Mandela, 89, out to end ‘Madiba mythology’


Johannesburg : The front-page headline in one of the country's dailies the day after a cyclone hit Mozambique in February perfectly summed up the hysteria that at times characterizes South Africans' adoration for their former president Nelson Mandela.

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"He's safe," the headline in The Citizen newspaper screamed. Upon closer inspection it became clear the object of the paper's concern was the anti-apartheid hero.

"Madiba OK as cyclone hits Mozambique," a smaller sub-heading expanded, using Mandela's clan name in an article describing the devastation wrought by the storm in the home country of Mandela's wife Graca Machel while the couple were there on holiday.

That the aging statesman had been within harm's reach came as news to most readers. But when it comes to the man who spent 27 years in prison for defying apartheid before overseeing South Africa's peaceful transition to democracy, no amount of concern or admiration is deemed excessive.

The universal goodwill that Mandela inspires in and beyond South Africa has seen him transformed into a powerful brand, whose smiling features adorn everything from the over 40 books on him to made-in-South Africa cushion covers, earrings and drinks coasters.

Asked to place a monetary value on the Mandela brand Alistair Duff of McCann Erickson advertising agency hazarded "tens of millions (of rands) if not more" in fundraising alone for charity.

Now, as he turned 89 years Wednesday, Mandela aims to reclaim his own brand and end the "mythology of the man" to shift focus to his legacy.

Achmat Dangor, head of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which tackles some of the issues most important to the former activist, including education and HIV/AIDS, announced a dramatic "repackaging" of the Mandela brand Tuesday, the day before the Nobel laureate celebrated his birthday.

Gone from the organization's material will be the smiling face, which will be replaced by his less recognizable outstretched left hand.

The hand will symbolize the hand of dialogue Mandela extended to his former jailors in the apartheid government on his release from prison in 1990.

The hand could also represent generosity or the provision of moral guidance, such as saying no to the spread of HIV/AIDS, according to Dangor.

Mandela's attempt to regain control over his image comes amid growing angst over the dissipation of the spirit of unity that surrounded the dawn of South Africa's Rainbow Nation after democratic elections in 1994.

Mandela's conciliatory style is widely credited with having prevented bloodshed and a mass flight of whites and their capital from the country during the transition.

Eight years after he stepped down as president, the contrasting style of his prickly successor President Thabo Mbeki, who repeatedly characterizes his white critics as racists, has sparked widespread nostalgia for Mandela's rule.

Within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) itself, Mandela's absence is being increasingly felt as a bitter leadership battle drives a wedge between factions allied to Mbeki and party deputy president Jacob Zuma.

That the stability of the South Africa is seen as hinging on his existence has raised questions about the durability of Mandela's legacy, according to analysts.

A columnist in the Sunday Times put the problem down to the moulding of Mandela into "the god figurine of our age" comparable with Mother Theresa, Princess Diana and John F Kennedy in terms of "emotional, psychological, political and show business value."

"Our reluctance to appreciate the different layers of this man – his complexity, inconsistencies and faults, alongside his beauty and vision – is robbing him of his lasting impression on global psycho-political reality," Bongani Madondo wrote.

By "canonizing" Mandela, and overlooking the contribution of other anti-apartheid activists towards freedom, Madondo added, South Africans were limiting themselves to "only one corner of the canvas" of their nation's history.

"What's missing in South Africa is the art of listening and then speaking to each other," Achmat Dangor said. "That is Mandela's legacy."