A Prisoner in the Garden

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9780670064885: A Prisoner in the Garden

Made up of rare photographs, diaries, photographs and handwritten notes, A Prisoner in the Garden is the extraordinary record of the nearly two decades Nelson Mandela spent incarcerated in Robben Island Prison for his efforts to end apartheid. This never-before-published material offers a deeply moving portrait of the man who would inspire millions and is a testimony to Nelson Mandela's extraordinary capacity to hope and strive under the most desparate circumstances.

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About the Author:

The Nelson Mandela Foundation was established in 1999 as the primary vehicle for Mr. Mandela’s continued pursuit of the ideals and goals he set while serving as South Africa’s first democratically elected leader from 1994 to 1999. The immediate goal of the foundation is to identify and work in programming areas where Mr. Mandela can provide leadership and initiative. The foundation attends to the groundwork necessary to sustain the programs and to ensure that Mr. Mandela’s ideals thrive long after he has retired from public life.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


When Nelson Mandela launched the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Commemoration Project in 2004, he announced his intention to open his prison archive systematically through the Centre. This book documents the first step in that process, and seeks to ensure a wide audience for the stories that have emerged.

Before an investigation by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997 and 1998, the official record of Mr Mandela’s incarceration remained in the custody of the security establishment, scattered across the departments of Correctional Services and Justice, the South African Police Service and the National Intelligence Agency. Now housed largely in the South African National Archives (following initial interventions by Ahmed Kathrada and urgent recommendations by the TRC), the record remains disorganised, poorly catalogued and difficult to consult. In addition, in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2000, only Mr Mandela can authorise access to these files.

Until the establishment of the Centre of Memory, he did this on only one occasion, allowing Anthony Sampson access to the files for the official biography. In order to open up what is now referred to as the Prison Archive, Mr Mandela has now mandated the Centre – in consultation with Ahmed ‘Kathy’ Kathrada, his confidant and former fellow prisoner, who possesses a passion for history and archives – to manage access to the files. The Centre is systematically documenting the files and working with Kathrada on releasing their contents into the public domain.

The project was launched in 2004 with an exhibition titled 466/64: A Prisoner Working in the Garden, a collaboration with the National Archives that displayed for public viewing a selection of documents from the official archive, along with elements of the Prison Archive from other sources. Many of the latter emerged during, and in response to, the Centre’s preparation of the exhibition, and have subsequently been deposited with the Centre.

This book builds on that exhibition to provide a window into the broader Mandela Prison Archive. It offers perspectives on how the official archive came into being and how elements of it have been lost, appropriated and rediscovered. It looks at why the Prison Archive was initiated by prison authorities in the first place, what they wanted to achieve by it and how they tried to make it work. It discovers how their aims were, in part, realised and in other respects subverted.

Within the official archive, the book shows, it is possible to gain a view of Mr Mandela pursuing his own idea of laying down a record, a project seemingly confounded initially but one that was increasingly successful over time.

Inevitably, the official record has marked emphases, as well as silences, ruptures and contradictions, and an investigation of these is often richly rewarding, yielding even further archival clues and materials. This book explores many of these paths, often leading the reader into parts of the Prison Archive that lie outside the official record, and yet, in many instances, are interweaved with state archives.

A Prisoner in the Garden opens with an account of the Mandela Archive, an infinite source located in innumerable places. The chapter offers a host of archival biographies, and a reading of the stories that became key components of the Prison Archive. Here the reader encounters some of the many attempts to suppress the archive, as well as the struggle to open it up to public scrutiny. The chapter gives substance to what Mr Mandela terms ‘the call of justice’, the key shaping influence in the creation of the Centre of Memory: unravelling the power relations at play, the drive for secrecy by many powerful interests, and the counter-efforts to attain reasonable access.

Chapter 2 details the records system, the controls over letters and visits, the censorship and obfuscation that underpinned the prison regime. Despite a vast array of regulations and procedures to suppress information about the prisoners, the Prison Archive proved to be irrepressible, this book being but one example of its resilience.

Chapter 3 tells the story of the writing, loss, and return of two of Mr Mandela’s prison notebooks, which were ‘confiscated’ by prison authorities in 1971. The biography of the notebooks, and a following of the archival threads that flow from them, casts a powerful light onto the Prison Archive. It shows us what kind of record Mr Mandela generated, how the prison authorities sought to contain it, and how, in their efforts to exert control, they in turn built up an enormous record of their own, the totality of which comprises the official Prison Archive.

Chapter 4 introduces an array of original texts from the Prison Archive that speak compellingly of the struggle between the prisoners and the authorities for control of the record, and the tactics pursued by each party.

The priceless texts reveal how Mr Mandela, in his role as official spokesperson for the prisoners, generated a documentary profusion of his own, engaging the authorities in a dialogue which they tried, with ever-diminishing success, first to ignore and later to resist.

At the same time, this archive provides an intimate window into the thoughts and feelings of Nelson Mandela, the man.

Chapter 5 brings the book to a conclusion with the man who walked out of Victor Verster Prison in February 1990 markedly different in appearance from the one who first entered prison in 1962. The prison experience was not only etched on his body, but it permeated his very being. Its role in shaping the future of South Africa remains open to interpretation, but in sharing the Prison Archive with the world, this book invites readers to walk with Mr Mandela on the long road to freedom.

Driven by its founder and the ‘call of justice’, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, through its Centre of Memory, seeks to tell the stories of a continuing walk to freedom. Mr Mandela exemplifies the understanding that freedom is not something one receives, but rather something that is created. The Centre is premised on a commitment to documenting stories, disseminating information, and contributing to continuing struggles for justice. It is inspired by Mr Mandela and his comrades, who dedicated their lives to these struggles.

The wider Mandela Archive, of which the Prison Archive is a central element, is scattered and bursting with story. For anyone wishing to access the material, the logistical, technical, research and archival challenges are daunting. It is for this very reason that the Centre of Memory identifies and locates sources, and coordinates the endeavours of the many institutions that continue to hold valuable documents and other material, developing a single access point to the many and varied collections. It promotes the idea of an archive for social justice in several ways. It participates in, and often initiates opportunities for, resource sharing, fund-raising and collaborative projects with other institutions, big and small, formal and informal. It engages in, and seeks to stimulate, discussions on the meaning of ‘archives for justice’, and to challenge secrecy and non-disclosure wherever they threaten democracy and justice. It does this by participating in, or organising, annual conferences, public debates, exhibitions and publications. Through its outreach programmes, as well as study and internship projects, the Centre makes its resources and expertise available to the public, with a special emphasis on reaching disadvantaged communities.

There are three primary dimensions to ‘the continuing walk to freedom’. As demonstrated by Mr Mandela himself, humanity can never stop working towards freedom. This is why he has continued to work punishingly hard through his retirement years, and has pursued struggles for justice – in the Burundi peace process, the campaign against HIV/AIDS, the development of rural schools, programmes for children in need, and so on. The Centre documents this continuing walk, and promotes its values.

Mr Mandela has also committed the Centre to making space for the stories that revolve around him. So, for example, the Centre has facilitated (together with the Department of Arts and Culture, the National Cultural History Museum and the Nelson Mandela Museum) the consolidation of his presidential gifts and awards and their formal donation to the state. These are housed in the Nelson Mandela Museum in the city of Mthatha.

In a speech marking the placing of the gifts in the custody of the Museum, Mr Mandela described them as ‘honours’: honours received on behalf of comrades and colleagues who stood with him in the long struggle for justice, and on behalf of a country whose traditions are steeped in those struggles; honours shared with the country through their public display. The Centre subsequently launched the Izipho: Madiba’s Gifts exhibition, a selection of gifts and awards primarily from the post-presidential period. Both exhibitions tell the stories of many thousands of people around the world who have inspired and been inspired by Nelson Mandela.

Finally, the Centre — principally through its exhibitions and publications — actively disseminates these remarkable stories. This book is the first in a series dedicated to ensuring that the archive does not remain within the walls of repositories. At the same time, the Centre, together with a number of institutional partners, has launched a Madiba Legacy Series of comics with a planned initial print run of a million and free distribution. (Madiba is Mr Mandela’s clan name by which he is often respectfully addressed.) The comics are designed specifically to overcome resilient systemic barriers to the dissemination of story, particularly those experienced by South Africa’s youth. It is our hope that this series will contribute to building a culture of reading in South Africa.

By harnessing Nelson Mandela’s legacy, the Centre of Memory carries forward his unique ability to bring people together in dialogue and action shaped by the call of justice. Central to any harnessing of legacy is the concept of memory. Action, if it is to be true to the legacy it claims to represent, must flow from and be shaped by memory. A Prisoner in the Garden is a work of memory.

John Samuel
Chief Executive
Nelson Mandela Foundation

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