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To most people born after his February 11, 1990 release from 27 years in jail, Nelson Mandela and his fight against apartheid is mostly a mythical yet unquestionable fable.
Regrettably, to the youth, the “old” SA can seem a figment of some creative adult imagination… possibly to explain their lack of advancement in post-apartheid SA. But in African culture, parents are not questioned or doubted, so it’s best advised to accept their truth.
Where their parents’ values may embrace austerity, modesty and diligence borne from the scars of the fight for freedom, for many youths their values are often defined by the intrigue of opulence, largesse and a carefree “freedom” romanticised in the world of rap artists. Their heroes and role models – dead or alive – are immortalised in memorabilia and music.
Their history is not contained within the 244-year-old Encyclopaedia Britannica, but in the 14-year-old Google, written in fleeting seconds in no more than 140 characters, and captured in an Instagram in some “iCloud”. Their self-expression is inspired by hip hop stars and language code barely recognisable from its English or other roots.
As such the idea of wearing “Mandela brand” clothing may be consistent with their desire to add to their collection a bit of “historical edge” to go with their G-Star or Louis Vuitton. For them “cool” and “hip” are the ultimate barometers of right or wrong.
Unlike the symbolism of wearing a Che Gueverra or Bob Marley T-shirt to express youthful, often uninformed, sympathy with a rebellion against a system, the “Mandela brand” is not so much a social commentary, but a fashion statement.
Brand Mandela, such as the 46664 brand vigorously endorsed by celebrities such as Bono, Bob Geldof and Naomi Campbell, is now the “new cool”, not the “old right”.
Operating under increasingly tight economic conditions, the management of non-profit entities such as Mandela’s charitable foundations are being forced to explore other ways to get cash.
They are taking inspiration from Hollywood and celebrity brands such as the queen of England, or the Queen of Pop, Lady Gaga.
Devotees of these celebrity brands are willing to pay for anything bearing their “hero’s” stamp and the brand managers are becoming more predictably uncreative in exploiting this devotion.
And with good insight. In this year-long celebration of the queen’s jubilee, the monarchy’s value has been estimated by the UK’s Brand Finance to be £44.5 billion (R570bn) greater than Tesco at £33bn and M&S at £7.4bn.
No one has yet put a value on “Brand Mandela”. Although he retired from public life in 2004, the image is powerful – and valuable.
He has essentially bequeathed his legacy to his charitable organisations – the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship and, more recently, 46664.
While charitable foundations and family may have had good intentions in striving to protect his legacy, their actions have had unintended and detrimental consequences for his legacy. Misguided by profit-oriented entities and individuals under the guise of “raising funds” for his good deeds, it’s been nothing but a profiteering racket of immense proportions, at odds with his raison d’être – the emancipation of his people and fight for human rights.
Out of naiveté, irresponsibility or misguided enthusiasm, the Mandela Foundation’s quest to nationalise or internationalise the brand has resulted in a legacy being “commercialised” beyond reason, and loss of the essence of what the brand Mandela represents.
The brand has been reduced to a high-street commodity rather than a cornerstone of our identity and democracy. Instead of representing what’s good in us, it’s become the symbol of greed and misplaced values.
In 2004, The Coca-Cola Company pledged $150 000 to Mandela’s Children’s Fund linked to the estimated royalties from a special promotional can to mark 10 years of SA’s democracy.
To put it in perspective, the Coca-Cola brand was valued in 2004 by Interbrand to be $67bn and returned $4.2bn to shareholders. If you compare the two brands, then that payment was not equitable.
Surely a disparity of major proportions, because of the misplaced foundations of the metric of branding when it comes to the value of icons such as Mandela.
How does that metric measure the values of the likes of HRH the queen of England, the pope, Gandhi, Churchill, Abraham Lincoln or even African icons such as Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah or Kenneth Kaunda to their nations?
In the case of these icons, their celebrity status has not been commercialised to the detriment of their legacies. While the elder statesman has effectively retired from public life, there has been no slowdown in the greedy “Mandela rush” to cash in and “keep his legacy alive” – at a price.
Everybody, from the credible to the dodgy, is riding the Mandela brandwagon to get what they can.
Everyone from Oprah to Michelle Obama schedules the obligatory Mandela photo opportunity as part of their African safari.
Most South Africans will argue that privilege has not been as easily accessible to many he fought for, or who supported him while in jail.
Now in his twilight years, Mandela probably deserves nothing less than the rest he sought, along with peace and the preservation of his legacy.
Therefore nothing could be more callous and off-brand than the recent announcement of the launch of the 46664 brand in the US scheduled for his birthday today.
According to Chris Vogelpoel, the menswear designer for Brand ID, a division of Seardel, SA’s biggest clothing and textile manufacturer established to design and market the 46664 brand, the launch is to “promote and sustain his legacy”.
With a “Made in China” label for good measure. Vogelpoel says: “What we are trying to do is take South Africa or Africa into the global market.”
So what’s the role of SA Tourism, Brand South Africa and the Department of International Relations and Co-operation?
The contribution of the 46664 apparel to the 46664 charity will start at 7 percent and end at 9 percent of annual turnover.
Surely his value, while it shouldn’t be reduced to pennies, is worth more than that… and the ultimate damage to the Mandela brand.
Achmat Dangor, CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said at the launch that “the legacy of Nelson Mandela is powerful enough to stand on its own”.
So how can wearing the 46664 brand be a part of a “movement for good”?
Also, if the cause is truly altruistic, then surely the entire profits – and not merely a percentage of sales – should be returned to enable the Nelson Mandela Foundation to continue its good work of protecting Mandela’s legacy and history.
The foundation is capable of doing good things with the legacy of Mandela, as it’s done championing the UN’s declaration of July 18 as Mandela Day and securing a $1.25 million contribution from Google to fund the recently completed Nelson Mandela Digital Archives.
As we celebrate his 94th birthday and reflect on a life well lived, it is worth considering how he wants to be remembered: a man who’s done good for his people and his country.
It’s hardly an idea worth making into a fashion statement. With his name and image all over highways and byways, and etched deeply in the veins of those who know why he sacrificed 27 years in jail and 67 years in jail and service, the ultimate betrayal of his legacy may be by the very people he could have relied on to protect his brand.
l Thebe Ikalafeng is a global leader, writer and adviser in African brands and branding