Steve Biko’s letter and the sale of SA’s heritage to the highest bidder

On 28 October, one of Europe’s leading autograph and manuscript auction houses will be selling a piece of South African heritage that should be in South Africa’s governmental archives.

A handwritten letter by Black Consciousness Movement founder Steve Biko on 29 October 1973 is listed in UK auction house International Autograph Auctions’ (IAA) catalogue. The item, listed as “229 Beko Steve” is of “utmost rarity” and will cost between £2 000 and £3 000 (R36,059 and R54 089).

The discovery was made by Johannesburg-based business consultant Thomas Winslow. One evening, after attending a book launch on the importance of archives in the context of South African history, Winslow decided to do some research. He was shocked to find that pieces of South Africa’s historical heritage were being sold in Europe, the United States, and United Kingdom to the highest bidders online. “There are a number of websites, like eBay… where they auction off high value items. A lot of it is South African heritage. I was very surprised that I came across the letter that was firstly being sold in the UK this week was by Steve Biko,” Winslow told The Daily Vox.

Winslow was shocked to find this letter on sale as it is a historical artefact that’s a part of South Africa’s political and social heritage. Biko wrote to the chief magistrates in King William’s Town, Eastern Cape requesting permission to visit his wife Nontsikelelo ‘Ntsiki’ Mashalaba at St. Matthew’s Hospital just outside Keiskammahoek where she worked. Winslow said that this letter gives a snapshot into what life was like back then for political activists who had to deal with banning orders. “I read that and I thought, this great South African leader, not only did he have to get permission to visit his wife, but he was hitching a ride home. That’s the stuff of social history,” he said.

Winslow wrote an impassioned post on Facebook, which was shared by his daughter on Twitter, asking South Africans to write to IAA and stop the sale of the letter. “People are profiting off of these stolen documents that are rich in our history,” he said. Winslow has also written to IAA.

The South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), a government body tasked with identifying and managing South Africa’s heritage objects, found out about the sale after receiving emails from concerned parties and got in touch with IAA on 20 October. “SAHRA drafted an urgent email to International Autograph Auctions on 20 October 2017 requesting that the auction of the letter be temporarily suspended,” said Cuan Hahndiek, SAHRA’s heritage officer.

Hahndiek said they are concerned about how a letter that is a matter of public record ended up overseas and up for sale. According to the National Archives Act, documents as old as this letter must be removed from the magistrates and added into the National Archives. “[I]t is perturbing that this letter ended up in private ownership to be sold on auction and that it left our shores without a permit application made to SAHRA,” he said.

The co-director of the South African History Archives (SAHA), Dr Geraldine Frieslaar, told The Daily Vox that because the letter was addressed to a government official, it should be in the National Archives, or with the Steve Biko Foundation. Frieslaar said auction houses would only be interested in getting an original copy of the letter and it could only be removed one way.

“[It] would then mean either it was taken by a researcher or someone who works there, which would be theft of course,” she said.

IAA told The Daily Vox that it received Biko’s letter through “reputable sources”. A representative of the auction house, Richard Davie, said the only South African group that has challenged the sale of the letter is SAHRA. “SAHRA has stated that ‘it seems likely’ that the letter was removed from their custody,” said Davie.

He also said that SAHRA had stated that the letter bears South African government stamps but IAA isn’t convinced by SAHRA’s claims. “Naturally we cannot accept such flimsy and inaccurate allegations as a reason for withdrawing the lot,” said Davie. IAA will only consider removing the letter from the auction if it is provided with the date Biko’s letter was added into SAHRA’s archives, its reference number, or the date when the letter was allegedly removed from SAHRA’s archives and when it was reported to the authorities.

IAA said they regularly have government agencies and institutions bid in their auctions for historical artefacts. “If the South African government wish to participate in the auction of this item they are welcome to do so. The auction is a public event,” said Davie.

Hahndiek said that SAHRA doesn’t keep heritage objects so therefore can’t provide IAA with this information. SAHRA also said that it is not part of its mandate to bid in auctions to get heritage objects. It has working partnerships with other international auction houses who successfully work with them to return objects that are part of South Africa’s heritage. But IAA has refused to cooperate. “In the case of International Autograph Auctions who was invited to work in collaboration with SAHRA with regards to the sale of this important letter, the offer was declined,” he said.

Questions about ownership outweighing historical importance, the commodification of a people’s heritage and the monetisation of their artefacts by notable wealthy people come into play, said Frieslaar. “It’s got to do with ego and wealth but it’s also in a way a very arrogant and egotistical way of taking ownership of history and not allowing it to be part of the world’s history.”

It’s going to be a fight between well-resourced auction houses and collectors, and those protecting our historical and cultural heritage. Frieslaar said it’s hard to repatriate an object once the money has exchanged hands. “Litigation can be a very long process to finally repatriate and many smaller governments simply do not have the resources to pursue that avenue.”


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