Madiba magic, star magnet

Aderogba Obisesan

Aderogba Obisesan

It's a decade since he retired and his public appearances are increasingly rare, but the image of Nelson Mandela is still being worked overtime in the hope it can sprinkle some of his stardust.

As the former South African president and anti-apartheid icon turns 90 tomorrow, his charity foundation has unveiled a whole new range of "Madiba" products while warning off others who attempt to cash in on his name.

In the countdown to his birthday, a new Mandela R5 coin, limited edition stamps and commemorative bangles have all gone on sale.

And readers who have ploughed through his mammoth Long Walk to Freedom autobiography can now learn about some of his favourite meals in Hunger for Freedom: The Story of Food in the Life of Nelson Mandela, or even a comic book, Nelson Mandela: The Authorised Comic Book, detailing his life and times.

"He is a famous brand name . an international icon whose name opens many doors and sells products," says Elleke Boehmer, the author of the newly-released book Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction.

Since standing down in 1999 at the end of a single five-year term as president, Mandela has devoted much of his energy towards causes close to his heart such as the battle against Aids and the plight of children.

An annual 46664 concert, named after his prison number, has raised millions of rands for the fight against HIV-Aids. The most recent concert was held in London last month, with a frail Mandela watching on as the likes of Amy Winehouse, Will Smith and Annie Lennox took to the stage in Hyde Park.

Although Mandela undoubtedly finds the travelling a strain on his ageing body, he is aware that his presence can make all the difference.

"You all know that I am supposed to be retired but my friends and the charitable organisations that bear my name want to use my 90th birthday year to raise funds to continue our work and so of course I want to help them," he told reporters when the concert was first announced.

Achmat Dangor, chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said that Mandela's involvement meant it was easy to attract celebrities to the cause.

"They are enthusiastic to be part of this campaign project," Dangor said.

"A lot has been achieved through the incorporation of these star artists, mostly international, into the campaign. Their audience listens to them, and through them, they embrace the message we want to impart."

The 46664 number has also been etched onto a series of limited edition bangles in gold, silver and platinum released by the foundation last month to coincide with the Hyde Park concert.

The foundation has set itself a target of raising R1billion for the fight against Aids, the disease which claimed the life of his son Makgatho, by selling 2,5million bangles in 10 years.

But the clamour by celebrities to be pictured with Mandela, whether on the stage or at his offices in Johannesburg, has been derided in some quarters.

"A genuine hero who has paid his dues . and yet now, at 90, he has to be embraced by vacuous supermodels and racing car drivers, people who have never heard of the ANC, all to raise cash for his foundation," said a recent opinion piece in The Star newspaper in Johannesburg.

Given his continued pulling power, it is perhaps not surprising that the foundation is prepared to fight to prevent others exploiting his image.

While the Mandela comic and cook books come with the official seal of approval, the foundation placed adverts in newspapers to underline that a new children's colouring book was unauthorised and has resorted to legal action against others such as designers of clothing emblazoned with his image.

"We don't want him to be another Che Guevara - just another face on a T-shirt," said Dangor.

But for all his attempts to lead a normal life, Mandela has found it hard to keep out of the limelight.

Although he retired from public life in 2004, his personal assistant of 14 years Zelda la Grange said the Nelson Mandela Foundation receives about 4000 requests a month asking for appearances, contributions in writing or video.

"During a recent analysis of his diary over a period of 12 months, it was found that he conducted about 235 appointments. For a 90-year-old and someone who is supposed to be retired, that is way too much," she said.

"Hopefully after his birthday celebrations, we may be in a position to ensure at last that all his time is now spent only on the things he chooses to do."

La Grange said Mandela spends most of his time reading and focusing on his charitable organisations. - Sapa-AFP