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Controversial auction of Nelson Mandela’s prison cell key postponed

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 Jan 7, 2022

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Cape Town - Sports, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa has commended a New York auction house, Guernsey’s Auction for postponing its intended Nelson Mandela Auction.

The auction, mired in controversy, was scheduled to take place on January 28, according to Guernsey’s website, with the auction house referring to it as an “unprecedented auction of historic objects relating to the life of Nelson Mandela”.

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One of the items on the list was the Robben Island Prison key, with other more notable items among them Mandela’s sunglasses, the Pollsmoor Prison Cell exercise bicycle, and one of Madiba’s prison tennis rackets.

In a statement, Mthethwa said: “This key is considered part of the national estate in terms of the National Heritage Resources Act.

“The key symbolises South Africa’s painful history, while also representing the triumph of the human spirit over evil. This 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.”

Guernseys has undertaken to arrange for the key to be returned to South Africa in consultation with relevant South African authorities, Mthethwa said.

Guernseys has also agreed to halt the sale of the other items belonging to Mandela. The Robben Island cell key is on exhibition in the US.

Mandela’s former prison guard and friend Christo Brand said: “In 1981 one of the keys we used in the prison broke and was scrapped. I kept it with all my other personal belongings and forgot about it until 2018, when I was asked to lend some items to the official Nelson Mandela exhibition which would be travelling the world. I then found the key, which was still in two pieces. I arranged for it be welded together and lent it to the exhibition.

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“Given my commitment to honour President Mandela and promote his legacy, I was happy to oblige. I agreed to the plan that the exhibition would finish in South Africa in 2023,” he said.

Brand said he had donated the prison key to raise funds for a Mandela Memorial Garden in Qunu after being approached by his eldest daughter, Dr Makaziwe Mandela, last year about the auction with Guernsey’s to raise funds for the garden at Mandela’s burial site in Qunu in the Eastern Cape.

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