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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 July 2005, 10:22 GMT 11:22 UK
Marketing the cult of Mandela
By Sean O'Toole
BBC Focus On Africa magazine in Johannesburg

Artwork by Nelson Mandela
Legal action over Mr Mandela's art triggered the row
As proceedings to formalise the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Commemoration began recently, it was repeatedly emphasised that Mandela has personally endorsed this project - an important concession given the escalating controversy surrounding artworks bearing his signature.

Mandela's former personal lawyer, Ismail Ayob, and Cape Town businessman Ross Calder have allegedly been involved in dubious schemes to personally market Mandela's legacy, with the former president battling them in court to prevent them selling art in his name.

According to one newspaper this is on the basis of a signature Mandela probably unknowingly gave on a document in June 2001.

Their primary marketing vehicle has been a series of questionable art offerings. The earliest scheme, called Touch Of Mandela, involved works autographed and traced by Mandela from original artwork produced by a graphic artist.

"Right from the start, the project looked highly questionable," artist Sue Williamson, editor of, told BBC World Service's Focus On Africa magazine.

"Anyone with an art training could see that.

"There was none of the awkwardness and skewed perspective that would have been apparent in a drawing made on the spot by an older, untrained person like Mandela which would have given the drawings a real interest and sense of authenticity."


After the collapse of Touch Of Mandela in 2002, Calder and Ayob developed a number of follow-up projects.

One involved artist Varenka Paschke - granddaughter of former president PW Botha - "tutoring" Mandela as an artist.

Even respected South African artists Willie Bester and Marlene Dumas have been implicated in the fallout after their participation in an exhibition organised by Calder in Davos, Switzerland, in January this year.

See how some traders are unlawfully using Mandela's image

The exhibition was allegedly held without the permission of the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF), a non-profit organisation expanding upon the work Mandela has done throughout his life.

Until recently, however, few commentators criticised the artworks - which range from prison sketches to lithographic prints of Mandela's hand, an outline of Africa visible in the centre of his palm.

However, in April 2005, the investigative magazine Noseweek revived it with a lead article accusing Ayob and Calder of engineering an elaborate "confidence trick".

South African newspapers have been full of the story ever since. Ayob and Calder, however, insist that they have done nothing wrong.

As the controversy intensifies, it is instructive to remember that the predicament traces its origin back to the early 1990s. One the day of Mandela's inauguration, vendors were hawking coffee cups with Mandela's smile emblazoned across their enamel surfaces.

People couldn't get enough of the tat, and very soon a host of chancers were cashing in.

"It makes Mr Mandela angry," says Don MacRobert, an intellectual property lawyer and consultant to the firms Edward Nathan and Adams & Adams, who represents the NMF.

"Mr Mandela is cross and he gets crosser if you use his name or image commercially without approval."

'Disney-fied Mandela'

He stated that Mandela has given him direct instructions to take on anyone intent on profiteering off his legacy.

"Mr Mandela has clearly stated no use without permission and, secondly, never any commercial use. He understands very clearly what is at issue, and he couldn't be more explicit in his instructions."

Since his appointment in March last year, shortly after Ayob's dismissal, MacRobert has had to deal with a heavy caseload.

Recent disputes have included an instance where a company sought to register 46664 (Mandela's prison number) as a trademark, and a website that passed itself off as the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

MacRobert added that he does not "think it is possible" to place a commercial value on the Mandela brand, but conceded that were he a commercial entity "you could rank him alongside Coca Cola and Microsoft."

"We don't mind a Kennedy-ised Mandela," he said.

"You see Kennedy museums and Kennedy streets all over America and that's fine. What we are fighting against is the commercial, profit-making side.

"We don't want a Disney-fied Mandela."

Despite this statement of intent, the NMF is still inundated with requests for Mandela's endorsement for commerical enterprises.

"People should remember that Mr Mandela is not the king; he does not have a royal diary with obligations," McRobert added.

"He's Mr Mandela, a retired private person."


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