Two recent incidents, one involving singer Robbie Williams, the other a Nobel Laureate, offer peculiar, if insightful views into the continuing prominence of Nelson Mandela in South Africa’s public life. Despite having retired from active politics in 2004 – he stepped down as president in 1999 – Mandela, who is affectionately known as Madiba, remains an endearing figurehead and political icon. Foreign celebrities and statesmen clamour to meet with the man a BBC poll last year revealed to be the person most people would like to lead a fantasy world government.
Not so Robbie Williams, apparently. Earlier this year an Afrikaans-language Sunday newspaper ran a story on the eve of the singer’s tour of the country which was picked up by The Sun as “Robbie’s snub to Nelson”.
“He doesn’t want to meet the world’s biggest icon,” an anonymous source told the English tabloid. “He didn’t say why.”
Sensing a PR blunder, the organisers of Williams’ tour quickly issued a riposte: “The statement regarding Robbie Williams not wanting to meet Madiba … was factually incorrect.” And that’s where it ended: Williams came, attempted to make 61,000 people collectively burp at one of his concerts, and then left – sans the obligatory handshake. Whatever the truth, the incident highlighted what is already evident in South Africa: the cynical leaning on, and sometimes downright exploitative borrowing of Mandela’s image, and the threat this poses to his legacy.
The idea of celebrity as brand is well known, and also inescapable for someone of Mandela’s status. The word “status” here is important. “The man of rank and distinction,” wrote Adam Smith in 1759, “is observed by all the world. Everybody is eager to look at him.” And, by extension, own him too. For so long an invisible presence in South African political life, his image banned and censored by the Apartheid regime, it is not uncommon nowadays to see Mandela’s face adorning such unconnected objects as fridge magnets and bar mats, print fabric and gold coins. The outcome for Mandela, personally, has been a “brand management” problem of some magnitude.
Which cues the second incident. In July last year, the Nigerian poet, playwright and novelist, Wole Soyinka, visited South Africa. His tour took in Nelson Mandela Square. The privately owned square, situated in an upmarket Johannesburg shopping mall, and formerly known as Sandton Square, was rebranded in March 2004. The event was marked by the unveiling of a 6 metre tall, bronze statue of Mandela.
“I would take a bulldozer to that place,” remarked Soyinka of the statue during a commemorative lecture held in Mandela’s honour. He further described the work, which makes Mandela look like one of those pinhead characters in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice film, as “soulless” and “truly horrendous”. His observations were met with much laughter and resounding applause. Local newspaper This Day (now defunct) had already characterised the rechristening of the square as “one of the most crass examples of capitalist commodification”. The phrasing is insightful.
Situated not too far from the central piazza where the scary statue stands is shop unit L39. Currently a fashion store, it used to be the home of Touch of Mandela. Marketed as a gallery, the store sold a number of artworks attributed to the erstwhile politician. They included My Robben Island, a series of “sketches of subjects from Robben Island which hold symbolic and emotional value for Mr Mandela”. Another portfolio, titled Impressions of Mandela, consisted of ink prints of Mandela’s hand, the outline of the African continent visible in their palm. Oprah Winfrey, David Beckham, Bill Clinton, Samuel Jackson, the Sultan of Oman and Prince Charles are all said to have been buyers, believing that their money was going to charity.
In April 2005, the investigative magazine Noseweek (think © ß Private Eye and The Spectator) ran a lead article accusing Mandela’s then-personal lawyer, Ismael Ayob, and Cape Town businessman, Ross Calder, of engineering an elaborate “confidence trick”. The nub of the claim, which Ayob and Calder denied, was that the pair were selling unauthorised extra copies of these same works. The matter ended up in court last year. While further investigations were undertaken, Ayob and Calder agreed to an order preventing them from selling merchandise in Mandela’s name or purporting that they have Mandela’s authority to do so. No verdict has been reached but the Touch of Mandela store has closed and Ayob has since been fired.
How did we get here? One event, more than any other, helped both to cement Mandela’s status as international celebrity and reduce that status to a numeral, a calculable profit for the opportunist. That moment was 10 May, 1994, the day Mandela was inaugurated as president in Pretoria.
I have previously written, jokingly, that I blame the popular comedian Joe Mafela for reducing Mandela’s magic to a Disney moment. Back in 1994 Mafela was the advertising mascot for the popular Chicken Licken franchise. On Tuesday, 10 May, he was also master of ceremonies on the people’s stage at Mandela’s inauguration. Whenever the assembled crowd fell quiet, Mafela would chant the well-known Chicken Licken tag line he helped popularise: “It’s good, it’s good, it’s nice!” Each time the chant went out, people smiled, the words resonating within. Democracy tasted good, never mind that our understanding of it was being interpreted through an advertising slogan.
Of course, Mafela is not to blame – Peter Proffit is. “Now I am not in any respect a genius, but a regular business man,” declares Proffit in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, The Business Man. A man of “strict integrity, economy, and rigorous business habits”, Proffit is a useful stand-in for the various hucksters who have attempted to exploit Mandela’s legacy and his image. On the day he was inaugurated there were many such Peter Proffits hawking a range of commemorative tat, including coffee cups with Mandela’s smile emblazoned across their enamel surfaces. Seemingly, people couldn’t get enough of the junk, in the process emboldening others.
Now, it seems, Mandela has had enough. “It makes Mr Mandela angry,” says Don MacRobert, an intellectual property lawyer and consultant to the firms Edward Nathan and Adams & Adams. “Mr Mandela is cross and he gets crosser if you use his name or image commercially without approval.”
MacRobert represents the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF), a non-profit organisation expanding upon the work Mandela has done throughout his life. He says Mandela has given him direct instructions to challenge anyone intent on profiteering off his image. “Mr Mandela has clearly stated no use without permission and, secondly, never any commercial use.” A former lawyer himself, Mandela, MacRobert says “understands very clearly what is at issue, and he couldn’t be more explicit in his instructions”.
Since his appointment last March, shortly after Ayob’s dismissal, MacRobert has had to deal with a heavy caseload. Examples include a company who sought to register 466/64 (Mandela’s prison number) as a trademark. MacRobert has also put paid to the ambitions of Nelson Mandela Panelbeaters; also, a website passing itself off as the NMF. The latter company, based in Nigeria, was fraudulently soliciting donations, payable to a Cyprus bank account.
The most comical example, though, must be the case of a Dutch woman who tried to register Nelson Mandela as the name of her educational company. “When I challenged her, she said Nelson Mandela is a holy Sanskrit name. My response was ‘Crap!’ I haven’t heard from her since.” Aside from chasing after various Peter Proffits, MacRobert has also applied for trademark registration of the names Nelson Mandela, Madiba (his clan name), Rolihlahla (his given name) and Mandela’s well-known prison number. Legally, Mandela is not solely reliant on trademark protection. Unlike England, where lax personality rights law has resulted in the commercial exploitation of the late Princess Diana, South African law offers more stringent protection. Common law precedents, such as the law against passing off, a legal remedy that protects the reputation of a person in cases where it is unlawfully misappropriated and misrepresented, also afford Mandela protection.
Mandela’s lawyers, then, have reached for the classic tools of “brand management” to protect his legacy. If Mandela really were a brand, it is tempting to speculate on what he might be worth. “I don’t think it is possible to place a realistic commercial value according to the normal methodologies,” says MacRobert. His restraint echoes that of leading South African brand specialists, all of whom have declined to determine a value. “Assuming he was a commercial entity,” concedes MacRobert, “you could rank him alongside Coca Cola and Microsoft.” According to Interbrand’s latest table of the world’s most valuable brands, Coca Cola and Microsoft rank as number one and two respectively. Coca Cola is worth $67.5 billion.
If it is not possible to quantify his status, it is worth querying how “Brand Mandela” is qualitatively managed and protected. MacRobert defers to an earlier interview he gave The Telegraph. “We don’t mind a Kennedy-ised Mandela,” he stated. “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.”
According to MacRobert, this expression cuts to the heart of how Mandela would like his legacy to be celebrated. Despite this statement of intent, the NMF is still inundated with requests by entrepreneurs seeking Mandela’s endorsement for everything from pens to Madiba diamonds, to crèches bearing his name.
Such hero worship is not an uncommon way of celebrating political status. While I’m yet to spot noteworthy Blair trinkets, I’ve seen Chairman Mao commemorated as a wind-up clock in a Beijing junk store, Ho Chi Min hawked as collectable stamps by Vietnamese street urchins, and Che Guevara … well, his case doesn’t even need elaboration. The irony with Mandela though, has been that all this has come at the the same time as his steady retreat from public view.
“People should remember that Mr Mandela is not the king,” stresses MacRobert. “He does not have a royal diary with obligations. He’s Mr Mandela, a retired private person.”