– By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA
JOHANNESBURG – Nelson Mandela, old and frail, lives in seclusion in his Johannesburg home. Beyond the high walls of the house, the fighting over his image and what he stood for has already begun.
The sense of possibility that Mandela embodied is fading as a gulf between rich and poor widens. Many South Africans believe their leaders are out to help themselves and not the nation, which showed such promise when it broke the shackles of apartheid by holding the first all-race elections in 1994 and putting Mandela, who had been jailed for 27 years by the country’s racist leaders, into the presidency.
In a remarkable achievement, South Africa has held peaceful elections since the end of apartheid. But it is struggling on other fronts.
Last year, corruption deprived the country of nearly 1 billion rand ($111 million) in taxpayers’ money, according to a recent report. In one of the latest scandals to shake South Africans’ confidence in their government, authorities let a chartered plane carrying about 200 guests from India land at a South African air force base ahead of a lavish wedding hosted by a politically connected family.
South Africans, worried about graft, high unemployment and other problems, tend to compare their current leadership with the virtually unassailable record of Mandela as a freedom fighter and South Africa’s first black president. No small wonder, then, that politicians and even family members are moving to use that image for their own benefit.
Mandela no longer speaks publicly. He retired after a single term as president that ended in 1999, then worked for some years as an advocate for peace, awareness for HIV/AIDS and other causes. His last public appearance on a major stage was in 2010, when South Africa hosted the soccer World Cup.
Last month, President Jacob Zuma and other leaders of the ruling African National Congress party visited Mandela. After the encounter at Mandela’s home, Zuma cheerily said the 94-year-old was up and about, in good spirits and doing well.
But the images carried by state TV showed Mandela sitting with a blanket covering his legs, silent and unmoving with his cheeks showing what appear to be marks from a recently removed oxygen mask. Mandela did not acknowledge Zuma, who sat right next to him.
The footage unsettled some viewers who considered the visit to be a stunt to make Zuma look good. A cartoon in The Star newspaper depicted a leering Zuma holding a clothes hanger from which the once robust Mandela dangled limply, eyelids sagging. The ANC insisted it had no ulterior motive ahead of elections next year, and that it was only showing respect for a living national treasure.
For their part, ANC supporters said the opposition was crassly capitalizing on the Mandela name to get support when the Democratic Alliance party published a pamphlet showing an old photograph of Mandela embracing Helen Suzman, an anti-apartheid activist whose party was a forerunner of the DA.
Retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who like Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize for being a leader in the struggle against apartheid, later clashed swords with the ANC when he spoke about Mandela’s eventual passing.
“The best memorial to Nelson Mandela would be a democracy that was really up and running; a democracy in which every single person in South Africa knew that they mattered, and where other people knew that each person mattered,” The Mail & Guardian, a South African newspaper, quoted Tutu as saying in a May 10 article.
Tutu said South Africa needs political change and that criticism of the ANC has so far been muted because South Africans felt it would be a “slap in the face to Mandela,” who once headed the liberation movement-turned political party.
The ANC’s youth league disputed Tutu’s assertion that the ruling party had failed to deliver.
“Young people, who constitute a large voting bloc in the country, expect the Archbishop and other leaders to speak truth anchored by reality and facts and not anecdotal information based on creativity and imagination,” the league said in a statement.
The government, however, has said unemployment in the first quarter of this year was just over 25 percent, a figure that analysts say has been caused by weak economic growth and layoffs in the troubled mining sector and other industries. Also, protests against poor delivery of water, electricity and other government services periodically erupt in some South African communities.
Across South Africa, Mandela’s face is a familiar sight, beaming from T-shirts, drink coasters and new banknotes. South African bridges, hospitals and schools carry Mandela’s name. Statues of him abound, including a towering bronze one in Nelson Mandela Square in a posh shopping complex in the wealthy Johannesburg suburb of Sandton.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Mandela name is also being used commercially by members of his family. There is a “House of Mandela” wine label and two granddaughters are starring in a U.S. television reality show titled “Being Mandela.”
Some family members are trying to oust several old allies of the former president from control of two companies. That dispute is headed for the courts, though the old Mandela associates, including human rights lawyer George Bizos, want the case to be dismissed.
Mandela’s stellar record can be easily mined in commercial branding, which is based on a “notion of perfection around a set of ideas,” said Michael J. Casey, author of “Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image.”
The book tells how the famous photograph of the bearded, Argentine-born revolutionary in a beret evolved into a global symbol and brand, seized upon by political activists, sales executives and all manner of other people for whom it resonated, or who wanted to make money from it.
“The narrative around Mandela is a man who stuck to his guns in terms of the struggle,” said Casey, who noted that some people bestow a “level of deity” on such transcendent figures.
“You want him to live for the man that he was,” Casey said. “It’s not to say that he’s not a great man, but nobody’s perfect.”