Brand squabbles taint dignity of Mandela birthday celebrations


Africa Correspondent

As Nelson Mandela turned 94 today and tributes poured in from around the world, an unseemly squabble continued among the former president’s relatives who are trying to put a commercial value on the anti-apartheid icon.

Those wanting to celebrate his birthday with a little “humanitarian shopping” have a choice of two clothing brands, canvas shoes, as well as unauthorised clocks, commemorative coins, mugs and a fast food chain.

Click here or on "View Gallery" for Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures

The longer “Madiba”, as he is known to South Africans, has lived, the less dignified the attempts to cash in on his legacy have become. The Nobel Peace prize-winner has largely retreated from the public eye in the last four years and spent yesterday at his family home in Qunu, in the Eastern Cape.

In his absence, rows over the use of his name and image have been frequent. His ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela set the birthday season arguments in motion earlier this month complaining that his name is being exploited. She attacked the ruling ANC’s “shabby treatment” of the family in an unverified leaked email. Her complaints drew a sharp response from newspapers friendly to the government: “Nelson Mandela is a product of the ANC, and the party is right to highlight that link whenever necessary,” said an editorial in the Citizen daily. “Winnie, as result of her own choices, is a less valuable brand.”

Meanwhile, two competing clothing chains have emerged seeking to exploit the Mandela brand. The fashion label 46664 – his prisoner ID number during his internment on Robben Island – launched a new range to coincide with his birthday which covered its humanitarian bases by calling on US shoppers to offer 67 minutes of volunteer work in honour of Mr Mandela. Zenani Mandela, one of his five children, launched her own clothing line named after his autobiography “The Long Walk to Freedom”.

The older label has prided itself on not using Madiba’s name or face on its clothes: “We are not allowed to commercialise Nelson Mandela,” the 46664 label’s CEO Wayne Bebb said earlier this week. “We do not use his image in any of our clothing. You will see very, very rarely any image of him in our marketing campaign.”

The 94-year-old’s daughter has no such qualms and their line of products launched last week in Johannesburg is plastered with her father’s name and image. Nonetheless she insists that they’re not in competition with the not-for-profit: “Our brand is different,” she told reporters. “Ours is a family brand and we’re not in competition with 46664.”

The ugliest row over Mr Mandela came in February this year when his grandson Mandla was accused during divorce proceedings of having sold the rights to his funeral to local and domestic broadcasters. The younger Mandela denied any deal was in place. Hearings continue and his estranged wife Tando Mabuna-Mandela insisted she could not bear to profit from the national hero’s death and would give her half of any proceeds to charity.

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