Mandela’s jailer asks for Robben Island cell key to be removed from auction

06 January 2022 - 20:39
Nelson Mandela in one of his trademark Madiba shirts. File photo.
Nelson Mandela in one of his trademark Madiba shirts. File photo.
Image: Arena Holdings archive

The man who owned the key to Nelson Mandela’s cell during his incarceration at Robben Island says he is in discussions with auction house Guernsey’s to withdraw the item from auction.

Christo Brand made the announcement on Thursday after an outcry when it emerged last month that the key, together with other Mandela memorabilia, would be sold by the auction house on January 28.

Apart from the key, other objects included are an iconic “Madiba” shirt and treasured gifts given to Mandela by Harvard University and former US president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

On Thursday, Brand said he had donated the prison key to raise money for a Mandela Memorial Garden in Qunu, in the Eastern Cape.

“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 items to the official Nelson Mandela exhibition which would be travelling the world,” Brand said.

He said he found the key, which was still in two pieces. He arranged for it be welded together and lent it to the exhibition.

Brand said Mandla Mandela, Mandela’s grandson, is co-executive producer of the exhibition. He said two of the exhibition heritage partners are the Robben Island Museum and the Robben Island Mayibuye Archives at the University of the Western Cape. 

Brand said the exhibition opened in London in February 2019 and is now in the US.  

“Given my commitment to honour [former] president Mandela and promote his legacy, I was happy to oblige. I agreed to the plan that the exhibition would finish in SA in 2023,” Brand said.

He said during the course of last year, he was approached by Dr Makaziwe Mandela, Mandela’s oldest daughter, about an auction she was planning with Guernsey’s to raise funds for a Mandela Memorial Garden at her father’s burial site in Qunu.

“Makaziwe asked me to include the prison key in the auction. The key is on display in the exhibition. I agreed because I wholeheartedly support Dr Mandela’s initiative to preserve and maintain her father’s grave,” Brand said.

Brand said he never concealed that he had the key.

“All the proceeds from the sale of the key would go towards the memorial garden. I would not benefit financially at all.”

This key is considered part of the national estate in terms of the National Heritage Resources Act.
Arts & culture minister Nathi Mthethwa

Brand said due to sensitivities surrounding the key, he is in discussions with Guernsey’s to withdraw the key from the auction and leave it on display in the exhibition.

Arts and culture minister Nathi Mthethwa said he commended Guernsey’s Auction House “for agreeing to suspend its intended auction of the key”.

“This key is considered part of the national estate in terms of the National Heritage Resources Act,” he said.

“The key symbolises SA’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 SA. It therefore must rightfully be returned to the country.”

Mthethwa said Guernsey’s has undertaken to arrange for the key to be returned to SA in consultation with relevant local authorities.

“Details of arrangements will be made available to the public at an appropriate time.”

Guernsey’s have also agreed to halt the sale of other items which belonged to Madiba, said the minister.

“The SA Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) believes such items also form part of the national estate. 

“SAHRA must engage the Mandela family and Nelson Mandela Foundation with a view to establishing whether all other items intended for auctioning form part of the national estate.”

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