Posted on July 19, 2011

The Battle for Brand Mandela

Tim Butcher, Telegraph (London), July 16, 2011

In a remote corner of the website run by those who look after Nelson Mandela’s affairs is a page that conveys perfectly the acute concern over the legacy of the ageing South African icon. The page is entitled “Fraudulent Activity”.

Beloved by so many, beatified by some, the reality is that there are those who seek to profit fraudulently from association with the man who transcended politics to become a global symbol of decency. And as his passing draws nearer–he turns 93 on Monday, obliged by frailty to withdraw largely from public life–the fear is that exploiters are circling like hyenas around an elderly lion.

Mandela’s advisors have long sought to protect his name. Ten years ago his then lawyer, Ismail Ayob, forced the closure of a Cape Town fast food shop newly opened under the tacky name of “Nelson’s Chicken and Gravy Land”, with a menu offering the Nelson Liberation family meal.

That same lawyer, ironically enough, later resigned as a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Trust after being accused of personally profiting from the sale of memorabilia including artworks bearing Mr Mandela’s signature. Mr Ayob denied the allegations but the dispute with a once trusted member of Mr Mandela’s inner circle was bloody and bitter.

Even those involved in uplifting parts of the Mandela narrative have not been spared. Mr Mandela famously invited former guards from his time as a political prisoner of the apartheid regime to attend his inauguration as president in 1994 when minority rule had finally been defeated. More than an act of forgiveness, it was a commitment to the new South Africa, one that is inclusive, seeing beyond ranking by colour.

But when one of those guards, James Gregory, wrote a book about his experience, Goodbye Bafana: Nelson Mandela, My Prisoner, My Friend, later turned into a feature film starring Joseph Fiennes, he was accused of fabricating a close relationship with Mr Mandela for personal gain.

Mr Gregory died of cancer in 2003 but recently the Nelson Mandela Foundation commissioned a South African author, Mike Nicol, to put “the record straight”. The resulting document, “Nelson Mandela’s Warders”, now sits on the foundation’s website, more prominently displayed than the “Fraudulent Activity” page but speaking, none the less, to the same desire to protect what might be called the Mandela brand.

Mr Mandela’s unique status as a brand–a leader who morphed into a symbol warmly regarded around the world–is the fundamental reason for this acute sensitivity over his legacy.

He is bigger than simply a politician representing his beloved African National Congress; than a patrician at the head of a large family (he has three surviving children, 17 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren); than the son of minor Xhosa chief with traditional linkages associated with one of the country’s pre-eminent tribal groups; than a former president of Africa’s most powerful country.

Each of these can lay some sort of proprietary claim to Mr Mandela but the problem is that no single claim is pre-eminent, a recipe for disagreement and, potentially, disaster.

This lack of clarity was behind the terrible muddle concerning Mr Mandela’s health scare earlier this year. For a figure as important as Mr Mandela–when he gets ill the South African stock market dips, the Rand wobbles–it is not enough to say nothing when he is taken to hospital.

But that is what happened as the ANC, the family and the foundation were paralysed. Mr Mandela recovered from what was later diagnosed as a respiratory problem, but the row over who was responsible for the public relations disaster festers on, the foundation privately blaming the party and vice versa.

The lack of clarity over who speaks for Mr Mandela sometimes errs from understandable privacy into aloofness if not secrecy. Years ago I spotted a tiny error in the Long Walk to Freedom, Mr Mandela’s ghost-written autobiography, when he claimed incorrectly to have been interviewed and photographed while a prisoner on Robben Island by journalists from The Daily Telegraph.

No such encounter with representatives of this paper ever took place, but when I politely sought to point out the error to his spokesman I was ignored. The mistake continues in modern editions of the book.

Efforts have been made to sort out potential communication problems. Mr Mandela’s family has sought to work out a common front after years of occasional tension, often between what is known as his “First Family”, the descendants of Evelyn, the woman he divorced in 1958 to marry Winnie, mother of the “Second Family”.

Talks were brokered by 46-year-old Ndileka, Mr Mandela’s oldest grandchild, who proudly describes herself as the “first of the first of the first”–the first child of the first child of the first wife of Mr Mandela–and she pronounced herself happy with the progress.

“My argument was that for all large, high-profile families, and I was meaning people like the Kennedys, the important thing is a united front,” she said. “There were disagreements in the past but after a concerted effort by everyone, now I can say we are something like 80 per cent in agreement, which I think is pretty good. And which family anywhere in the world can say that it has no disagreements?”

But the problem remains that a figure as important as Mr Mandela will be scrutinised closely in every aspect of his life, and sometimes saying nothing leaves a vacuum inviting speculation.

Recently the bodies of the three children of Mr Mandela who have predeceased him–a daughter, Makaziwe, died as an infant in 1948, a son, Thembi, who died in a car accident in 1969, and Makgatho, who died of an Aids-related illness in 2005–were all exhumed.

They were moved from their graves in Qunu, the village in the Eastern Cape where Mr Mandela spent much of his childhood, to Mvezo, another Eastern Cape village where he was born in 1918 before moving to Qunu. Mr Mandela’s oldest male grandson, Mandla, 37, is the local chief in Mvezo and he is believed to have coordinated the exhumations.

Ndileka told The Daily Telegraph that the family was informed of the exhumations and “a consensus was reached after a consultative family process”. She declined to give the reason for the exhumations, while Mandla politely declined to comment at all.

This lack of clarity as to the grounds for the exhumations has fuelled rumours that Mvezo has been chosen as the place where Mr Mandela himself will eventually be buried, not Qunu. It must be hoped nothing has been done that will eventually end up on the “Fraudulent Activity” page.