A letter written by Steve Biko to the Chief Magistrate in King Williamstown in 1973, regarded as a precious archival piece of South Africa’s valuable political heritage is about to be auctioned online by a United Kingdom auction house on 28 October 2017. Biko was, in the letter, requesting permission to visit his wife Nontsikelelo ‘Ntsiki’ Mashalaba at St. Mathews’s Hospital where she worked.
It is displeasing for the heritage sector to experience this commodification and monetisation of historic objects that bears rare testimony to the hardships of struggle activists and the South African liberation struggle. The letter if auctioned, may be untraceable because the bidder will be unknown. This will be a permanent loss to the country’s national memory. The country will lose the piece of evidence to prove that freedom was taken away from even the most reputable leaders and activists at that time.
The country is now in a process of retracing, documenting and preserving the memories of the most painful journey that a nation ever endured under colonialism and apartheid. This project also involves Africa to establish the Resistance and Liberation Heritage Route through a network of historic sites in South Africa and elsewhere in the world where traces of the freedom struggle can be identified. It is such artefacts as the letter of Steve Biko that give our liberation heritage its authenticity.
The National Heritage Council of South Africa (NHC) is in the process of interacting with the auction house in the UK to suspend the sale of the letter through an auction.
“We are not going to stand aside and watch the wealthy community exploiting our heritage. The Biko letter should be the property of the state. How it landed in private hands is still a mystery but also a question to the safety of our historical artefacts. The NHC will explore the strengthening of our legislation to avoid this trend of being robbed of our own heritage”, says Advocate Sonwabile Mancotywa the CEO of the NHC speaking from Kampala in Uganda where he is addressing a gathering on heritage matters.
The NHC thanks all the patriotic citizens of South Africa who alerted the relevant authorities when the intention to auction the letter surfaced. Thomas Willow, a Johannesburg-based business consultant, acted by writing to the auction house. Also, the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) acted swiftly to raise their concern with the auction house. The NHC calls on all citizens to report any theft or illegal possession of historical archival material or artefacts.
Media statement issued by the National Heritage Council (NHC)
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