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PoliticsSouth Africa

Auction of Mandela's prison cell key halted

January 8, 2022

The key to the Robben Island prison cell, where South Africa's first Black president was held, was scheduled to go under the hammer later this month.

Original master key to cells at Robben Island Prison held on a stand
The auction of the key to Mandela's prison cell has been haltedImage: JOR/Capital Pictures/picture alliance

The key to Nelson Mandela's prison cell will not be put to auction in the United States, auctioneers have announced.

The key to Mandela's Robben Island prison cell, where he spent 18 of his 27 years in jail during apartheid, was to go under the hammer on January 28.

US auction house Guernsey's said on its website that the auction had been postponed pending a review by the South African Heritage Resource Agency.

View of Nelson Mandela's prison cell
The key to Mandela's Robben Island prison cell was to be auctioned by US auction house Guernsey's Image: Tom Schulze/Dumont/picture alliance

Guernsey's told the AFP news agency that the government agency called for the auction to be stopped not because it believed anything had been stolen, but because items had "left South Africa without necessary permits."

Other Mandela memorabilia up for auction included an iconic "Madiba" shirt, eyeglasses and ceremonial pens.

Nelson Mandela
Anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela spent 27 years behind bars before becoming the president of South AfricaImage: TREVOR SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images

What did South African authorities say about the auction?

South Africa's minister of arts and culture, Nathi Mthetha, applauded the auction's suspension.

In a statement, the ministry said "the key symbolizes South Africa's painful history whilst also representing triumph of the human spirit over evil."

"The key is living proof of South Africans' long walk to freedom and belongs to the people of South Africa. It therefore must rightfully be returned to the country."

Tourists stand in front of statues of Desmond Tutu, Frederik Willem de Klerk and Nelson Mandela
South African authorities say the key is 'living proof' of the country's struggle to end apartheidImage: Peter Schickert/imago images

How did the key end up at the auction house?

Mandela was jailed for 27 years for his opposition to apartheid.

He went on to serve as South Africa's first Black president from May 1994 to June 1999. He died in December 2013, aged 95.

Mandela's former prison guard Christo Brand, who had struck up a friendship with the anti-apartheid icon, had been in possession of the key since the 1980s.

Mandela's oldest daugther, Makaziwe Mandela-Amuah, had asked Guernsey's to hold the auction.

The auction house said that proceeds from the sale were to be used to build a memorial garden and museum around the late leader's grave.

"I know his is upsetting to the Mandela family, it's upsetting to us, but ... [South African authorities] are doing what they think is best, we just disagree with them," Guernsey's founder Arlan Ettinger said.

sdi/nm (AFP, EFE, Lusa)

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