For those of us reading about the life and times of Nelson Mandela there is a wealth of material.
Unfortunately some of us came far too late to journalism to even hope to obtain a much coveted interview with the former statesmen, but the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory is an appealing treasure trove of insight.
Its head archivist, Razia Saleh, first showed me the Gift Room. Row upon row of shelves stacked with items and awards given to Mandela are carefully stored.
There are dozens of paintings. She showed me two – well, quite funny ones. The first was a big framed painting with Arnold Schwarzenegger taking up half the space while Mandela’s head fills the other half. It’s signed by Arnie and is frankly a bit strange, but even stranger is a mosaic type piece that has a big head and shoulders image of Oprah Winfrey, Mandela’s head is just peering over her shoulder, she is the Main Event.
Awards cram the archive, from the Olympics Foundation, the UN, the Irish Farmers Union and everything in between.
At least half a dozen walking sticks are laid out carefully, and there – stuck between two panes of glass is the number six Springbok rugby jersey worn by Francois Pienaar when the Boks beat the All Blacks in the 1995 World Cup. Nondescript yellow drawers hold 700 of the honorary doctorates he’s been given.
Then we dip next door to where the most treasured items are kept, including his first official document, a Methodist Church membership card from when he was eleven years old.
His mother’s death certificate is also there – a particularly personal item to the former president who was imprisoned on Robben Island when she died. He was refused permission to attend the funeral.
There are also notebooks of letters he’d drafted. For many years on Robben Island he was only allowed one 500 word letter every six months, so the drafts were to ensure no words were wasted.
Mandela used to receive guests at his office at the Centre which they’ve kept intact – complete with the big black markers he left in the top right hand side drawer for signing the inevitable book or poster that would be produced by his visitors.
I feel like I’m invading his privacy by being in that room – although he hasn’t used it for some time and it too will one day be open to the public it still feels a bit strange.
I was curious to know from Verne Harris (Director of the Memory Programme) what he hoped people learned from the archive – without hesitation he said he wanted people to appreciate that Mandela is a complex man with flaws like any other.
Flaws that are so often and easy to brush aside as we grapple (and inevitably fail to reach) the right balance of words to do him justice.
Harris says Mandela sees the archive as a chance to put all his cards on the table, so there are diary entries detailing an argument with Graca Machel while they travelled to Mozambique. His way of saying ‘We argue just like any other couple’.
Harris believes that as Mandela has aged the fact that he is idolised has weighed more and more heavily upon him – the archive seeks to reflect a rounded image of a man for us and future generations.