"You know you are really famous when becoming a comic character," the 87-year-old anti-apartheid icon said on Friday at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg.

The nine books are part of a series of initiatives - including exhibitions and lectures - aimed at preserving Mandela's legacy for generations to come.

"It's one of South Africa's great gifts to the world," said John Samuel, chief executive of Mandela's foundation.

By telling Mandela's story with colourful pictures, the foundation hopes to overcome the poverty, illiteracy and isolation that persist more than a decade after apartheid's end. A million copies will be distributed free at schools and in newspapers.

The first book, called A Son of the Eastern Cape, covers Mandela's royal upbringing in rural Transkei and ends with his arrival in Johannesburg, where he would set up South Africa's first black law firm and lead the armed wing of the now-governing African National Congress.

Mandela spent 27 years in prison for opposing white-minority rule, emerging to become South Africa's first democratically elected president in 1994.

"One of the few advantages of prison is that you have time to read and time for reflection," Mandela said. If the comic reaches new readers, then the project will have been worthwhile."

Nine part series

Five young African artists are producing a nine-part series of comic books on Nelson Mandela's life "to help young people rediscover the correct and proud history of South Africa".

The artists are led by a white South African educated at an elite Afrikaner university, Nic Buchanan.

 

The books will be translated into
South Africa's 10 languages

Buchanan sounds brutal in his denunciation of the country's history as taught in schools and colleges in the apartheid era.

"The history we were taught started with the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in 1652," Buchanan says, referring to the first Dutch-descent white settler in South Africa.

"Everything before then was written off as savagery or barbarism. Any story that involved heroism was about white people," says the 35-year-old artist heading a project backed by anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela to change all that.

 

From his cramped studio in a Johannesburg cottage, Buchanan is leading the artists in their ambitious task. 


Mandela is due to launch the first of the Madiba Legacy Series in Johannesburg on Friday.

About one million copies of the first book, sponsored by mining group Anglo-American, are being shipped to schools and newspapers for free distribution.

Translations

 

The series will eventually be translated from English into South Africa's 10 other official languages.

The Mandela Foundation's Centre of Memory says it has already received publishing enquiries from Russia, Italy and Canada. African American readers and Japan's $7 billion a year comics market are other potential outlets.


Buchanan referred to African civilisations such as the Mapungubwe Kingdom that thrived around CE1200 in the area where the present borders of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana meet. Its splendour was discovered in 1933 when excavators unearthed vast amounts of gold buried with its monarchs.

 

"Everything before then was written off as savagery or barbarism. Any story that involved heroism was aboutWhite people"

Nic Buchanan,
Artists' organiser

The white government hid this knowledge until 1994 when Mandela, having served 27 years in apartheid jails, was elected South Africa's first black president at the end of more than three centuries of White domination, Buchanan said.

"We want our youth to be able to say: I come from a people who were trading just as the British did," Buchanan said.

Mandela's birth

The first of the nine comics, A son of the Eastern Cape, covers Mandela's humble birth on 18 July 1918, in the mud hut village of Mwezo, near Qunu in what was then the Transkei, up to his arrival in Johannesburg as a precocious lad in 1941.

It captures the condition most South Africans lived in, and presents Mandela as a normal human being who made his mistakes.

One section depicts how Mandela and his step-brother stole cattle, lied to clan elders and ran away to Johannesburg to escape an arranged marriage. Mandela's first name, Rolihlahla, is translated in the comic as "the one who troubles", although he is most commonly referred to by his clan name, Madiba.

"The thread of the story is that he was a troublemaker. When he made up his mind that something was not right, he fought it hard," Buchanan said, citing Mandela's expulsion from Fort Hare University for rebellious behaviour.

"Portraying him as a normal person is important in getting the message across to kids," Buchanan says. "They could have been born in a mud hut but still gone on to do great things."

Feedback

The Mandela Centre of Memory has scheduled a comprehensive feedback programme to see how the message gets to the youth.

Schools have been selected for
feedback to the Mandela comics

"We don't want to just throw the comics around," the centre's project director Verne Harris said.

The centre would run a quiz in newspapers and seek feedback directly from selected schools in the Eastern Cape, he said.

One problem encountered by Buchanan and his team of artists - two Congolese, two Angolans and a South African - was getting a correct childhood image of Mandela.

In the end, they had to "devolve" an image of an infant Mandela from his adult photos.

"The first Mandela photo available is when he was 19," Buchanan said. "When his assistant showed him the fat-tummied boy we drew, he laughed aloud and said: Fantastic!"