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The Biko letter that caused all the trouble

A 1973 letter by black consciousness leader Steve Biko sent to King William's Town's chief magistrate, requesting permission to visit his wife Ntsiki for an urgent family matter, will go under the hammer of UK auctioneer International Autograph Auctions on October 28 2017.

The sale of what is called a historical artefact is generating interest in how the balance between public and private ownership of items with national relevance are managed.

According to Toerien van Wyk, South African History Archive's co-director, international practices do take into consideration the interests of societies against whom acts of injustice were committed.

“Internationally there is recognition of a 'right to truth'. That is the right of victims, and families of victims, of gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law, to access the complete truth about these violations,” she said.

This is a comprehensive set of rights that cover the context and historical circumstances tied to people's experiences and their past.

“This includes the truth about events that transpired, the circumstances surrounding those events, the participants and the reasons. This right is under international law and is regarded as part of the right of access to information,” she added.

Marjan Boelsma, activist and co-founder of the Netherlands anti-apartheid organisation Azania Komitee(1974-1996), thinks that historical documents such as these are important in giving the public a balanced view of their society.

“Looking in the past, means searching for clues about the future and the present situation. It's important to get the whole picture of events that happened in the past.”

Boelsma believes the Biko family should have something to say about the fate of the letter and the public should have some kind of access.

The Azania Komitee has decided to make public its archive, which involves documents and correspondence that contain information on various activities and events stemming from their involvement during the anti-Apartheid struggle in Europe.

"We decided to support the whole liberation movement including the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) and the BCM (Black Consciousness Movement) and promote a non-sectarian international solidarity movement that aimed to give correct, balanced and complete information on the struggle,” she added.

Although there are special provisions in South African law that cover access to information in private hands there are still many challenges that heritage activists identify.

Heritage archivist Patric Tariq Mellet says many of the challenges come from the domination of ownership, which is driven by commercial interests.

“This matter of artefacts, photo collections, documents, paintings, recordings and so on has been dogging us for many years. South Africa has lost and is still losing much of our heritage through commercial means,” said Mellet.

How the international heritage sector operates has an overbearing effect on who has access to historical items and who is privileged to access them, according to Mellet.

“There is very little that we can do about it given that the dominant worldwide paradigm protects property ownership by those in whose possession such articles are regardless of how it came to be there.... The only other way of getting it back then would be to find a sponsor to buy it back for the country,” he said.

The preamble to the South African Heritage Resources Act 1999, the law governing heritage objects, says it does not only seek to deepen society's understanding but is also meant to “facilitate healing and material and symbolic restitution”.


"The only other way of getting it back ... would be to find a sponsor to buy it back for the country"


The act has a list of heritage objects and this letter falls under subsection 1 (e) and (h) of section 32 that deals with objects of cultural and historical significance and books, documents, films and photographs among other creative productions as long as they aren't public records as defined by the act.

The law requires the South African Heritage Resources Agency to entreat holders of such items to make representations when they are unwilling to release such items to the agency.

Thomas Winslow, who placed the finding of the letter online, noticed many South African heritage items on sale in auction sites on the internet. In addition to the letter the International Autograph Auctions LTD site has two signed photographs of former statesman Nelson Mandela among items on its catalogue.

Richard Davie, the UK Auctioneer's director, has confirmed the impending sale.

“The Biko letter is included in our auction, which will take place this coming Saturday, October 28. The auction does not include any other autographs of South African anti-Apartheid leaders,” he said.

Similar incidents involving historical items have caused controversy across the world. Almost a decade ago items belonging to Mahatma Gandhi were sold to Indian businessman Vijay Mallya who later handed them over to the Indian government.

The purchase occurred under fierce opposition from New Delhi.

A more prominent case was the auction of Schindler's list on eBay. The list contains the names of 1,200 Jews Oscar Schindler saved from Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust. Two of the three available copies of the list already belong to museums and are accessible to the public.

There are renewed attempts to sell the list on In the list dated April 18 1945 are 804 names running over fourteen pages according to the website.

The public's access to important information is contentious in many other issues related to the Apartheid era. Civil society organisations are pressuring the government to be more proactive in the release of records.

Van Wyk says that there is very low compliance by institutions to the Promotion of Access to Information Act in the case of the South Africa. Hence the recent calls by activists to #FreeTheArchive.

"Arguably the best way to ensure all South Africans have easy access, without barriers, is to ensure more proactive disclosure. As a start, the Department of Justice should hand over the decision-making rights on records of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the National Archive,” she said.

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