From Robyn Curnow*
He has not formally appeared in public for years, and recently he’s been battling illness inside a Pretoria hospital. But former South African president Nelson Mandela is still a beloved icon across the world, an international symbol of courage, strength and hope.
The 95-year-old Nobel laureate is also one of the world’s most recognizable figures. More than just a man, he has become a global brand — one that’s estimated to be worth millions of dollars. Ever since Mandela was released from prison, where he had endured 27 years for fighting apartheid, many South Africans have felt like they’d like to “own” a little piece of him.
As a result, the smiling image of Madiba, as Mandela is affectionately referred to by South Africans, has been emblazoned on all sorts of memorabilia, items that are usually not associated with his legacy — everything from t-shirts and place mats to banknotes and even salt and pepper shakers.
Some members of Mandela’s own family have also been accused of cashing in on the anti-apartheid icon’s legacy, using the world-renowned name for business ventures such as a collection of wines, called the “House of Mandela,” or a clothing range branded with his prison number or an image of his hand.
More recently, two of his granddaughters — Zaziwe Dlamini-Manaway and Swati Dlamini –starred in their own reality TV series, “Being Mandela,” in which the family showed some of the Mandela-branded products. In answer to critics accusing them of tarnishing the Mandela name, his granddaughters say it’s their name too, and that they are treating it with respect and integrity.
“You can’t tell people how not to celebrate their father, or grandfather, or great grandfather, because they are using their own name,” says Sello Hatang, head of the Nelson Mandela Center of Memory, which Mandela founded to continue his work after he retired.
“It would be arrogant … to say you can’t use your name so it’s ensuring that we stick to what we believe is the legacy,” he continues.
Speaking to CNN earlier this year, Mandela’s daughter Maki, who is behind the wine brand, said that using the family name is important because it promotes South Africa, as well as a good product. She added that her father had told her: “If you use the name either for commercial or charitable or political (purposes), use it with a lot of integrity and responsibility.”
But how can Mandela’s legacy and values be balanced with the commercial potential of his image? Hatang says that when Mandela’s name was used by Viagra without permission, there was a public backlash.
“When Madiba was turning 90, they put up their own ad saying, ‘Madiba turns 90, Viagra turns 10,'” explains Hatang. “And it was members of the public who objected, so it tells you that the legacy of Mandela is not just being preserved by us but it’s being preserved and protected by many others.”
While it’s still unclear exactly who will control the “Mandela Brand” in the years to come, the way Madiba’s legacy and image endures seems to depend on all those who have a stake in it — from his family and his party, the African National Congress, to the people of South Africa.
Those who know him say he is comfortable with that, never prescribing how he should be honored.
“We tend to not want to recognize Madiba as a brand,” says Hatang. “He represents something in humanity that we should all have. It’s that thing that’s special in each one of us, where we need to reach deep to find it,” he adds.