Tutu web archive makes history

October 13, 2006

The digitised university archives detailing the life and work of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu will pave the way for a huge online archive of South African history and politics, writes Karen MacGregor in Durban.

Hailed as the biggest online record of the life of any living figure, the Desmond Tutu Digital Archive will contain some 200,000 documents, including speeches, letters, audio recordings and writings. It will take five years to construct at an estimated cost of R67 million (£4.5 million).

Three South African universities - Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and Western Cape - are collaborating with King's College London, where Archbishop Tutu - head of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the man credited with the phrase "rainbow nation" and a figure with a moral status equal to that of Nelson Mandela - was a student.

Archibishop Tutu said he was "humbled" to be the subject of such an initiative. Yunus Ballim, Wits deputy vice-chancellor, said: "We see the project as part of a larger effort to digitise all our significant archival holdings."

Wits holds 120,000 pages of material related to Archbishop Tutu, the South African Council of Churches and the Anglican Church, which he led at the height of apartheid. The University of the Western Cape, of which Archbishop Tutu is chancellor, holds some 9,000 pages.

Wits has digitised all the materials generated by the TRC. It also has a wealth of other material that is yet to be digitised, such as the original Nelson Mandela papers - including his famous handwritten Rivonia trial speech - and material tracing the early mining history of Johannesburg.

"Our materials are extremely valuable, physically because they are delicate but also intellectually," Professor Ballim said. "We expect them to be widely used by researchers in South Africa and abroad, and are preparing packages for schools."

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