Desmond Tutu's life goes online

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a key figure in South Africa's history. His story will now be told in a vast internet archive. By Nick Jackson
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The Independent Online

Later this month, work begins on the greatest online biographical archive of any living figure, with King's College London marking Desmond Tutu's 75th birthday with the Desmond Tutu Digital Archive. The £4.5m project will make the veteran apartheid campaigner's entire archive of speeches, letters and writings available to internet users.

Few people in the last century can match Archbishop Tutu as a figure of moral authority, and one who represented the best of South Africa in some very bleak times. As the architect of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission - and the man who coined the phrase "rainbow nation" to describe post-apartheid South Africa - he is one of those rare dissidents whose reputation has grown since winning the argument.

Which is why King's College London and the universities of the Western Cape and Witwatersrand are willing to spend at least five years on getting every one of about 200,000 documents and more than 1,000 hours of audio recordings online. In the first year, the archive is expected to be used by a million people.

"This is the first attempt to do a warts-and-all archive like this for a living figure," says Harold Short, director of KCL's Centre for Computing in the Humanities, which is co-ordinating the project. The priority for Short is getting this vast resource out to young South Africans. "For everyone under the age of 20 in South Africa, there is no clear sense of what South Africa was like," Short says. The project will make the information available to South African schoolchildren, either via free access online or, if that is not possible, through information packs.

This is more than an archive of one man's life, Short says. "Tutu has always been at the centre of controversy. Whenever I've been in South Africa, everyone from hotel porters and taxi drivers to politicians has a Tutu story. We want to incorporate that into the archive." People will be able to add their memories of the period. The aim is for Tutu's life to be a touchstone of his times. "His life exemplifies the lives of many South Africans in the struggle from apartheid to now," Short says.

To be chosen as that example is quite something, particularly when the anti-apartheid movement embraced so many heroes. Archbishop Tutu is appropriately chuffed. "I am humbled to be at the centre of such an initiative," he says. "But if it can help to spread understanding and, dare I say it, love, around the world, then it surely must be a good thing."

Why him? Archbishop Tutu has been relatively neglected by apartheid historians. While Nelson Mandela's archives have been thoroughly examined by biographers, much of this will be new to everyone except apartheid specialists.

Archbishop Tutu is also less politically divisive than other anti-apartheid veterans who went on to join the ANC government while he worked on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Tutu also has strong links to two of the universities involved, as Chancellor at the University of the Western Cape and a KCL professor and graduate. He has fond memories of KCL in the 1960s. "Study opened up a whole new world to me," he says. "I was excited by the accessibility of books, the freedom to question and to debate and the opportunity to listen to the wisdom of minds whose experience and learning left me eager to discover more."

Project leaders hope that the online archive will be a similar inspiration. It should certainly have value for apartheid historians, says Professor William Beinart, director of Oxford University's African Studies Centre. "Tutu is a very interesting character," he says. "In South African history, he is a very significant figure. His papers and archives will be very important."

The great advantage of an unedited archive is the opportunity it gives to take a fresh look at the man without a biographer looking over your shoulder to make sure you reach the right conclusions. Usually, trawling an archive means office hours in a strange city, so only the professionals get a look. An online archive will mean that everyone can consult it. "This archive allows access to lots of different levels of study, not just one or two biographers," Beinart says.

So, whether users are looking for inspiration on non-violent protest, or just an understanding of how an Anglican Church more readily associated with jumble sales than revolution spawned a dissident like Archbishop Tutu, his life in all its colour and diversity will be there. A rainbow research tool, perhaps.

Desmond Tutu: the long walk from apartheid to God's 'rainbow people'

1931 Desmond Mpilo Tutu is born in Klerksdorp, Transvaal.

1948 The National Party wins the general election on an apartheid platform.

1961 Tutu is ordained a priest. Nelson Mandela forms Umkhonto we Sizwe, a military wing of the ANC.

1962 Tutu goes to London to study theology at King's College London. Mandela is arrested.

1968 Tutu returns to South Africa to teach, using his lectures as a platform to highlight the injustices of apartheid. Steve Biko founds Black Consciousness.

1975 Tutu becomes the first black Dean of Johannesburg.

1976 Tutu writes to Prime Minister John Vorster warning of violence if apartheid continues. Following the Soweto massacre, riots erupt in townships across South Africa.

1977 Steve Biko dies in police custody. Tutu delivers the funeral oration.

1979 Tutu calls for economic sanctions against the South African government on Danish television.

1984 Tutu awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his "role as a unifying leader figure in the campaign to resolve the problem of apartheid in South Africa".

1986 Tutu is elected Archbishop of Cape Town. President PW Botha declares a state of emergency.

1988 Tutu's offices in Johannesburg are bombed in an outbreak of far-right activity.

1990 Apartheid's terror state is dismantled by President FW de Klerk.

1994 African National Congress wins first free election with a landslide. Tutu coins the phrase "rainbow people of God".

1995 The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is set up in Cape Town with Archbishop Tutu as its chairman.