July 17, 2024

The planned auction of the key to Nelson Mandela’s prison cell

3 min read

A planned auction of the key to Nelson Mandela’s prison cell at the Robben Island halted.

The auction of the key to the prison cell where South Africa’s first Black president and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela was detained has been postponed.

The key to Mandela’s Robben Island prison cell, where he spent 18 of his 27 years in detention, was set to be auctioned on January 28 by Guernsey’s in the United States.

The auction has been postponed until further notice “pending a review” by the South African Heritage Resources Agency, according to Guernsey’s website.

The auction was halted “not because they suspected anything was stolen Nelson Mandela’s prison cell, but because goods departed South Africa without the proper licences,” according to Guernsey’s President Arlan Ettinger.

Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa commended the auction house for agreeing to suspend the auction.

Nelson Mandela’s prison cell at the Robben Island

In a statement, the ministry said “the key symbolizes South Africa’s painful history whilst 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.”

The key was one of the items to be auctioned among an assortment including an iconic “Madiba” shirt, eyeglasses, and ceremonial pens.

The proceeds were to be used to build Mandela Memorial Garden in his home village where his remains are buried.

Ettinger said his firm had been contacted by one of Mandela’s daughters to auction the paraphernalia, including the key.

Mandela’s former prison guard Christo Brand, who struck up an unlikely and enduring friendship with the anti-apartheid icon, had been in possession of the key since the 1980s.


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It was broken and he “sent it back to the authorities on the mainland … but it was returned to him, and he put it in a drawer and it stayed there for 30 years until he was contacted by a museum which was assembling things relating to Mandela”, said Ettinger, commending Brand for being “very generous to give up this possession to help build the garden”.

The auctioneers explained they complied with the government decision.

“I know this is upsetting to the Mandela family, it’s upsetting to us, but … they [government] are doing what they think is best, we just disagree with them,” he said.

Nelson Mandela was elected as the first president of democratic South Africa in May 1994 and served in the role until June 1999. 

He died aged 95 in December 2013.

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