You may have seen a recent 60 Minutes segment on the newest published memoir of Nelson Mandela, perhaps “the most admired man alive” in the words of correspondent Bob Simon. And if you are an archivist, chances are you are familiar with Verne Harris, of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, renowned in his own right, activist archivist sine qua non.
Harris has been an eloquent, persistent, and sometimes controversial voice within South Africa and globally for what he has called “archives for justice.” His similarly-titled collection of writings Archives and Justice: A South African Perspective, was published in 2007. His thinking has been deeply influenced both by the postmodernism of Jacques Derrida, and his own experience as an archivist working under the apartheid state in South Africa. “An archivist has to be an activist,” he said in 2008. “[The Nelson Mandela Foundation] is not going to be the equivalent of a presidential library, a quiet place to collect stuff. It’s about making justice in the world, and it’s about using memory resources to make a difference.”
The new Mandela book, Conversations with Myself, is itself an unprecedented event; a collaboration based on unfettered access to archives to portray a still-living hero in a direct, frank, unvarnished light. “I’ve never heard of a living political leader giving up their entire archive,” according to the book’s agent, “I can’t think of any other political leader who has opened up their archive without any censorship.”
Mandela has long been a proponent of the idea that archives are critical to justice, memory, and reconciliation. “One of our challenges as we build and extend democracy is the need to ensure that our youth know where we come from, what we have done to break the shackles of oppression, and how we have pursued the journey to freedom and dignity for all…This is what archives are about.”
And despite the regime’s systematic destruction of records, confiscation of his letters and diaries, and the risk for any activist of committing information to paper, an astonishingly rich archive remains. This is in no small part due to Mandela himself, an “avid documenter, deeply conscious of the role, and the power, of the record.”
“He was and still is an obsessive record keeper,” said Harris, “The oldest records we have in that collection are his Methodist Church membership cards, the earliest one dated 1929. So he was 11 years old then.”