I have recently taught a History course about Nelson Mandela at the University of Leeds. Along with my students, we have analysed Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom in class and during one of our seminars, we have especially focused on the new website created by the Nelson Mandela Digital Archive Project and the Google Cultural Institute. My idea was to engage with Digital Humanities by critically assessing the website as a faithful account of Nelson Mandela’s life.
The website provides us with a relatively rich collection of sources which have not been assembled before. It is true that anyone interested in Mandela will be able to access a wide range of material available on this website: texts, videos and photos. These documents are mainly in English (a few are in Xhosa and Afrikaans) and constitute a wealth of information on the person of Mandela never obtained before. As has been widely documented, early sources of Mandela’s life are hard to obtain. This website makes this task much easier. Mandela’s 1931 Church membership card is a perfect example of his personal papers made available to the public. More political documents are also easier to obtain such as a 1961 Warrant of Committal issued by the Supreme Court of South Africa with Mandela’s fingerprints. For these type of documents, this website is clearly achieving its aims, namely: “to locate, document, digitise, and provide access to all archival materials related to Nelson Mandela.”
Graphically, this project is at the cutting-edge of the technological developments in 2012 as the latest fancy gadgets are used to good effect: sliding menus, smooth transitions between pages… The cooperation between the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Google was certainly an excellent idea. It was a really good initiative for the Nelson Mandela Foundation which could benefit from Google expertise in the developments of high profile websites. After all, Google had already digitised the content of different museums for its Art Project or had gathered archival material for Yad Vashem, the centre for the commemoration of the Holocaust. Inversely, Google invested $1.25 million and managed to associate its name with Nelson Mandela. In terms of public image, this is an excellent investment from the company.
The term “image” might never have been so important. This website contributes to this corpus of hagiographic literature which never criticises Mandela. The first page says it all: “My moment with a legend”. This website is an attempt to comfort Mandela’s image as a secular saint more than a political figure. I would argue that this online project particularly represents this shift from Mandela, the architect of democracy to Mandela the saint. When previous biographers such as Meer or Meredith still saw in him a political leader, this website clearly forgets about Mandela’s political actions. One would argue that this website is about Mandela the man more than Mandela the politician but where is the boundary between these two aspects of his life? Didn’t he say himself: “The Struggle is my life”? Why would we need to forget that he was a politician?
The website mentions that “after the banning of the African National Congress in 1960, he went underground in 1961 and became the leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the Congress.” All his previous biographers agreed that Mandela was a fiery politician in the 1950s and 1960s and that his time in prison had changed him. This website clearly depicts Mandela with the benefit of hindsight and fails to describe Mandela’s political ideas in the 1950s and 1960s. We would definitely need more primary sources on this period when Mandela chose to use violence against the apartheid state.
The same applies to his time as president of South Africa. He – and that was contingent on his role – could not have pleased everyone as president. Radicals might have been unhappy with his denying socialist achievements promised by the Freedom Charter in 1955. Others might have been displeased with Mandela’s lack of action against AIDS while he was president. Arguably, this website is under construction and might fill this gap. However many questions remain. Wouldn’t it be better to honour Mandela’s legacy by showing his own failures? Do we need a memorial to Saint Mandela or do we need to understand the political actions of Nelson Mandela, citizen of the Republic of South Africa?