Five Questions for Verne Harris

The first interview in our “Five Questions for…” series is with Verne Harris. Head of Memory Programming at the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Centre of Memory, Verne Harris has been Mandela’s archivist since 2004. He is an honorary research fellow with the University of Cape Town, participated in a range of structures which transformed South Africa’s apartheid archival landscape, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and is a former Deputy Director of the National Archives. Widely published, he is probably best-known for leading the editorial team on the best-seller Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself. He is the recipient of archival publication awards from Australia, Canada and South Africa, and both his novels were short-listed for South Africa’s M-Net Book Prize. He has served on the Boards of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, the Freedom of Expression Institute, and the South African History Archive.Welcome, Verne, and thank you for participating in our inaugural post for the “Five Questions for…” series!

1. Where do you work?
I work for the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.  It was originally Nelson Mandela’s post–presidential office, now a human rights-oriented NGO doing work in the memory-dialogue nexus.

2. How did you get there?
One step in a long journey with the concept of memory for justice.  On another, more prosaic, level: while working at the University of the Witwatersrand I was asked to help fix Mandela’s archives.

3. What materials/collections do you work with?
I prefer ideas to materials to be honest.  At the Centre’s custodial heart are Mandela’s private papers.

4. What impact do/should/could archives have on human rights?
In my understanding, the archive is the very possibility of politics.  And therefore fundamental to a just politics and an environment hospitable to human rights.

5. Any advice for other/aspiring human rights archivists?
Avoid people who give advice.

FREEFORM: Anything you’d like to share with the Roundtable. 
Anyone reading this sentence obviously didn’t take my answer to question 5 seriously.  But an elaboration on a line from Leonard Cohen for activist archivists: there’s a crack in everything (that’s how the light gets in) – make it bigger.


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