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Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and the auction that wasn’t

The reason for a gathering of journalists on a steep street in Soweto was sound at first: Madikizela-Mandela owed more than R20 000 to Abbotts College for her grand-nephew's fees. She had not paid after repeated threats, and eventually a court ordered an auction to recover the money owed.

Ostensibly, the sheriff of the court was going to auction goods in her house to cover this amount. Everyone was invited. On auction were a small round table, a very large round table, sculptures, a silver tea set and several paintings.

For the waiting journalists, this seemed like a scoop. "Those paintings have to have been given to her by dignitaries. They will be worth a lot," said one. However, the tea set was the most sought-after item.

The next order of business was to decide on a hashtag – #WinnieAuction quickly won, although there was campaigning for #WaitingForWinnie. 

Then at 10am, after several false alerts, the sheriff arrived. Cameras and television crews quickly crammed around her, forming a semicircle at the large metal gate to Madikizela-Mandela's house. She pressed the buzzer, and knocked on the door.

Nothing happened. But a window in the house, decked in flags from countries around the continent, did open for someone to peek out. On each corner, on top of the three-metre-high walls, cameras looked in every direction.  

'She could afford to pay R43'
When the auctioneer returned to her car, a ripple ran through the journalists – she's getting a locksmith. With her two assistants also crammed in the car, she then turned to phone calls. And, looking for any kind of information, journalists kept following her every movement.

At one point, while she was on the phone, she wrote "43" on the page. Instant confusion. Could it mean R43 000, or could it mean R43.

"Surely she could afford to pay R43," said one cameraperson.

Later in the morning, another gate up the street opened and a black Audi accelerated away from the frustrated journalists. The auctioneer clambered out of her car to see what happened, but was undeterred. "The auction happens even if she is not here," she said.

Every journalist present then tried to find out what was happening. Some said Madikizela-Mandela had paid the debt and everything was over. A few said the sheriff was coming back the next day, and yet more said the locksmith was coming with police. 

None of them were willing to leave and miss any developments. 

'Cut Winnie's lock'
"Nobody will come here and cut Winnie's lock. They don't want to come to Soweto, and they don't want to come to this house," said one of the sheriff's officials.

An ice cream seller soon appeared with his red bicycle and his icy temptations. One neighbour then hauled out a crate of cooldrinks, offering R10 for a glass of drink. A few township tour buses navigated the crowd, but had to turn back as the road had been blocked by media cars.  

Then the auctioneer and her assistants left. Some reports said this was because there were no bidders – other than the journalists, only a handful of people were present – while others said things had been resolved.

Her lawyer, while unavailable, earlier said the amount had been paid and all that was left was for the interest on the debt to be sorted out.  

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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