Transparency in Sharing Lives

An anthology of Nelson Mandela’s writings, Conversations With Myself was published on 12 October and had its official launch on 1 November at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg “with acclaimed South African playwright and actor John Kani reading extracts from the book and leading a discussion between Mr Mandela’s close friend and anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada, his youngest daughter Zindzi Mandela and his great-grandson Luvuyo Mandela”.

These are the detailed Conversations With Myself publicity guidelines for the book. In them one of the Archive Team observed that:

The details and trajectory of Mandela’s life are well known (for instance, his shift from traditionalism through Africanism, socialism to pragmatic economics) and have been analysed and reanalysed. Much has been written about him. Conversations with Myself presents his voice largely unmediated, drawing on private diaries, correspondence, notes and conversations. In many ways they confirm prevailing ideas and perceptions, rather than contradict them. But some elements of the material are surprising reminders of what is sometimes forgotten.

Verne Harris is Head of the Memory Program at the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Centre of Memory and Dialogue. He has been Nelson Mandela’s archivist for over five years. He is an honorary research associate with the University of Cape Town. He has participated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and is a former Deputy Director of the National Archives.

With my interest in narrative I was fascinated by the way the Anthology was compiled and the autonomy the Archive Team had to select the content for the book. This is an interview with Verne Harris that discusses the role of the archivist.

Following up on Verne Harris’s work took me to Investigating the Archive and his presentation at the conference held in Edinburgh in 2008. The conference focused on:

the philosophy and politics of identifying, selecting and preserving archives. It addressed debates surrounding the evidential and historical value of archives, social and political agendas and the changing nature of archives. It examined how social, cultural and personal memories and identities are represented and recorded and the inherent tension between the use of archives to ensure accountability and their role as cultural artefacts.

These seem to me to critical to the transparency of sharing lives. They encourage me to contemplate the mediation of lives through selection of material and to the methodological issues that arise in the process (including the distinction between historian and archivist (Cook, 2009)).

Photo Credits

Nelson Mandela 2000

My Father’s Archive