Court battle over Mandela prison key

A close up view of the lock on Nelson Mandela's cell in Robben Island, South Africa, is shown. Picture: AP

A close up view of the lock on Nelson Mandela's cell in Robben Island, South Africa, is shown. Picture: AP

Published Dec 6, 2023


The possible auctioning of Nelson Mandela’s key to his Robben Island prison cell and other artefacts associated with him has led to legal action in the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria.

The SA Heritage Resources Agency (Sahra) has asked that Mandela’s daughter and his former prison warder be interdicted from selling the items.

This was after a British newspaper, the “Daily Mail”, published a story in December 2021 in which it said the key was set to fetch millions of rand at an auction by US auction house Guernsey’s.

The key was the headline item at the auction.

Guernsey’s earlier said on its website that the key would be included with one of Madiba’s iconic shirts, a signed copy of the South African Constitution, and other gifts given to Mandela by Harvard University and the Obamas.

Sahra brought the high court application, among others, against Dr Makaziwe Mandela and Christo Brand, Mandela’s prison warder.

The application was about whether the artefacts up for auction fell into the category of national heritage as envisaged under the Heritage Act.

Former Robben Island prison warder, Christo Brand. File picture: Michael Pinyana.

Acting Judge V Ngalwana, who wrote the judgment on behalf of the full court (three judges), said South Africa had made significant strides in building a national heritage that included the Robben Island Museum and Pretoria’s Freedom Park.

The heritage agency, in asking that the respondents be interdicted from selling the 29 items, deemed them to be heritage objects by regulation.

Dr Mandela has launched a counter-application in which she asked the court to set aside what she termed the agency’s decision to declare the Mandela items as “heritage objects”.

Brand, who in later years became Mandela’s friend, also asked the court to dismiss Sahra’s application.

Acting Judge Ngalwana said it was in dispute whether the Mandela objects were removed from South Africa by Dr Mandela and Brand. What is clear, however, is that the objects were removed and no export permit was obtained. But, the judge said, that was not an issue the court needed to deal with.

A file picture of Dr Makaziwe Mandela (L) and Britain's King Charles at an exhibition of drawings by Nelson Mandela on display in St George’s Hall in, England. Dr Mandela is in a legal dispute over the sale of artefacts. Picture: AFP

The heritage agency said it had learnt about the sale in December 2021, through the report in the British newspaper. It was said the prison key was set to sell for more than £1 million.

Dr Mandela acknowledged in court papers that the items had been listed for auction and had not been returned to South Africa.

Shortly after Sahra had heard about the auction, it asked the auction house to suspend the auction and to return the items to South Africa. The auction house subsequently cancelled the auction, but told the agency that US law did not allow it to return the items to a third party.

Dr Mandela had got wind of that and had told the heritage agency that under no circumstances would any of the items be returned to South Africa.

The court said there was no question that Madiba had been a person of importance in South African history.

“But what of the tens or hundreds of Springbok rugby jerseys or ruling party attire autographed by president Mandela on the campaign trail or copies of his book, Long Walk to Freedom, autographed by him over the years?” the judge asked.

Judge Ngalwana added that as reasoned by the heritage agency in referring to the Heritage Act, they too should then be declared heritage objects.

The judge said the Heritage Act was clear that not every object associated with an important and historical person, was a heritage object.

The court turned down the main application and Dr Mandela’s counter-application. This leaves the path open for the items to be auctioned if the parties so wish.

Pretoria News