JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- On a recent sunny afternoon, several hundredSouth African celebrities, business leaders and other guests raised flutes ofchampagne to celebrate the unveiling of a 20-foot-high bronze statue of NelsonMandela at one of Johannesburg's upscale shopping malls.
The newest honor to their former president, mall officials boasted, weighsas much as a rhino, is as wide as a luxury sedan and stands taller than agiraffe.
"A statue as grand as the man himself," says Gary Vipond, the manager ofSandton Square, now renamed Nelson Mandela Square.
Ten years after the demise of apartheid, no one stands taller among SouthAfricans than Mandela.
At 85, the retiree remains one of South Africa's and the world's mostbeloved elder statesmen. It is difficult to travel anywhere in the countrywithout 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 askedreaders whether they think Mandela should be embalmed, like Lenin, after hisdeath.
To most South Africans, such honors befit a man who is seen as nothingshort of a saint. Emerging from three decades of prison without bitternesstoward his apartheid jailers, Mandela led the country confidently andcompassionately through a period of uncertainty and fear that so easily couldhave ended in bloodshed. Mandela's fairy-tale story is as much part of thenation's identity as his own.
But to some critics, the excessive commercialization of Mandela is simplytoo much, cheapening if not distorting his legacy.
"Is a shopper's paradise, particularly one for the very rich, appropriatefor a man whose life was defined by a struggle on behalf of the poor?" askedan editorial in South Africa's Business Day newspaper. "Mandela is already thename of a main street, in Bloemfontein, and a magisterial district. Evenbefore he dies, his brand, if such a concept is conceivable in his case, is indanger of being diminished by overuse."
A reviewer in This Day newspaper panned the new statue, which shows Mandelain a dancing pose, and the renaming of the mall as one of the "most cynicaldebasements of all the struggle stood for."
What's fueling the Mandela mania? Political observers say some segments ofSouth Africa's white population who want to cling to a cuddly, uncomplicatedview 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 tomeet 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 sanitizeMandela," says Steven Friedman, a researcher at the Center for Policy Studies.Instead of embracing the full scope of Mandela's ideas, some whites reduceMandela 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 alandslide victory during the national elections Wednesday, is a divider,highlighting South Africa's poverty gap and referring to South Africa as twocountries: one rich and white, the other black and poor. Often criticized byopposition parties for playing racial politics, Mbeki dedicated much of hisfirst term to uplifting blacks through affirmative action and economicempowerment programs, instilling fear and frustration among whites whocomplain of reverse discrimination.
For some black intellectuals, Mandela's preoccupation with reconciliationduring his presidency is partly to blame for the difficulties South Africa ishaving today with its social transformation.
In an article about the slow pace of economic reform in South Africa in arecent issue of a South African business magazine, Financial Mail, economistand journalist Duma Gqubule wrote that he blamed "former president NelsonMandela, whose policies created a false sense of reconciliation between blacksand white. If we had started from day one to slug it out with white peopleover the issue of economic transformation, South Africa would have had realreconciliation and a more enduring social accord for the 21st century."
In the weekly Mail & Guardian newspaper last month, Itumeleng Mahabanewrote, "For too long we have accepted as gospel that Mandela's legacy wasfruitful reconciliation. Is this true?"
For his part, Mandela attempts to separate himself from his superhumanimage, humbly referring to himself as a "pensioner," as flawed as any otherhuman being.
"I am no angel," he told his biographer, Anthony Sampson. Ndileka Mandela,Mandela's eldest granddaughter, who unveiled the statue last month, says hergrandfather is placed on too high a pedestal.
"People look at him as a saint. It's not healthy because it puts a lot ofpressure on him," she said.
Her grandfather, she reminds everyone, has weaknesses. He can be verystrict, taking roll call at night when his grandchildren stay at his house inJohannesburg, 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 whenthe moment calls for it.
Five years out of office, he is still a voice of moral authority, brokeringpeace 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 mostout of every photo opportunity and wooing millions of dollars in donationsfrom businesses for schools and clinics in rural South Africa and to combatHIV/AIDS, which infects one in every 10 South Africans.
Mandela continues to make regular public appearances. The other day, at anexclusive Johannesburg nightclub, he launched CD and DVD recordings of an AIDSbenefit he sponsored in Cape Town in November. Proceeds from the sale of therecordings will be used in the fight against AIDS.
Mandela appeared frail, his face tired, his tightly curled hair a shock ofwhite. His assistants transported him almost like a prop to the stage, wherehe gave a short prepared speech and posed graciously for photos before beingled by an assistant to his chair.
But he did not sit long.
When the South African band Ladysmith Black Mambazo took the stage to playa song, Mandela tapped his bodyguards and asked to be helped to his feet. Heshuffled slowly over to the singers and to the beat of the music begandancing, swinging his arms as if he were about to take off for a jog. A smilegrew on his face from ear to ear.
The audience, caught in the orbit of Mandela's charms, roared withapplause.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun