Flow recently developed an archival website, The Presidential Years, for the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The website was launched at an event on 4 October 2018 at the Foundation’s headquarters in Houghton, Johannesburg.
The website makes available to the public hundreds of documents, from parliamentary records to scraps of paper on which Nelson Mandela wrote personal notes, that were used to put together the book Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years. This is the account of Mandela’s four years (1994 to 1999) as South Africa’s first democratically elected president.
“The Nelson Mandela Foundation hopes that this online resource will draw people not only into the contents of its own archives, but also encourage them to explore the riches preserved in archives and libraries across the country,” said senior Foundation archivist Razia Saleh at the launch.
The website presents in an easily navigated manner all the material drawn from to write Dare Not Linger. Acclaimed author Mandla Langa compiled Dare Not Linger from Mandela’s own partially written manuscript and these other documents.
The research was done by a team led by Joel Netshitenzhe and Tony Trew, who both worked in Mandela’s presidential office.
There are hundreds of documents to go through, from Mandela’s unfinished personal account of his tenure as president, to records from Parliament, the African National Congress and the media, and accounts and memories from those who worked closely with him.
The website is split into seven parts and 19 chapters, covering the period from the 1994 political transition until the 1999 second democratic election.
The online archive has also been optimised for access via cellphone. Its main text is divided into seven themes containing 19 sections, and it has been set up to denote three “voices” – Mandela’s own, those of people he worked or engaged with closely, and a narrative voice that weaves the accounts together.
The website was developed using Craft CMS, a modern PHP-based content management system. (PHP, or Hypertext Preprocessor, is a server-side scripting language designed for web development, but also used as a general-purpose programming language.)
“We developed custom footnote functionality that enables readers to quickly get to contextual information and other resources,” says Richard Frank, head of digital at Flow. “We also developed an advanced Elasticsearch application to support full text searches of the resource.”
Saleh said Mandela’s handwritten, unfinished presidential-years manuscript was discovered about 10 years ago when people working at the Foundation were sorting through “various piles of documents” they had “inherited from Madiba’s office”.
Mandela’s widow, children’s-rights activist Graça Machel, wanted the unfinished manuscript completed and published as a book.
“Something the book could not do, though, was to give readers access to the rich sources it drew on. Books must perforce stop at footnoted pointers. This website, wherever it can, links [visitors] to the original sources,” Saleh said.
Those who explore the swathe of information available through the website also have the benefit of explanatory notes in “hover mode”, and click-throughs.
The book and website were made possible partly through a grant from the Industrial Development Corporation and sponsorship from library and archive access organisation Sabinet.