type materials. But does have a useful archive section – go to

In the fullness of time this will provide not only information about its own holdings, already listed on its pages, but also list the many sources that are available world-wide, which is still in progress.

So is the archive opening? What appears in the book, and also the Exhibition, is a very managed set of documents. They might seem as though the scoopings of stuff out of drawers being emptied, but they have been carefully selected and carefully presented to tell a particular kind of archive story. The assemblage is not visible, what is assembled is certainly so. But. But are, for example, these documents singular or part of a sequence? in terms of any starting order to ‘the collection’, which were at the top and which at the bottom? what different locations were they found in? can dates be provided for all? which have dates on them? do some have dates that are supplied by what came before and what came after? And the questions go on.

These materials look like the contents of an archive are supposed to look, but generally speaking do not. The real archival stuff is shabbier, it makes little sense, meaning cannot be attached without vast struggle. There is, by contrast, clear sequence and series to the contents of the book, but when looked at closely this is a world away from the archival sequences they have been captured from, hundreds of them ranging from the forbiddingly very formal and inaccessible to the fabled scoopings from the back of a drawer.  But nonetheless how interesting it is, this book-as-public-archive.

Last updated:  7 July 2018