Cashing in on Mandela memorabilia
State seeks ownership of items that are personal
The South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) apparently believes that a hearing aid once worn by Nelson Mandela, as well as a pair of (“lightly worn”) shoes owned by the late president and his green bar-coded ID book, belong to the people of South Africa and may not be auctioned.
It seems the courts, however, disagree with SAHRA, opening the way for Mandela’s daughter Makaziwe Mandela to proceed with the auction of his personal effects in New York in February.
This, naturally, is giving the heritage agency night terrors.
Quite why it feels Mandela’s shirts, pinstripe suit and delightful painting of an island with a lighthouse belong to anyone but his heirs is not, to my mind, explained in a way that would sway a judge.
SAHRA wants Mandela’s “life’s work experiences” to remain in the country “for generations to come”, though detail on how this applies to his loafers and hearing aid is sparse.
Since the shirts, the woven blanket with a stylised depiction of the US flag (a gift from Barack Obama) and the tennis racket he used on Robben Island do little to protect South Africa’s cultural landscape, the agency would probably be better off litigating less and applying its mind to saving documents, buildings, photographs and the occasional steam locomotive.
The 70-odd items are expected to sell for between $2m and $3m. If Serena Williams’s broken tennis racket can fetch $20,019 on auction, it’s no stretch that the winning bid for Mandela’s racket is likely to make the seller very happy indeed.
Which brings us to the real contest in play here: the family battling over who owns what. Mandela’s grandson Ndaba Mandela claims the items were stolen from his grandfather’s Houghton home, and that a complaint had been lodged with police in 2021.
That gave the auctioneers, named Guernsey’s, cold feet in 2022, as the sale was cancelled. Not this time, though. Bidding — and family feuding — are likely to be brisk.
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