South Africa to prevent auction of historic Mandela artifacts

FILE - Former South African President Nelson Mandela, centre, wears a printed shirt in Johannesburg, on July 18, 2003 as part of his 85th birthday celebrations. The South African government announced Friday Jan. 19, 2024 that it plans to challenge an auction of artifacts which belonged to Mandela, set to take place in New York next month. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, File)

South Africa’s government announced Friday it will challenge the auctioning of dozens of artifacts belonging to the nation’s anti-apartheid stalwart Nelson Mandela, saying the items are of historical significance and should remain in the country.

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

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

A champagne cooler that was a present from former President Bill Clinton is also on the list, with bidding for it starting at $24,000. Also among the items is Mandela’s ID “book,” his identification document following his 1993 release from prison.

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.

The government said Friday it will back an appeal by the agency.

South African minister of arts and culture, Zizi Kodwa, said the government wants to “preserve the legacy of former President Mandela and ensure that his life’s work” remains in the country.

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 artifact touched by this great leader is almost unthinkable,” it says.

In an interview with the New York Times published 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 Times.

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

The planned auction comes as many African countries seek to have treasured African artworks and artifacts 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 artifacts 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.