Mandela archive as a living system

What should an archive for Nelson Mandela look like? What does it need to tell us about the man and his life, and the way he continues to impact our society? What happens when critical information is erased from the archive? And how can we use the archive to grapple with the great questions of our time, including the decolonising of curricula?

These were just some of the questions raised and debated at arguably the most contentious session at the Dalibhunga: This time? That Mandela? colloquium at Nelson Mandela University, which was simply titled The Archive.

A key thought that emerged through the discussion was the archive as a living system, shaping the possibilities that help us to understand Mandela and our social and political society, while constantly being shaped and reshaped itself.

Starting the session, moderator Verne Harris, director of archive and dialogue at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, provided a broad overview of what could be included in the archive, from the obvious Mandela biographies to the less obvious PhD studies on Mandela, Mandela divorce-court case files, his doctors’ memoirs, and even international intelligence files. “The question is how to make sense of it all.”

Xolela Mangcu, professor of sociology at George Washington University in Washington DC — who is writing a new biography on Mandela — highlighted the absence of African scholarship and biography on Mandela and other important black figures, such as Robert Sobukwe.

“I think this lack of African biographers has come at a huge cost in terms of our understanding of Nelson Mandela.

“What I’ve been trying to do over the past three to four years is to push back against the received archive, which is the archive that exists in the existing biographies.

“I think the biographies are so flawed, all of them, including Long Walk to Freedom (penned by US writer Richard Stengel), that we need to go back to the beginning to rewrite the story of Nelson Mandela.”

Citing author Hermione Lee, he said it was easy for biographers to fall into the habit of repeating the same narrative until it becomes the gospel truth.

“In that process, Lee writes, untruths gather weight by being repeated and they congeal into the received version of a life. They are repeated in biography after biography until or unless they are unpicked.”

Mangcu said some biographers settled on a “single, possibly shaky hypothesis” to explain a whole life. “It is this single shaky hypothesis you find in every Madiba biography that I am contesting. Every biography says Mandela’s notions of leadership were inspired by watching the chief Jongintaba in his village run meetings through consensus — and this informed his later notions of what it means to be a leader.”

Mangcu argued there were many problems with that stereotypically African and tribalised foundation “unsullied by modernity”— and so much that had been left out, including Mandela’s heritage of the “African political modernity of Thembuland and the Transkei”, which included the alliance of his family [the Thembuland royal family] with the colonial government, and his father’s leadership role in the Transkeian Territories General Council known as the “Bhunga”, a quasi-parliament system set up in the Transkei, where all the chiefs came together, representing district councils.

“What puzzles me is why such an important institution in the history of black people in South Africa — and in the history of African political modernity — is not discussed in any of the biographies. And the archive is there: that’s the strange thing.

“Mandela says these things to Stengel. He tells him ‘my father was a member of the Bhunga’ … but that never makes it into the book. There is a selective reading of the archive. There is a framing of African societies by these biographers that excludes what Mandela is telling them. And they erase it out of the archive.”

He also argued [and it was a view that was hotly contested when the panel discussion was opened to the floor] that Mandela belonged to an educated African elite “who saw themselves as British, black Englishmen and black Englishwomen … and took pride in being subjects of Queen Victoria”.

He said Mandela himself wrote about being an anglophile.

“That’s why instead of a revolutionary, I call him a militant. It’s the militancy of the black educated elite who were rejected, and frustrated by their rejection by white folks, by the very English that they emulated … Black national movements have arisen historically out of that sense of rejection.

“If you want to have a sense of Nelson Mandela, you need to have an idea of his combined aristocracy and understand how the elites understood leadership — it was the idea of honour, duty and service.”

He said there was much that was absent from the existing Mandela archive.

“People have to repopulate the archive. Students, you have to do this work. You have to write biographies of Nelson Mandela and other important black figures. That, for me, is what decolonising the curriculum is. There’s a lot of work to be done about our own intellectual history. Only then will we begin to understand people like Nelson Mandela and their development.”

Continuing the panel discussion was Joel Netshitenzhe, executive director and vice chair of the board of Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra) and former head of communications in Mandela’s office during his presidency, who said certain factors informed “our reflection on the construction of the Mandela archive as a living system”.

He said individuals characterised as great historical figures, whether good or bad, attained their status not by “dint or force of character but because they become, through complex coincidences, facilitators of a historical epoch in gestation, an epoch about to be born”.

He said the individual becomes “the collective property of all the admirers” — and contested views arise.

“A moment in history is selected as defining Nelson Mandela, the icon. And so, binaries emerge: reconciliation, forgiveness and generosity of spirt are presented as his beginning and end. On the other hand, there is the freedom fighter, the military commander, the victim of repression, persecuted prisoner and leader of a political party.

“Each of these characterisations on their own are inaccurate and misleading but combined, they start to approximate the totality of what Mandela was and what he sought to become, and whether and how he succeeded in depicting the desired persona.”

He said we also needed to be looking at the contextualisation of the development of his social consciousness, his ambition, the ideas of his peers and his socioeconomic and socio-political circumstances.

“All of these are fused in splendid combination to produce the Nelson Mandela we know.”

He went on to say: “The archive should seek to dig below appearances and bring to the fore the profound questions of our time. It should seek to extract the lessons about the present and future.

“It should also challenge the social and political issues of our time, such as the misappropriation by the privileged, while taking advantage of the realities of the global socioeconomic system. It should be a platform to record and preserve the obvious, and should also be a living space to pose and debate the paradoxes.

“This will bring to the surface Nelson Mandela’s humanity, but it may also ruffle feathers.”

The session’s sense-maker Carolyn Hamilton, South African research chair in Archive and Public Culture at the University of Cape Town, said the Mandela archive was dealing with “three horizons at once”.

The first was the story of Mandela, the man, his successes and failures. “It’s the story of the making and shaping of the man and the way he makes and shapes the world — which is the essence of what the biographical task wants to do.”

“He is burdened by history. It’s not just history of the life he led, but it carries the burden of his time.”

The second horizon was Mandela as “phenomenon and figure”, with different versions of Mandela used or manipulated to suit contemporary social or political purposes.

“It has a biography of its own and it has an archive of its own. We are always having to navigate the work the ‘figure phenomenon’ is doing in contemporary social and political life. And that biography itself is changing things and being changed. It is shaping the world and being shaped by the world.”

The third horizon was the archive of possibilities – or “Nelson Mandela as a set of possibilities”. But she said this archive – “all the things that have shaped and made you, the very structure of knowledge” – was also a place of limitations. “This is where the depth of the challenging decolonisation and decoloniality discussion comes to bear.”

She said questions about the archive were questions about knowledge itself.

In closing, Harris as moderator said: “In popular discourses, the archives is regarded as a pretty dull space, if not boring, but I’m glad this session has been the hottest so far.”

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Nicky Willemse
Nicky Willemse works from Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Freelance journalist, copywriter, proofreader, editor, booklover, parent Nicky Willemse has over 43 followers on Twitter.

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