JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- On a recent sunny afternoon, several hundred South African celebrities, business leaders and other guests raised flutes of champagne to celebrate the unveiling of a 20-foot-high bronze statue of Nelson Mandela at one of Johannesburg's upscale shopping malls.
The newest honor to their former president, mall officials boasted, weighs
as much as a rhino, is as wide as a luxury sedan and stands taller than a
"A statue as grand as the man himself," says Gary Vipond, the manager of
Sandton Square, now renamed Nelson Mandela Square.
Ten years after the demise of apartheid, no one stands taller among South
Africans than Mandela.
At 85, the retiree remains one of South Africa's and the world's most
beloved elder statesmen. It is difficult to travel anywhere in the country
without seeing a street, theater, bridge, school or city named in his honor.
His image appears on drink coasters, T-shirts, refrigerator magnets,
postcards, Krugerrands, paintings and dolls. A recent newspaper poll asked
readers whether they think Mandela should be embalmed, like Lenin, after his
To most South Africans, such honors befit a man who is seen as nothing
short of a saint. Emerging from three decades of prison without bitterness
toward his apartheid jailers, Mandela led the country confidently and
compassionately through a period of uncertainty and fear that so easily could
have ended in bloodshed. Mandela's fairy-tale story is as much part of the
nation's identity as his own.
But to some critics, the excessive commercialization of Mandela is simply
too much, cheapening if not distorting his legacy.
"Is a shopper's paradise, particularly one for the very rich, appropriate
for a man whose life was defined by a struggle on behalf of the poor?" asked
an editorial in South Africa's Business Day newspaper. "Mandela is already the
name of a main street, in Bloemfontein, and a magisterial district. Even
before he dies, his brand, if such a concept is conceivable in his case, is in
danger of being diminished by overuse."
A reviewer in This Day newspaper panned the new statue, which shows Mandela
in a dancing pose, and the renaming of the mall as one of the "most cynical
debasements of all the struggle stood for."
What's fueling the Mandela mania? Political observers say some segments of
South Africa's white population who want to cling to a cuddly, uncomplicated
view of the new South Africa are, in part, responsible.
Focusing solely on Mandela as an image of reconciliation and forgiveness,
while important, is also a distraction from the more difficult work ahead to
meet Mandela's revolutionary goals of social and economic transformation,
goals that will inevitably diminish white economic privilege in South Africa.
"There is a tendency among sections of the white opinion to sanitize
Mandela," says Steven Friedman, a researcher at the Center for Policy Studies.
Instead of embracing the full scope of Mandela's ideas, some whites reduce
Mandela to "a chap who doesn't have a hang-up about the past," Friedman says.
By contrast, current President Thabo Mbeki, who is expected to win a
landslide victory during the national elections Wednesday, is a divider,
highlighting South Africa's poverty gap and referring to South Africa as two
countries: one rich and white, the other black and poor. Often criticized by
opposition parties for playing racial politics, Mbeki dedicated much of his
first term to uplifting blacks through affirmative action and economic
empowerment programs, instilling fear and frustration among whites who
complain of reverse discrimination.
For some black intellectuals, Mandela's preoccupation with reconciliation
during his presidency is partly to blame for the difficulties South Africa is
having today with its social transformation.
In an article about the slow pace of economic reform in South Africa in a
recent issue of a South African business magazine, Financial Mail, economist
and journalist Duma Gqubule wrote that he blamed "former president Nelson
Mandela, whose policies created a false sense of reconciliation between blacks
and white. If we had started from day one to slug it out with white people
over the issue of economic transformation, South Africa would have had real
reconciliation and a more enduring social accord for the 21st century."
In the weekly Mail & Guardian newspaper last month, Itumeleng Mahabane
wrote, "For too long we have accepted as gospel that Mandela's legacy was
fruitful reconciliation. Is this true?"
For his part, Mandela attempts to separate himself from his superhuman
image, humbly referring to himself as a "pensioner," as flawed as any other
"I am no angel," he told his biographer, Anthony Sampson. Ndileka Mandela,
Mandela's eldest granddaughter, who unveiled the statue last month, says her
grandfather is placed on too high a pedestal.
"People look at him as a saint. It's not healthy because it puts a lot of
pressure on him," she said.
Her grandfather, she reminds everyone, has weaknesses. He can be very
strict, taking roll call at night when his grandchildren stay at his house in
Johannesburg, and pushing them to excel in school.
"He can be very harsh," she says.
Whatever his flaws, Mandela is not beyond using his tremendous stature when
the moment calls for it.
Five years out of office, he is still a voice of moral authority, brokering
peace deals in Burundi and speaking out last year against the war in Iraq.
He remains a master of public relations, working a room, making the most
out of every photo opportunity and wooing millions of dollars in donations
from businesses for schools and clinics in rural South Africa and to combat
HIV/AIDS, which infects one in every 10 South Africans.
Mandela continues to make regular public appearances. The other day, at an
exclusive Johannesburg nightclub, he launched CD and DVD recordings of an AIDS
benefit he sponsored in Cape Town in November. Proceeds from the sale of the
recordings will be used in the fight against AIDS.
Mandela appeared frail, his face tired, his tightly curled hair a shock of
white. His assistants transported him almost like a prop to the stage, where
he gave a short prepared speech and posed graciously for photos before being
led by an assistant to his chair.
But he did not sit long.
When the South African band Ladysmith Black Mambazo took the stage to play
a song, Mandela tapped his bodyguards and asked to be helped to his feet. He
shuffled slowly over to the singers and to the beat of the music began
dancing, swinging his arms as if he were about to take off for a jog. A smile
grew on his face from ear to ear.
The audience, caught in the orbit of Mandela's charms, roared with
From The Sun's Archive
Many fear Mandela mania is too much of a good thing
South Africa: Intellectuals worry a national obsession with the beloved statesman is diluting his message and his legacy.
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