South Africa condemns US auction for selling Nelson Mandela prison key

South Africa condemns US auction house for selling jailer’s key that kept Nelson Mandela locked up for 18 years and insists it belongs to the nation

  • The South African government has condemned an auction in America of the key that kept Nelson Mandela behind bars
  • The Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture has spoken out against the sale of the key
  • Nathi Mthethwa, 54, said that the key ‘belongs to the people of South Africa’
  • Christo Brand, who was Mandela’s jailer and became his friend, is selling the key
  • Expected to fetch more than £1million when it sells at auction in US next month

The South African government has condemned an upcoming auction in the US of the key which kept former South African president Nelson Mandela locked behind bars for almost 20 years.

New York-based auction house Guernsey’s is hosting an online only auction next month which will see a number of items being sold which held significant importance during Mandela’s life.

And the key which kept Mandela behind bars on Robben Island is believed to be set to fetch more than £1million when it sells.

But today, the South African Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture has spoken out against the auction.

The key comes from the prison on Robben island near Cape Town where the anti-apartheid campaigner was incarcerated by the white authorities

Nathi Mthethwa, 54, said: ‘It is unfathomable for Guernseys, which is clearly aware of the painful history of our country and the symbolism of the key, to consider auctioning the key without any consultation with the South African Government, the heritage authorities in South Africa and Robben Island Museum.

‘This key belongs to the people of South Africa under the care of Robben Island Museum and the South African State. It is not anyone’s personal belonging.’

Mthethwa added: ‘The key must be returned to its rightful owners with immediate effect and this auction must be halted. 

‘I am currently in discussions with the Robben Island Museum Council, the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Ronald Lamola and the National Heritage Council to consider appropriate steps that must be taken to stop the auction and to secure the return of the key to South Africa.’ 

The statement also said that the Robben Island Museum has a legal mandate to collect and preserve objects associated with the prison for the people of South Africa. 

MailOnline has approached Guernsey’s and Christo Brand for additional comment.     

The key comes from the prison on Robben island near Cape Town where the anti-apartheid campaigner was incarcerated by the white authorities.

It was used by the jailer, Christo Brand, who became his friend, and who is now selling the small metal key more than seven years after Mandela’s death. 

In 1964, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment at the age of 46, initially on Robben island where he would be kept for 18 years

The two men forged a bond of friendship that continued until Mandela’s death in 2013 at the age of 95 and now the key is being auctioned off at a New York sale next week.

Founder and president of the New York-based auction house Guernseys, Arlan Ettinger, said today: ‘The idea that an ordinary key worth pennies should be so important is extraordinary. But it represents the best and worst of humanity – Mandela was imprisoned unjustly for 27 years and his first jailer was an 18-year-old boy in his first job.

‘The guard who was in charge of some of the world’s most dangerous prisoners, discovered that Mandela was gentle, kindly and thoughtful man and the pair became good friends – a friendship that lasted the rest of Mandela’s life – from prison to presidency.

‘What that key symbolises is an extraordinary part of the history not just of South Africa but the world.’

The auction house has put a reserve of $250,000 (£186,000) but Mr Ettinger says it could well fetch more than a million pounds. 

But today, a representative of Brand said that no reserve price has been set. 

He added: ‘We really hope it is not bought by a collector who just wants to own it – it is such a symbolic key that everyone should be able to see it.’

Mandela delivered his famous ‘Speech from the Dock’ while facing the death penalty on April 20, 1964 – and he ended his speech by saying, ‘I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.

‘It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die’ – words that symbolised his life-long dedication to the fight for equality, as well as the eradication of the South African racist system of apartheid.

The key was used by the jailer, Christo Brand, pictured who became Mandela’s friend, and who is now selling the small metal key more than seven years after Mandela’s death.

Years of unjust imprisonment and a Nobel Peace Prize later, Nelson Mandela voted for the first time in 1994 and in the same year, he became the first democratically-elected President of South Africa.

Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his first 27 years in captivity at the infamous Robben Island but even from inside the prison known for its brutal treatment and inhumane living conditions, Mandela continued to contribute to his reforms outside.

Prison inmates were permitted to write and send just two letters a year but with the help of his fellow inmates and visitors, Mandela managed to smuggle out statements and letters that continued his anti-apartheid movement.

Even while he was incarcerated Mandela fought for inmates’ rights and better treatment and as a result of his reforms, he was offered a tennis racket and an exercise bicycle. Both of these are also in the sale.

The key was used by the jailer, Christo Brand (pictured with Mandela in 1998), who became his friend, and who is now selling the small metal key more than seven years after Mandela’s death


1960:  69 peaceful protesters are killed by police in the Sharpeville Massacre; in the aftermath the ANC is banned, prompting Mandela to go into hiding. While in hiding he forms an underground military group with armed resistance

1962: After living on the run for seventeen months he is arrested on August 5 and imprisoned in the Johannesburg Fort. On October 25 he is sentenced to five years in prison but again goes on the run

1964: On June 12 Mandela is captured and convicted of sabotage and treason. He is sentenced to life imprisonment at the age of 46, initially on Robben island where he would be kept for 18 years

1968: His mother dies and his eldest son is killed in a car crash but he is not allowed to attend either of the funerals

1980: The exiled Oliver Tambo launches an international campaign for the release of his friend

1986: Sanctions against South Africa are tightened, costing millions in revenue

1990: On February 11, Nelson Mandela is released from prison after 27 years. He had served the last part of his sentence in Victor Verster Prison in Paarl.

President De Klerk lifts the ban on the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC and the white National Party begin talks on forming a multi-racial democracy for South Africa.

1991: Mandela becomes President of the ANC. The International Olympic Committee lift a 21-year ban on South African athletes competing in the Olympic Games.

1992: He separates from Winnie Mandela after she is convicted of kidnapping and being an accessory to assault. The following March they divorce.

1993: Nelson Mandela and Mr de Klerk are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

1994: April 26 Free Elections where black South Africans are allowed to vote for the first time. Nelson Mandela runs for President and the ANC win 252 of the 400 seats in the national assembly

In May, Mandela is inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa. He appoints de Klerk as deputy president and forms the racially mixed Government of National Unity.

1995: South Africa hosts the 1995 Rugby World Cup and South Africa wins. Nelson Mandela wears a Springbok shirt when he presents the trophy to Afrikaner captain Francois Pienaar. This gesture was seen as a major step in the reconciliation of white and black South Africans.

1998: Marries Graca Machel, the widow of the former president of Mozambique, on his 80th birthday.

1999: Relinquishes presidency in favour of Thabo Mbeki, who was nominated ANC president in 1997.

2001: Nelson Mandela was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer

2004: Nelson Mandela announced that he would be retiring from public life at the age of 85

2005: His son, Makgatho Mandela died of AIDS

2010: Mandela makes a rare public appearance at the football World Cup in South Africa

2012: An increasingly frail Mandela is admitted to hospital twice in February and December

2013: In December, Mandela died at the age of 95 following a struggle with a respiratory problem. A national period of 10 days of mourning was observed throughout South Africa following his death


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