'Brand Mandela' – how to control the value of a legend
Mandela comics, coasters, and clocks aside: How does South Africa celebrate its most celebrated man on his 90th birthday?
Johannesburg, south africa
In South Africa, Nelson Mandela is everywhere. His smiling face is on T-shirts and coasters and handbags and wall clocks. Soccer teams compete in the Nelson Mandela Challenge Cup, and children read the "Madiba Legacy Series" comic books ("Madiba" is the affectionate clan name for Mandela).Skip to next paragraph
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It hardly stops there.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Institute, the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, and the Mandela Rhodes Foundation all work for social good; cities, schools, ports, and even a shopping mall have named themselves after the former president. At the airport, a stall sells "presidential" style patterned shirts – the type favored by Madiba.
"I think he'd hate to consider himself a brand, but it's about what he stands for," says Patrick Collings, a former journalist who wrote about the end of apartheid and is now an advertising consultant. "In this world we have very few statesmen, elder statesmen, who are able to retain a voice of importance, of influence, that people listen to and seek out. I've referred to him as a lasting brand."
So many organizations and entrepreneurs want to associate themselves with the Mandela name that, in recent years, Mr. Mandela's representatives have had to go to court to prevent its unauthorized use in such ventures as Nelson Mandela gold collectors' coins, Mandela organic foods, Mandela wine, even a few Mandela auto body shops. In 2005 Mandela took his former lawyer Ismail Ayob to court for allegedly selling artwork fraudulently bearing Mandela's signature; lawyers also stopped a coin dealer from using "46664" – Mandela's prison number – in his phone number.
"We've had to implement a very strict protocol about the use of his name," says Achmat Dangor, the chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. "Our biggest fear is commercialization ... he has said, 'my name and my image is not for sale.' "
That means that even his foundations can't sell use of the name "Mandela" or "Madiba" – protected by South African law – for fundraising. Mr. Dangor says that Mandela himself has taken pains to avoid profiting from commercial use of his image, even rejecting the speaking circuit – worth tens of millions of dollars.
Although Mandela advisers worry about the Che Guevara syndrome (a face on a T-shirt that has little meaning behind it), citizens can celebrate his image and name as much as they'd like. Mandela-inspired artwork, for instance, is often considered more homage than moneymaking.
At the Art Africa gallery in Johannesburg, for instance, Thandeka Nxumalo says that many customers look for sculptures of Mandela, or coasters with his face. "Mandela is an icon," she says. "People want stuff that has his face, because people respect all that he's done. It's a celebration of him."
So with Mandela's 90th birthday coming in July, his advisers and foundations face the quandary of how to celebrate the most celebrated man in the country.
Last week, the Mandela foundations started by calling the local media to the launch of "Nelson Mandela at 90: The Celebration."
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Chattering journalists and dignitaries immediately hushed when the lilting baritone – as recognizable here as the face connected to it – filled the theater. It was just a recording of Mandela speaking about his country, and in purely journalistic terms, it wasn't saying a heck of a lot – but the crowd was reverent. It was Mandela, and that was enough. When the man himself arrived, the audience stood and applauded – as respectful a group of journalists as you're apt to find anywhere.