South Africans celebrated Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday with giant cakes, mass renditions of “Happy Birthday” and 67 minutes of good deeds – one for each year of the anti-apartheid leader’s struggle against white-minority rule.
But beyond the mawkish tributes to South Africa’s first black president, the day revealed the unseemly scramble among companies, politicians and charities for a slice of the reflected glory of “Madiba”, the clan name by which he is affectionately known.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) released a 1,450 word eulogy to its totemic former leader, exhorting the country’s 50 million people to “continue to build the South Africa of Madiba’s dreams”, Reuters reports.
Yet only last week, anti-apartheid heroine and Mandela ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was accusing the ANC in a leaked letter of “shabby treatment” of the family and wanting to wheel them out only “when we have to be used for some agenda”.
The “67 minutes” Mandela Day charity push has also re-opened old wounds amid criticism it is merely a vehicle for whites and the newly rich black elite to assuage the guilt of living at the top of what remains one of the most unequal societies, even 18 years after the end of apartheid.
Leading the charge was Luther Lebelo, head of an ANC branch in Johannesburg, who wrote an article in the Sowetan newspaper suggesting the day was about “little cosmetic charity activities” that only served to perpetuate class divisions.
The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, as the official guardians of his image are known, hit back in the same paper, taking particular exception to Lebelo’s reference to the “so-called Mandela Foundation”.
The jibe reflects a view widely held among South Africa’s overwhelming black majority that whites have managed to co-opt Mandela and his image since the first all-race elections in 1994.
The Mandela centre has also become embroiled in a commercial battle with members of his family over the selling of Mandela-branded clothing via its ‘46664’ fashion range, named after the number he was given during his 27 years in prison.
Set up in 2002 as an HIV/AIDS charity, ‘46664’ has since gone into business to raise funds, with official Mandela wristbands, mobile phone starter packs and clothes – all protected by a licence that “guards against the commercialisation of Mr. Mandela’s name and image”.
The clothing range, which includes $100 jeans made in China, launched in New York with a glitzy ceremony at the South Africa consulate on Wednesday, only a week after two of Mandela’s granddaughters debuted a line of shirts, tops and hats under a “Long Walk to Freedom” brand named after his autobiography.
“There are a lot of people out there who try to take advantage of the name. We are aware of that,” said David Manaway, husband of LWTF co-founder Zaziwe Manaway.
“The two ladies who started this brand can’t exploit their own name. They have a right to do whatever they want around the family name,” he told Reuters.
Other organisations with no ostensible link to either charity or the family were happy to cash in.
A Johannesburg grocery chain offered a cut price “Mandela Day Deal” on potatoes, onions and chicken, while supermarket giant Pick ‘n’ Pay gave shoppers double reward points under their “Happy Birthday Madiba” scheme.
Meanwhile, away from all the hullabaloo, an increasingly frail Mandela spent the day with close family and friends – and former U.S. President Bill Clinton – in his ancestral village of Qunu in the remote Eastern Cape province.
“While the elder statesman has now effectively retired from public life, there has been no slowdown in the greedy ‘Mandela rush’ to cash in and ‘keep his legacy alive’,” regional brand expert Thebe Ikalafeng wrote in the Star newspaper.
“Everybody from the credible to the dodgy is riding the Mandela bandwagon to get what they can before he departs.”