JOHANNESBURG — The offer caused an outcry: The highest bidder in a South African charity event would get a “once-in-a-lifetime” chance to spend the night in Nelson Mandela’s prison cell, where the anti-apartheid leader spent 18 years.
“So brazenly in bad taste, there are no words,” local photographer Victor Dlamini said on Twitter, while other South Africans cringed at the idea of corporate leaders competing to sleep where the Nobel Peace Prize winner once struggled to remain “undiminished.”
Offering “sincere apologies,” The CEO SleepOut trustees said they hadn’t meant to cause offence and the event was removed this week from the website. The bidding had begun at $250,000; one of the last bids listed was from a likely tongue-in-cheek “Robert Mugabe.” Proceeds from the group’s events, which often involve sleeping outdoors for a night, go to benefit the homeless.
The CEO SleepOut website, however, says the prison event on Robben Island has been postponed, not cancelled.
A Robben Island Museum spokeswoman this week told local media there had been no agreement to use the cell, which in the years since Mandela’s release from prison and his election in 1994 as South Africa’s first black president has become a place of pilgrimage.
Former U.S. presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are among those who have come to view the small, bleak concrete cell and remember the decades-long fight against the harsh system of white minority rule known as apartheid. Mandela died in 2013.
Obama, who said he was “deeply humbled” by the experience, returns to South Africa this month for one of his most high-profile speeches since he left office. He will deliver the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture for an expected audience of thousands in Johannesburg on July 17.
The speech is part of events marking 100 years since Mandela’s birth, and Mandela’s foundation says Obama’s remarks will focus “on creating conditions for bridging divides, working across ideological lines, and resisting oppression and inequality.”