The newly refurbished entrance to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory
On 27 May 1963, Nelson Mandela arrived at Robben Island as a prisoner for the first time.
Fifty years later, looking back on that tumultuous period in his life, the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Houghton, Johannesburg, celebrated the culmination of a five-year transition that saw Mr. Mandela’s post-presidential office transformed into a public and dialogue facility.
An event at the Centre of Memory showcased the refurbished premises and included a handover ceremony of material to the National Archives of South Africa. The occasion also marked the introduction of Sello Hatang as Chief Executive Officer of the Centre of Memory as of 1 June 2013.
Fond farewells and warm welcomes
Popular television personality Jack Devnarain welcomed guests including Professor Njabulo S. Ndebele, acting chairperson of the Centre of Memory and chairperson of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation.
Referring to Mr. Mandela by his clan name, Madiba, Prof. Ndebele said, “The Centre of Memory is dedicated to honouring Madiba’s formidable legacy. Its three key objectives are to deliver to the world an integrated information resource on the life and times of Nelson Mandela; to convene dialogues on critical social issues of the day; and to share Madiba’s legacy through campaigns such as Mandela Day.”
Bidding farewell to the Centre’s retiring CEO Achmat Dangor, Prof. Ndebele thanked him for his help in effecting the transition and wished him well.
Hatang, who will take over the reins on 1 June, thanked Dangor for having confidence in him and said: “This facility represents the final transition into a physical home for Madiba’s legacy. Madiba does not belong to any one institution, he is a global resource to be shared.”
Sibongiseni Mkhize, the CEO of the Robben Island Museum, spoke of Mr. Mandela’s reference in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, where he referred to his first incarceration on the notorious Robben Island.
He joked that it was probably easier to run the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory where there was only Mr. Mandela’s legacy to uphold. “At Robben Island Museum we deal with the legacy of thousands of political prisoners. I assure you that together we’ll continue to protect the legacy of Nelson Mandela and that of the political prisoners who were incarcerated at Robben Island and on the mainland.”
He added that South Africa’s narrative of political imprisonment needed to be rewritten to include those held in prisons throughout the country.
The Deputy Director-General of South Africa’s Department of Arts and Culture, Vusi Ndima, spoke about the importance of archives and the role of digitisation in record-keeping.
“Via a process of digitisation, collections – such as documents pertaining to the Rivonia Trial or the Treason Trial – are preserved and information can be made easily accessible,” he said.
Archival handover ceremony
Two archival items were handed over at the event:
- A priceless film archive of South Africa’s Constitutional Assembly received by the National Archives. The digitised and archived coverage was donated by Curious Pictures and recorded in 1996 during the Assembly’s deliberations about a new constitution for South Africa
- An award uncovered during an audit of Mr. Mandela’s awards was handed to Sophia Williams-De Bruyn. Her late husband, Henry Benny De Bruyn, the recipient of the award, was based as the African National Congress’ Chief Representative in Rome and the Vatican during the apartheid years
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, a trustee of the Centre of Memory and a former political prisoner on Robben Island, spoke about the importance of archives in measuring progress towards a goal.
“Distance in a temporal sense is managed by the future as projected by those who came before us,” he said. “We need to go back in time and mine the important resolutions and dreams from the archives to measure how far we’ve come. Thanks to this centre, the students of the future will keep on asking pertinent questions.”
Dangor, the Centre’s outgoing CEO, referred to the two important lessons he learned from Mr. Mandela. One was, that when you are fundraising, “Don’t leave without the cheque.” And, “When you bring people together who agree with one another, that’s a chat. When they disagree and want to talk about it, that’s dialogue.”
Dangor invited guests to browse the Centre’s reading room and spend a moment in Madiba’s post-presidential office – a space that has been preserved exactly as he left it in 2010.
Images from the archive