Madiba with Farieda Khan Cape Town 1994. Pictures from Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory website.

Never-before-seen manuscripts, rare images, diaries and letters written by Nelson Mandela during his 27-year jail term on Robben Island are now available online as part of a digital archive of his life.

The Nelson Mandela Digital Archive project, which was initiated by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory (NMCM) and the Google Cultural Institute, includes more than 1 900 photographs and videos, as well as drafts of manuscripts to the sequel of Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

The NMCM announced that the site had gone live on Tuesday.

It added that the digital archive would not only give people around the globe access to the history of the former statesman’s life and work, but “disadvantaged” South Africans too.

“This digital initiative will make it possible for us to reach the full spectrum of our stakeholders, from the global elite to systemically disadvantaged South Africans,” said centre head Verne Harris.

“Visitors can explore different parts of Mr Mandela’s life and work in depth: Early Life, Prison Years, Presidential Years, Retirement, Books for Mandela, Young People and My Moments with a Legend. It is invigorating to see our combined efforts become a reality.”

Last year, internet search giant Google gave the NMCM’s Joburg branch a $1.25 million grant to help preserve and place thousands of Mandela’s documents on the web.

Steve Crossan, director of the Google Cultural Institute, said: “The Mandela Digital Archive Project shows how the internet can help preserve historical heritage and make it available to the world.

“We’ve worked closely with the NMCM to create an interactive online experience with powerful search and browsing tools, so users can explore Mr Mandela’s inspiring life story.”

Visitors could also see rare images, such as an “earliest-known” photograph taken of Mandela and of his cell on Robben Island in the 1970s, and notes made while he led negotiations to end the apartheid regime.

Google SA manager Luke McKend said people would be able to read a letter handwritten by Mandela which was smuggled from Robben Island in 1997, or see warrant documents that sent him to jail for five years and then for life.

According to Sapa, Mandela had not commented on the archive, but the potential uses of the documents had been discussed with him.

The archive can be viewed at - Cape Argus