Mandela’s Legacy at Risk as Family Auctions Off His Belongings

South Africa challenges the sale of 75 items that belonged to the anti-apartheid icon, saying they should be preserved in the country

by Victor Adetimilehin

The South African government has launched a legal bid to stop the auction of dozens of artifacts that belonged to Nelson Mandela, the country’s first democratically elected president and a global symbol of the struggle against apartheid.

The 75 items, which include Mandela’s iconic Ray-Ban sunglasses, personal letters, and gifts from world leaders, are set to go under the hammer on February 22 in a deal between New York-based auctioneers Guernsey’s and Mandela’s family, mainly his daughter Makaziwe Mandela.

But South Africa’s Ministry of Culture said it has filed an appeal to halt “the unpermitted export” of the objects, arguing that they are of historical significance and should be preserved in the country.

“Former president Nelson Mandela is integral to South Africa’s heritage,” Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture Zizi Kodwa said in a statement.

“It is thus important that we … ensure that his life’s work and experiences remain in the country for generations to come.” Mandela passed away in 2013.

A Controversial Auction

The auction has 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.

Some have accused Mandela’s daughter of exploiting her father’s legacy for personal gain, while others have defended her right to dispose of her inheritance as she wishes.

Makaziwe Mandela has said that the proceeds from the auction will be used for the building of the Mandela Memorial Garden in Qunu, the village where he is buried.

She has also said that 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 New York Times in an interview published on Thursday.

A Treasure Trove of History

The items up for auction offer a glimpse into the life and times of Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison for his anti-apartheid activism before becoming the president of a democratic South Africa in 1994.

Among the items is Mandela’s ID “book”, his identification document following his release from prison in the 1990s.

There is also a champagne cooler that was a present from former US President Bill Clinton, and a blanket gifted to him by former US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle.

Some of the items reflect Mandela’s style, such as his “Madiba” shirts, named after his clan name and featuring colorful patterns.

Others reveal his correspondence with fellow activists, friends, and family, such as a letter he wrote to his wife Winnie Mandela from prison in 1976.

The auction also includes several artworks by Mandela, such as sketches of his prison cell and handprints.

A Quest for Restitution

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.

The South African government has said that it is committed to the restitution of African heritage and that it will pursue all legal avenues to ensure that Mandela’s belongings are not sold abroad.

It has also urged the public to support its efforts to protect and promote the legacy of Mandela, who is widely revered as a moral leader and a champion of human rights.

“His values of peace, unity, forgiveness, and reconciliation are needed now more than ever,” Kodwa said.

Source: New Zimbabwe


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