Nelson Mandela's prison cell key, pulled from US auction, should head home

Nelson Mandela's cell in the Robben Island prison off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. Getty

The US auction of a key that kept anti-apartheid activist and former South African president Nelson Mandela behind bars for 18 years has been suspended after a national outcry.

The key was one of several items related to Mandela that was due to be auctioned on 28 January by New York City-based Guernsey’s.

Bidding for the key was expected to begin at $250,000.

But Guernsey’s agreed to suspend the auction until further notice “pending a review” by the South African Heritage Resource Agency.

The government agency called upon the auction house to stop the sale “not because they believed anything was stolen but that things left South Africa without necessary permits,” Guernsey’s president Arlan Ettinger said.

The key belonged to Mandela’s former prison guard Christo Brand, who struck up an unlikely and enduring friendship with the anti-apartheid activist during his 18 years on Robben Island.

Brand has been in possession of the key since the 1980s and said the sale was to fund a garden dedicated to Nelson Mandela in Qunu, the village where he is buried.

Nelson Mandela revisits the prison on Robben Island where he spent 18 years.
Nelson Mandela revisits the prison on Robben Island where he spent 18 years. © AFP/Louise Gubb

Symbol of painful history

South Africa’s Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa commended Guernsey’s for cancelling the auction of the key.

"The key symbolises South Africa's painful history whilst also representing triumph of the human spirit over evil," he said in a statement.

"This key is living proof of South Africans' long walk to freedom and belongs to the people of South Africa," he said. "It therefore must rightfully be returned to the country."

This key opened not just Mandela’s cell, but many others, and is far more than just a souvenir says Mpho Masemola of the South African Ex- political prisoners association (EPPA) .

"This key is a symbol of our freedom. It is associated with the release of the political prisoners on Robben Island, Masemola told RFI. "We would be happy if Christo Brand and the auction house could make amends and bring the key back. It should be registered and put in the national archives," Masemola said.

The Ministry of Culture says it is working on repatriating the key and the other items on sale, including Mandela’s sunglasses, one of his iconic shirts, his exercise bicycle, and a tennis racket he used in prison.

Mandela was held at Robben Island prison, off the coast of Cape Town, for 18 of the 27 years he spent in jail for plotting to overthrow South Africa’s racist apartheid system.

The Rivonia trials in 1963-64, which sentenced him and seven others to life imprisonment, were the subject of an award-winning documentary "The State against Mandela and the others".


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