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South Africa seeks to stop auction of historic Nelson Mandela artefacts

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Al Jazeera


The South African government has said it will challenge the auctioning of dozens of artefacts belonging to the nation’s anti-apartheid stalwart Nelson Mandela, saying the items are of historical significance and should be preserved in the country.

The 75 items belonging to Mandela – the country’s first democratically elected president who spent 27 years in jail for his anti-apartheid struggle against white minority rule – are to go under the hammer on February 22 in a deal between New York-based auctioneers Guernsey’s and Mandela’s family, mainly his daughter Makaziwe Mandela.

But South Africa’s Ministry of Culture said it has filed an appeal to halt “the unpermitted export” of the objects.

“Former president Nelson Mandela is integral to South Africa’s heritage,” Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture Zizi Kodwa said in a statement.

“It is thus important that we … ensure that his life’s work and experiences remain in the country for generations to come.” Mandela passed away in 2013.

The items include the late leader’s iconic Ray-Ban sunglasses and “Madiba” shirts, personal letters he wrote from prison, as well as a blanket gifted to him by former US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle.

Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton
Nelson Mandela, left, was known for wearing his iconic ‘Madiba’ shirts, some of which are up for auction. A champagne cooler that was gift to him from former US president Bill Clinton, right, is also up for auction [File: Scott Applewhite, Pool/AP]

A champagne cooler that was a present from former President Bill Clinton is also on the list, with bidding on it starting at $24,000. Among the items is also Mandela’s ID “book”, his identification document following his release from prison in the 1990s.

Last month, the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria gave the go-ahead for the auction after dismissing an interdict by the South African Heritage Resources Agency, which is responsible for the protection of the country’s cultural heritage.

‘Almost unthinkable’

On its website, Guernsey’s says the auction “will be nothing short of remarkable”, and that proceeds will be used for the building of the Mandela Memorial Garden in Qunu, the village where he is buried.

“To imagine actually owning an artefact touched by this great leader is almost unthinkable,” it says.

In an interview with US media published on Thursday, Makaziwe Mandela said her father wanted the former Transkei region where he was born and raised to benefit economically from tourism.

“I want other people in the world to have a piece of Nelson Mandela – and to remind them, especially in the current situation, of compassion, of kindness, of forgiveness,” she told the New York Times.

Reports of the auction have sparked heated debates on social media platforms in South Africa, with many criticising the auctioning of what they consider to be the nation’s cultural heritage.

The planned auction has come as many African countries seek to have treasured African artworks and artefacts that were removed from the continent during colonial years returned to Africa.

Most recently, Nigeria and Germany signed a deal for the return of hundreds of artefacts known as the Benin Bronzes.

The deal followed French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision in 2021 to sign over 26 pieces known as the Abomey Treasures, priceless artworks of the 19th century Dahomey kingdom in present-day Benin.