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'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?

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"This is the man who led South Africa from the brink, from a horrible situation to a place of hope," Mr. Collings explains. "All South Africans have a huge amount of affection for the man."

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It's been almost two decades since televisions across the world showed Mandela walking free from 27 years in prison, much of it spent on notorious Robbin Island. At that point he already had international stature as a hero and symbol. The scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. has called the "Free Mandela!" posters the "most ubiquitous" of the competing antiwar and antiracist slogans of the 1970s.

Activists across the globe memorized the end of Mandela's 1964 defense statement: "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

But at the time, Mandela's face was largely unknown – photographs or broadcasts of him were forbidden, so posters were graced with decades-old images, or artists' renderings.

Now, 14 years after the end of apartheid, with a presidential term and Nobel Peace Prize behind him, the former freedom fighter's face is not just a South African icon but a global one. And despite a diminishing public presence, his mystique is strong.

Four years ago, Mandela announced that he was "retiring from retirement," saying he wanted to move on to a quieter phase of life: "Thank you for being kind to an old man, allowing him to take a rest, even if many of you may feel that after loafing somewhere on an island ... for 27 years, the rest is not really deserved."

Still, movie stars and other celebrities coming to South Africa vie for photographs with him. Bono and Bill Clinton have been seen sporting the black T-shirt with "46664" – the prison number that is also now the name of a Mandela-backed nonprofit HIV-AIDS organization. A BBC poll found that Mandela was the most popular pick to head a fantasy world government; other recent surveys show him to be the world's most respected leader.

There are critics here, of course – people who say that Mandela let the rich, white minority off too easily after the end of apartheid; or that he was an ineffective president; or that he has left an impossible legacy. But the dominant sentiments are awe, pride, and even love.

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Mandela's advisers see the occasion of his 90th birthday as an opportunity to further his legacy. "South Africans have an expectation that we would definitely make a big celebration out of his birthday," says Chantal Cuddumbey, a spokeswoman for the 46664 Campaign. For his 85th birthday, 18,000 people – including thousands of children – sent messages to Mandela via a special website.

This year there will be a number of events befitting a living legend: a celebrity-packed concert in London's Hyde Park, a US tour of a narrated symphony about Mandela, new retrospective books, and current affairs lectures.

But even as the limelight grows more intense, Mandela is moving further out of it. While many of the "Mandela at 90" events are serious, foundation-related activities, Madiba himself will celebrate his birthday privately.

"He has borne heavily the mantle of miraclemaker thrust upon him by a world hungry for happy endings," Jakes Gerwel, chair of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, told the press conference as he glanced over at the former president. "But transformation and reconciliation in a world riven by conflict and inequality cannot have an ending ... it is an ongoing project for which we all bear responsibility."

As if to drive home the point, Mandela said nothing for the entire event. Still, there's no doubt about the star of the show – even in a silent role. He got another standing ovation as he left.

"It's always fun to see Madiba, hey?" one South African journalist said to another.

"Oh, absolutely," his colleague responded.