Friday, April 13, 2012

The Mandela Factor

Nelson Mandela is renown across the world as a symbol of fight for justice, equality, democracy and human resilience in the face of adversity and suffering. But while his saint-like international reputation has been an inspiration to millions of people around the world, his popular name has been a target of publicity seekers and opportunistic businessmen.

From international events to the tiniest backyard garage everyone is trying to grab a chunk of the lucrative Mandela legacy. Even an official retirement from the limelight in 2004 at the age of 86 and a plea to be left alone could not hold back the thousands of fortune hunters, fame seekers and outright gold diggers who want to use the Mandela name to advance their cause.

“One of the things that made me long to be back in prison was that I had so little opportunity for reading, thinking and quiet reflection after my release,” Mandela once reminisced the quiet and reflective years he spent incarcerated at Robben Island.

This apparently improbable words are quiet appropriate given that during his public years there was an endless stream of prominent personalities flocking down south just to shake hands or hug the antiapartheid hero, with cameras rolling of course. But even after retirement Mr. Mandela would find the absolute piece that he was craving elusive since merchants of capitalism were busy peddling their wares through his hallowed name. Numerous paraphernalia ranging from caps, t-shirts and gold coins bearing the image or purported signature of this famous man were popping up everywhere.

In a bid to stop this unwarranted exploitation Mandela hired the services of experts to copyright and protect his legacy. Led by renowned copyright lawyer Don MacRobert and George Bizo, the advocate who represented Mandela during the Rivonia Treason Trial, the team oversaw the copyrighting of the names Nelson Mandela, Madiba, Rolihlahla and his well known prison number 46664.

“We don’t mind a Kennedy-ised Mandela,” MacRoberts told The Daily Telegraph back in 2004. “You see Kennedy museums and Kennedy streets all over America and that’s fine. What we are fighting against is the commercial, profit-making side. We don’t want a Disney-fied Mandela”.

Besides the smalltime entrepreneurs trying to make a fortune, organizations too have been blamed for subjecting the frail old man to unnecessary pressures. After Sepp Blatter and FIFA pulled Mandela out of the South African World Cup bidding committee for the reason that his presence would tip the scales in his homelands favour, the football high command was at it again in the final day of the actual event in July.
Despite the 92-year-old’s deep grief for the death of his great-granddaughter he lost just before the tournament, family objections, his failing health and a ban on public appearances Mandela surprisingly showed up for the final game. Although many hailed this as the most befitting end to the historic event a section of South African media claimed “FIFA literary commandeered Mandela to the pitch”.

However Yiull Damaso, a Johannesburg based artist took the unwarranted exploitation of the Mandela legacy to a whole new level when he depicted the elderly leader as a corpse on an autopsy table. The artwork by the controversial Damaso is a parody of the famous 17th- century masterpiece The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Dutch painter Rembrandt.

In what many critics called a desperate sensationalist move to attract unwarranted attention, the artist substituted the original characters with renowned personalities in the South African society. In the unfinished painting that was displayed in Johannesburg’s Hyde Park shopping centre Nkosi Johnson, an Aids activist who died aged 12, takes the place of the surgeon with a pair of scissors in the original painting. The dead Mandela substitutes the naked cadaver which historians agree was a convicted criminal since they were the only people allowed to be autopsied at the time the original was done.

While Rembrandt included doctors as spectators Damaso’s version boasts of famous onlookers like South African President Jacob Zuma, retired archbishop Desmond Tutu, past heads of state Thabo Mbeki and FW de Klerk and Hellen Zille, the Premier of the Western Cape.

When confronted by critics Damaso, who had previously landed in trouble for another depiction of Mandela in dreadlocks a decade ago, was categorically unapologetic.
“The eventual passing of Mr. Mandela is something that we will have to face, as individuals, as a nation,” he explained. “They told me that his image was copyrighted. But how can you copyright the image of a public figure.”

But the unconventional artist seems to have achieved his objective since the huge publicity the issue generated greatly raised his profile as an artist. However there was a huge fusillade of condemnation for both Damaso with the depiction of a dead Mandela being compared to witchcraft by the ruling party.

“In African society it is a foreign act of ubuthakathi (bewitch) to kill a living person and this so-called work of art…is also racist,” said ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu. “It goes further by violating Tat’uMandela’s dignity by stripping him naked in the glare of curious onlookers, some of whom have seen their apartheid ideals die before them”.

Adding that Mandela was an international icon who should be cherished and respected Mthembu said the painting was in bad taste, disrespectful, an insult and an affront to values of “our society”. But the 41 year-old artist retaliated by saying that he was using the painting to convey a political argument and labeled his critics as people scared of the inevitable future.

“The idea just popped up in my mind,” Damaso told the Mail and Guardian. “We have Nelson Mandela, one of the great leaders of our time, and the politicians around him are trying to find what makes him a great man. Nkosi Johnson, the only one in the painting who’s no longer alive, is trying to show them that Mandela is just a man. So they should stop searching and get on with building the country”.

Even after members of the Mandela family, who were still grieving the loss of a loved one, complained of being distraught after seeing the image the artist was still unrelenting.

‘I knew the family would not be happy but I hope they will listen to my side of the story and my huge admiration for Nelson Mandela,” he explained. “The death of Nelson Mandela is something we’re going to have to face not only as a family but all of us as individuals and as a nation”.

Even the Mail and Guardian, the wide circulating Southern African newspaper that broke the story and reproduced the painting in their front page, and the ultramodern shopping mall that accommodated the artwork were not spared the bashing.

‘Why would a newspaper including the Mail and Guardian put to prominence this work of rubbish in their publication? Why would a respected public space ad business site, Hyde Park, be the home for the creation of such insulting work to our icon, our leaders and all of us?” asked a statement from the ruling African National Congress (ANC) headquarters.

But the Yuell Damaso issue is not the first time that the Mandela legacy has locked horns with the world of fine art. There was a huge legal storm back in 2005 when Mandela’s former lawyer and confidante Ismail Ayob and art promoter Ross Calder were sued for exploiting the old man’s name through an art scheme dubbed Touch of Mandela. The duo were said to have ripped millions of dollars through the sale of lithographs entitled “My Robben Island” with a purportedly original signature by Mandela.

“We will go after anyone who misuses Mr. Mandela’s name and image,” vowed MacRobert during the Ayob case. “There are many people out there using Mandela’s name, and it’s enough. It must stop”.

Lawyers had to contend with a numerous list of offenders before they could instill some form of sanity in the whole issue. From a man in Sydney said to have registered the internet domain name and enlisting Interpol to clump down swindlers soliciting money through a to a vehicle repair outfit trading by Nelson Mandela Panel Beaters, the battle to safeguard one of the most revered legacies in recent history has not been easy.

However the most sensational was a clothing line company that wanted to trade under Mandela’s popular prison number 46664 forcing MacRoberts to turn to script a poetic verse to back his legal argument. Asked to estimate how much the Mandela brand is worth experts explained that it was not possible to place a realistic commercial value according to the normal methodologies.

“Assuming he was a commercial entity,” MacRoberts told the BBC in 2005. “You could rank him alongside Coca Cola and Microsoft”.

According to Interbrand Corporation’s latest table of the world’s most valuable brands (Best Global Brands 2010) Coca Cola, the world’s number one brand is worth more than $70 million.

The Mandela touch is so magical that even the high and mighty cannot resist its alluring aroma in a bid to sanitize their image and boost their political fortunes. In his recent book Straight Speaking for Africa Congo-Brazzaville President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is said to have falsely claimed that Mandela wrote the forward which describes the Central African strongman who came to power after winning a bloody civil war “as one of our great African leaders”. When the Nelson Mandela Foundation revealed that a request for Madiba to pen the forward had actually been turned down, Brazzaville went ballistics.

“Mandela’s name does not belong to the foundation but to the entire continent,” one of the country’s presidential advisers told the BBC adding that it should not be “treated as a brand”.

The ANC, a party whose ideologies the antiapartheid icon spent an entire lifetime defending, has in several occasions been accused of evoking the Mandela magic to save its dwindling political fortunes. The old man was ferried in a golf cart to the last presidential campaign rally at the Coca Cola Park stadium in 2009 where he urged supporters to vote for Jacob Zuma, now president. The ruling party was facing a stiff challenge from the breakaway Congress of the People (COPE).

Some Mandela family members have also been sucked into this vortex of trying exploit the retired leader’s name for materialistic gains. While one grandson was accused of trying to evict a cousin from her home in order to turn it into a Mandela tourist centre there have been claims, which were vehemently denied, that another relative has signed a multimillion-rand deal with the South African Broadcasting Corporation for exclusive rights to Mandela’s funeral.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF), which is the official custodian of the Madiba legacy, is said to be bombarded by at least 4000 requests per month for the living legend’s signature, endorsements, interview, message of support or public appearance. Apart from NMF there are several other trusts that were established to raise funds for various charities whose efforts, according to some commentators, have had some unfortunate consequences.

“Even the most legitimate of organizations, with the laudable of motives, have financial goals to meet,” observed one analyst who requested anonymity. “And so the Mandela name has become a fundraising machine-a ‘Madiba Inc’-and this has sucked in opportunists and ‘chancers’”.

The long walk to freedom for the antiapartheid icon, it seems, is still far from over.


  1. Might never end...given his legacy-he will live among us forever

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