McMandela? Protecting the Brand of a Legend

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From left: Siphiwe Sibeko / Pool / EPA / Corbis; Chris Collins / Corbis

Nelson Mandela was still in jail when the first street was named after him. By the time he retired as President of South Africa, hundreds of streets, squares and schools bore his name, as did many more pop songs, books and movies. Not hard to understand. After all, Mandela, who endured 27 years of incarceration under apartheid only to emerge with forgiveness for his racist jailers and become an icon to the world, is an inspiring figure. But what about unauthorized books that bear Mandela's name? Or charities that use his name to boost their profile? What about, God forbid, a Mandela Burger?

As his legend has grown ever larger, Mandela has been faced with all of these situations. (The Mandela Burger — 200 grams of beef, topped with salad, tomato, cheddar cheese, and accompanied by fries and a choice of guacamole, salsa or jalapeños — costs a whopping $24 at Café Mandela in Copenhagen.) Increasingly, however, Mandela's handlers are fighting back.

Earlier this month, Republic of the Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso included a 53-word excerpt from a speech Mandela is said to have given on a visit to the Republic of the Congo as a foreword to his autobiography, Straight Speaking for Africa. In it Mandela praises Nguesso as "not only one of our great African leaders ... but also one of those who gave their unconditional support to our fighters' demand for freedom, and who worked tirelessly to free oppressed peoples from their chains and help restore their dignity and hope."

The Nelson Mandela Foundation, based in Johannesburg, vehemently denied that the former South African leader endorsed the book by Nguesso (who first came to power in 1979, was ousted in an election in 1992 and seized control again in a 1997 coup). "Mr. Mandela has neither read the book nor written a foreword for it," the foundation said in a statement. "We condemn this brazen abuse of Mr. Mandela's name." Officials of the Republic of the Congo — also known as Congo-Brazzaville — said the remarks came from a speech Mandela gave at a banquet in 1996, though the foundation said it has no record of it.

Mandela, who will be 91 this year, rarely appears in public and increasingly relies on the managers of his foundation to manage his affairs. Now they're grappling with a tricky issue: At what point does a very famous man become a private brand, a legacy to be protected? And is it possible to copyright history?

So far, the foundation has tackled these difficult questions by trying to stop those who would exploit Mandela's name for commercial or political gain either in ways they don't like or in ways they are able to prevent. In August, the foundation agreed on a code of conduct banning the commercialization of Mandela's name or image by his four official charities — the Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, the Mandela Rhodes Foundation and the Nelson Mandela Institute for Education — and asked the other 44 charities of which Mandela is a patron to sign on as well. Other charitable causes must get the foundation's consent before using Mandela's name. This week, the foundation reprimanded actress Charlize Theron for auctioning off a package of gifts related to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, which included a 20-second kiss from her and a meeting with Mandela. "Not even the charity foundations Mandela himself established are allowed to auction off time with him," the foundation said in a statement.

Not everyone agrees with the foundation's new rules. In February, the foundation publicly scolded South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC), which Mandela used to head, for whisking him off to an election rally to endorse the party's then candidate for President, Jacob Zuma. Zuma responded angrily, saying, "Madiba (as Mandela is known) does not belong to a foundation but to the ANC." Nor has the foundation always been successful at stopping people from using his name or likeness. Four years ago, the organization tried to block the Belgravia Gallery in London from selling around 100 lithographs of Robben Island — the prison off Cape Town where Mandela was held — which the gallery said had been made and signed by Mandela. The foundation maintains that the works are unauthorized reproductions and that Mandela's signatures are fakes. But Mandela's team failed to prevent the gallery from selling limited editions of several sketches and two handprints for prices starting at more than $10,600 apiece.

In the business of protecting legacies, the choice of whether to block or back a project is often subjective and a matter of taste. In December, a Clint Eastwood–directed movie, Invictus (meaning "unconquered" in Latin), will be released, starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela. The film tells the story of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which was held in South Africa, and how Mandela skillfully embraced the sport and united (albeit briefly) his divided nation behind a victorious, overwhelmingly white team. The foundation is allowing this project to go forward. Perhaps it's because the movie is based on the book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation by John Carlin, which portrays Mandela in a positive light. Or maybe Madiba just likes Dirty Harry.