Hyperallergic: 'Auction of Key to Nelson Mandela’s Prison Cell Stirs Controversy'

Published 10 January 2022 in Insights

Hyperallergic

'Auction of Key to Nelson Mandela’s Prison Cell Stirs Controversy'

By Cassie Packard

Hyperallergic - News

Published 5 January 2022


This month, Guernsey’s will hold an online auction of memorabilia related to South African president and anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela.

On January 28, New York auction house Guernsey’s will hold an online auction of memorabilia related to South African president and anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, who died at the age of 95 in 2013. Of the 33 lots on offer, over a third are gifts or awards bestowed upon the celebrated activist, including a quilt from Barack and Michelle Obama, a book of Fernanda Pessoa sonnets from Agostinho Pereira de Miranda, and a commemorative pewter bowl from Harvard University.

Also featured in Guernsey’s “Important Artifacts from the Life of Nelson Mandela” sale are signed copies of Mandela’s books; personal effects, such as one of his patterned silk shirts and the Ray-Ban aviators that he frequently sported (recalling a questionable monument to Mandela — a colossal pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers — installed in Cape Town in 2014); and a mix of art depicting Mandela, such as busts by John Francis Gardner and Charles Gotthard, and art made by the political icon himself in the years after his presidency, including a drawing of the lighthouse on Robben Island north of Cape Town, where he was imprisoned for nearly two decades, and a lithograph of his handprint.

A statue of Nelson Mandela on Naval Hill overlooking Bloemfontei (via CC South African Tourism)

Mandela’s daughter Makaziwe Mandela-Amuah, a South African businessperson, originally reached out to Guernsey’s about arranging an auction of memorabilia to raise funds for the Mandela Memorial Garden, located around Mandela’s burial site in the village of Qunu on the Eastern Cape of South Africa. The garden, which has been in the works since 2007, will feature monuments to Mandela’s life, sanctuary areas, a museum, and a market, with a goal of both honoring the late leader and increasing tourism in the region. A number of items in the auction were consigned by Mandela’s family to benefit the building of the memorial garden.

However, a key item in the sale was consigned by someone else: Christo Brand, the guard assigned to Mandela’s cell at Robben Island Prison. For his opposition to South African apartheid rule, Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, 18 of which he spent at Robben Island Prison, a notorious maximum-security complex where prisoners, many of whom were sentenced for political opposition, were forced to perform hard labor in the quarries. The prison, which has been inactive since 1996, has been declared a South African National Heritage Site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

While serving his sentence at Robben Island, Mandela struck up a friendship with Brand. The guard went on to transfer to Pollsmoor Prison with Mandela, and, after Mandela’s eventual release in 1990, the pair kept up a friendly correspondence. Brand consigned several items to the Guernsey’s sale to benefit the Mandela Memorial Garden, including an exercise bike that Mandela used in prison, a copy of the South African constitution that Mandela signed, and the key to Mandela’s Robben Island prison cell. The key, which has been internationally exhibited, is the star lot of the auction.

The consignment of the key raised objections from South Africa’s culture minister Nathi Mthethwa. “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 the key without any consultation with the South African government, the heritage authorities in South Africa and Robben Island Museum (RIM),” said Mthethwa in a statement. He noted that the master key to Mandela’s cell is on Robben Island, so this key may be a duplicate — an issue that the government is investigating.

Mthethwa continued: “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 … The key must be returned to its rightful owners with immediate effect and the auction must be halted.”

Guernsey’s president Arlan Ettinger reportedly stated that the auction house has entered conversations with the South African government, adding that an unnamed collector has reached out about purchasing the key, donating the proceeds to the memorial, and subsequently returning the key to South Africa. While it is presently unclear whether the key will be sold during the auction or prior to it, the auction is “absolutely occurring,” Ettinger said.


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Image Credit: Single cells facing the B-Section courtyard of Robben Island Maximum Security Prison; Nelson Mandela’s cell is the fourth cell from the left (via Wikimedia Commons)