Backed by global-search-giant Google Inc., the foundation of aging South African leader Nelson Mandela is putting thousands of documents on the Internet, from a 1977 letter smuggled out of prison to his membership cards in the Methodist Church.
Google said Tuesday that it was providing a $1.25 million grant to the Nelson Mandela Center of Memory, part of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, to help preserve a trove of photographs, letters, calendars and journals through digital technology. The $1.25 million grant is seen as a possible stepping stone to a broader relationship with Mr. Mandela’s foundation, which is now disseminating digital bursts of his memorabilia through its website (www.nelsonmandela.org). Google is already helping the website with indexing, but it would also like to provide the search technology that will allow people around the world to troll through the life of the anti-apartheid icon. “Google wants to help bring the world’s historical heritage online, and the Internet offers new ways to preserve and share this information,” said Luke Mckend, Google’s South Africa country manager. Mr. Mandela’s foundation is expected to decide in coming weeks whether to use Google’s search technology, say executives for the company and the foundation. The decision hinges largely on accessibility and affordability for users, said Sello Hatang, the foundation’s spokesman. A key consideration, he added, is whether Google technology will allow a poor person in rural South Africa to tap into Mr. Mandela’s archives with a mobile phone. “The costs of accessing Nelson Mandela’s legacy should be minimal,” he said. Google has digitized troves of documents and memorabilia for other organizations. The Silicon Valley company is working with the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem to archive hundreds of thousands of photographs and other material. Google also said Tuesday it’s providing an additional $1.25 million grant to digitize the archives of Desmond Tutu, a South African cleric who, like Mr. Mandela, won the Nobel Peace Prize for opposing South Africa’s white minority government. Preserving Mr. Mandela’s personal affairs is a huge undertaking. Among the items in one of the foundation’s frigid air-conditioned rooms is a 1976 desk calendar he used in prison on Robben Island. The caption: “It’s sunny today in South Africa.” There’s also a 1977 letter that Mr. Mandela smuggled out to his lawyers. In cramped script, Mr. Mandela complains about the prison guards and threatens legal action against them for “subjecting me and my fellow prisoners to political persecution and from committing other irregularities.” To make Mr. Mandela’s archives as comprehensive as possible, the foundation has reached out to foreign governments for relevant records on the South African leader. Foundation officials said they contacted the U.S. embassy for help in determining whether the Central Intelligence Agency provided information to South Africa’s apartheid regime that led to Mr. Mandela’s arrest and imprisonment. The embassy’s spokeswoman, Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau, said the U.S. has been assisting the foundation in documenting the life of Mr. Mandela, but “we have no knowledge of documentation that shows U.S. involvement in the arrest of anti-apartheid activists in South Africa.” Mr. Mandela’s own effort to document his life includes an autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” that records events up to his 1994 inauguration as president. His archives also contain a later attempt at a sequel that deals with his years as president and was intended to demythologize him. But the handwritten and transcribed pages have not yet been published in book form.
With digitization, for the first time there is a record of information which does not degrade in the course of time and which can cease to exist only on the base of our decision or together with the end of our civilization. Google’s digitization efforts are not new, they have been digitizing numerous documents from around the world for a couple of years now. In this instance, the documents are very significant because of Nelson Mandela and his personal history. Google’s digitization efforts will enhance and deepen its reach not just in South Africa but throughout the continent as it has been expanding.