South African Government Seeks to Halt Auction of Mandela Items


The South African Heritage Resources Agency is seeking to prevent an auction of dozens of Nelson Mandela’s personal belongings, saying on Thursday that it has filed court papers to appeal a ruling that had allowed the sale of the items to go forward.

Guernsey’s auction house in New York said this week that it planned to auction about 70 of Mr. Mandela’s items on Feb. 22 as part of a fund-raising effort to support the establishment of a memorial garden near where Mr. Mandela, the former South African president, is buried.

South African officials had blocked an earlier effort to sell the items on the grounds that some of them are objects of national heritage. But the organizers of the planned sale, led by Mr. Mandela’s oldest daughter, Dr. Makaziwe Mandela, won a court judgment last month.

In its ruling, a three-judge panel of the High Court in Pretoria found that the government’s claim to the items as heritage objects was “overbroad.”

But the South African Heritage Resources Agency said Thursday that, while it respects the court’s decision, it had joined with the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture and the museum that manages the island where Mr. Mandela was long imprisoned to seek permission to appeal the judgment.

The heritage agency, known as SAHRA, had declined to comment earlier this week when asked by The New York Times to comment on the judicial ruling and the planned sale. But in its statement on Thursday, the government said it had filed court papers in December in an effort to seek permission to file a formal appeal of the court’s decision.

“SAHRA, the Department and the Museum are urgently assessing the lawfulness and implications of the impending auction, and considering all available remedies,” the agency said in its statement. “This is not only to protect and promote a commitment to conserving South Africa’s rich cultural heritage but also to contributing to the global discourse on responsible cultural heritage stewardship.”

Several years ago, the first effort to arrange such a sale drew attention from the South African government soon after it was announced. South African officials objected in particular to the sale of a key to the Robben Island prison cell where Mr. Mandela was held for years. As a result, a 2022 sale was canceled. (The key is not currently included in the online auction set for February.)

Among the items listed for sale this time: Mr. Mandela’s official South African Identification Book, personal gifts from American presidents and several of his colorful “Madiba” shirts.

The ruling last month that had appeared to green light the latest planned auction was handed down by the High Court in Pretoria, which will now review whether to allow an appeal of its decision. If the appeal is permitted, it will be heard by the country’s Supreme Court of Appeal, according to South African lawyers.

“My sense is that they will probably be granted that leave to appeal,” said Kevin Malunga, the head of Regenesys Law School in Johannesburg.

Arlan Ettinger, the president of Guernsey’s, said Thursday he was shocked to learn that the government plans to appeal. He said it was not immediately clear how it might affect plans for the auction.

“This is clearly deeply concerning and not something that we had an inkling or sense of,” he said, adding that he had spoken with the Mandela family and “they knew nothing of this.”

“Our position is just to be strong and see how this plays out,” he added.

In a brief interview on Thursday, Dr. Mandela said that she was undeterred and saw no reason the planned auction should pause.

“Every time they’ve gone to court, they’ve lost,” she said of the South African heritage agency. “They don’t have any leg to stand on. They’re trying to steal things that don’t belong to them.”

Mr. Mandela, who dedicated most of his life to emancipating South Africa from white minority rule, died in 2013 at 95, 23 years after his release from prison and 19 years after he was elected president. He is buried in the Eastern Cape village of Qunu, where he grew up, and where Dr. Mandela hopes to build a 24-acre Mandela Memorial Garden.



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