Former South African President Nelson Mandela has launched what he is calling a "Center of Memory and Commemoration" to document his life and legacy. The Nobel Peace Prize winner has retired from public life, and this is expected to be one of his last major projects. The first items entered into his personal archive came from a rather surprising source.

The first two items in Nelson Mandela's Center of Memory are a pair of tattered old notebooks, the same kind used by schoolchildren decades ago. Each page is lined with row after row of neat handwriting in blue ball-point pen.

The notebooks contain the drafts of hundreds of letters that Mr. Mandela wrote in prison between February of 1969 and April of 1971. The notebooks were confiscated from him by prison wardens. The former president says they are a precious find.

"For all of us who were part of the struggle for justice and freedom in this country, committing information to paper was a very risky business," he said.

For more than 30 years, the notebooks have been in the possession of a former security policeman named Donald Card. In the late 1960s, he was a detective assigned to scour every letter written by the political prisoners on Robben Island, trying to decode hidden messages.

In 1970, he quit the police force, disillusioned with the apartheid system. But nobody seems to have told the prison warders, who kept sending him packets of letters. He simply mailed them on to their intended recipients. But in 1971, Mr. Card says the last package arrived, containing Mr. Mandela's notebooks.

"The only option open to me with regard to the books was to return them from where they had come," said Mr. Card. "But I decided against this because I thought that these were very valuable documents that could be lost or destroyed. I also realized that they were safe, because nobody knew that I had actually taken them."

So he kept them for more than 30 years. Fourteen years ago, shortly before Mr. Mandela was released from prison, he started trying to contact the Mandela family in order to return them to their rightful owner. But every attempt failed, and the notebooks remained in Mr. Card's possession, until now.

"I was happy to be able to give them back because they are for South Africa. It's the new South Africa," he added. "And with these books people will understand what was happening in those early days."

Mr. Card finally turned the notebooks over to the Nelson Mandela Foundation with the help of historian Cornelius Thomas, director of the Liberation Archives at Mr. Mandela's alma mater, Fort Hare University. Mr. Thomas is very excited about the historical significance of the letters.

"This period, the late 60s, was a very poorly documented period," he explained. "Not much documents survived. And this, '69 to '71, this is as close to a full record of the thinking and the emotions of Mr. Mandela as we're going to get to."

The Nelson Mandela Center for Memory and Commemoration will be an archive project aimed at preserving rare documents like the prison notebooks for future generations. Mr. Mandela hopes that other people who worked for the apartheid government might have artifacts tucked away in closets or garages and will now have someplace to send them. Mr. Mandela says the goal is larger than simply the preservation of his own memory.

"We wanted to dedicate [ourselves] to the recovery of memories and stories suppressed by power," added Mr. Mandela. "That is the call of justice, the call that must be the project's most important shaping influence. The history of our country is characterized by too much forgetting, a forgetting which served the powerful and dispossessed the weak."

Those who have read the letters say they are a window into the real, private Nelson Mandela, as well as into the anti-apartheid movement. Mr. Mandela himself says symbolically, they represent much more than just the working papers of a prisoner.

"They represent the hope that we can recover memories and stories suppressed by the apartheid regime," he said.

The letters themselves are still a mystery. The few people who have read them, including Mr. Card, will reveal no details at the request of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The contents will remain private until Mr. Mandela himself has had a chance to review them and decide which ones to publish.

But the center did allow journalists a glimpse at two pages of a notebook, containing the end of one letter and the beginning of another.

It is not clear who the first letter is addressed to, possibly one of his daughters. He writes of a photo sent to him of a little girl, maybe his grandchild, saying, quote, "the photo is beautiful and reminds me of the happy and romantic days of my childhood. I can almost smell the sweet perfume that must have filled the area where she posed."

The letter continues with a heartbreaking plea. "What is happening?" Mr. Mandela writes. " Why have you not come? You wrote as far back as November and told me that you have applied for a visiting permit. Four months have passed and you have not turned up. Did you apply by registered letter? Do know I am looking forward to seeing you soon."