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Outrage over Nelson Mandela’s prison cell key going on auction

A close up view of the lock on Nelson Mandela's cell in Robben Island, South Africa, is shown on Tuesday, July 1, 2008. Picture: Schalk van Zuydam/AP

A close up view of the lock on Nelson Mandela's cell in Robben Island, South Africa, is shown on Tuesday, July 1, 2008. Picture: Schalk van Zuydam/AP

Published Dec 29, 2021

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Cape Town - The Ex-Political Prisoners’ Association (Eppa) has warned it would lodge a formal complaint against Nelson Mandela’s jailer, Christo Brand, after reports that he is auctioning the key to Madiba’s Robben Island prison cell.

Last week, British newspaper, the Daily Mail, published a story in which it said the key was set to fetch millions of rand at the January 28 auction by US auction house Guernsey’s. The key is the headline item at the auction.

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Guernsey’s said on its website that the key would be included with one of the former president’s iconic Madiba shirts, a signed copy of the South African constitution, and other gifts given to Mandela by Harvard University and the Obamas.

Eppa secretary Mpho Masemola said the organisation worked with the Robben Island Museum (RIM), Sports, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa and the South African Heritage Resources Agency (Sahra) to interdict the auction.

“Our Struggle was not for sale. Look at the timing of the auction; it happened after all the Rivonia triallists have passed on. Why didn’t Brand auction these things when Madiba was alive?”

Brand’s spokesperson Andrew Russel said: “At present we are not ready to chat. We will contact you as soon as we are.”

Mthethwa said: “It is unfathomable for Guernsey’s, which is clearly aware of the painful history of our country and the symbolism of the key, to consider auctioning it without any consultation with the South African government, or the heritage authorities in South Africa and RIM.

“This key belongs to the people of South Africa under the care of RIM and the South African state. It is not anyone’s personal belonging.”

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Former Robben Island prison warder, Christo Brand. File Picture: Michael Pinyana.

He said he was in discussions with the RIM council, Justice and Correctional Services Minister Ronald Lamola, and the National Heritage Council to consider the appropriate steps to take to stop the auction and secure the return of the key to South Africa.

On December 24, the day after the original story was published, Sahra wrote to Guernsey’s. In its letter, Sahra demanded the suspension of the auction, saying failure to return the objects and selling them instead would constitute the illicit trafficking of cultural heritage.

The letter, signed by Sahra chief executive Lungisa Malgas, said the export of the heritage objects without an export permit issued by Sahra was a criminal offence in terms of the National Heritage Resources Act.

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Sahra had demanded to be told the location of the items by Monday this week, threatening further action if this deadline was not met.

Responding on Monday, Guernsey’s president, Arlan Ettinger, said the Sahra letter was received after the auctioneer’s office had closed for the Christmas holidays, and he was travelling on business. He promised to get in touch with Sahra by no later than 5pm on January 3.

“This would allow us time to sort through this matter and present to you what we feel confident will be a satisfactory conclusion,” Ettinger said.

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