Madiba and the myth machine

2013-12-09 12:00

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Nelson Mandela was more than just a liberation icon. He ignited the world’s imagination, becoming a global rock star and new-school pope. Charl Blignaut tries to unpack the symbols that created the myths that generated brand Mandela

It’s one of the great ironies in the story of Nelson Mandela’s fame that when the apartheid state sought to remove him from the history books by banishing him to an island and banning his image, they fanned the flames of his mythology.

“I grew up in a remote Limpopo village,” recalls film maker Khalo Matabane. “Yet my childhood hero was Nelson Mandela. He was a daily presence in my life because of the stories my grandmother told. Because we had no access to his image, as kids we used our imaginations. I reconstructed him in my head from my grandmother’s tales. When I was a little boy I saw him as half-man, half-beast, with one eye. A giant.”

Mandela had been removed from society, but his name was woven into folk stories and struggle songs.

There is an argument to be made, says academic Sean Jacobs, that the ANC leadership elevated Mandela strategically to a position of power because they understood the importance of images and of heroes.

“But then that underplays how much Mandela was aware of the media,” he says.

From the outset Mandela was involved in the creation of his own myth. “He displayed a flair for the dramatic and seemed to have a clear sense of media’s public opinion function.”

At Fort Hare University, Mandela had taken up ballroom dancing and performed in the drama society. It is perhaps a continuation of this love of performance that, before his arrest and incarceration, he played no small part in generating his own urban legend – the Black Pimpernel.


“I would even feed the mythology of the ‘Black Pimpernel’ by … phoning individual newspaper reporters from telephone boxes and relaying to them stories of what we were planning or the ineptitude of the police,” he writes in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

The 1950s saw the rise of popular photojournalism in South Africa. Mandela was one of its early stars.

“He allowed Drum magazine to profile him at home and in social settings – as a father, lawyer, boxer…” says Jacobs.

“Later, in the early 1960s, as he was on the run from police custody Mandela would give interviews to foreign journalists from his various hideouts.

“He revelled in the media’s description of him as the Black Pimpernel – in Mandela’s own words ‘a somewhat derogatory adaptation’ of a fictional character, the Scarlet Pimpernel, who avoided capture during the French Revolution.”

There is a famous image of Mandela at this time decked out in Xhosa regalia and, says Jacobs, “some observers could not help noticing that on the day of his sentencing in 1964, Mandela turned up dressed in the outfit of a Xhosa chief.

This was deliberate to make a very public and symbolic connection, in the eyes of his supporters, with a long history of black resistance.”

While on the run Mandela had, after all, become adept at donning disguises.

Co-curator of the Mandela exhibit at the Apartheid Museum, Melanie Potenza, smiles when we stand in front of a Mandela Xhosa image.

“It was taken when he was in hiding at Wolfie Kodesh’s flat in Yeoville.

“Mandela was wearing the bedspread. He had brought the Thembu necklace. It was in 1961. The ANC had decided they wanted to project a more Africanist image.”

Says historian Noor Nieftagodien: “The truth is Mandela only really became very significant as the Black Pimpernel.

“Even as a voluntary in chief of the defiance campaign, he was still a secondary player in relation to people like Walter Sisulu and others. Now he becomes the public face of the struggle.”

The Black Pimpernel had a very real edge when it tapped into Mandela’s role in establishing the armed resistance, Mkhonto weSizwe, the spear of the nation, tapping the warrior Shaka. Before Mandela, in fact, Shaka was probably the most iconic South African figure in global pop culture.

“When I was older,” recalls Matabane the film maker, “I imagined him as a military man with a gun and uniform, liberating black people.

“I imagined him as a revolutionary, a freedom fighter, fearless, naive even, to take on apartheid.”


In the late 1970s, the image of Mandela that came to appear on posters and T-shirts and Free Mandela badges around the world was of an earnest man with a fuller face, a beard and a side path in his hair. It was taken by Eli Weinberg in the early 1960s.

As it hit the streets, it became steadily distorted but was effective, easy to reproduce in monotones, even with spray paint. In a world marching towards celebrity culture and consumer capitalism, Mandela’s mugshot joined the trend of the celebrity-as-brand with its face-as-logo imaging.

By the 1980s the world was decolonising and it was Mandela who represented a part of the injustices of Patrice Lumumba and Kwame Nkrumah, and the politics of the “third world”.

And, like Che Guevara, Steve Biko and Kurt Cobain, like John Lennon and even Princess Diana, his remained the image of the youthful martyr sacrificed, an iconography descendant from the Jesus figure. Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson both played strongly into this kind of iconography in later years. Even Madonna crucified herself in a fervour of Catholic imagery.

It’s easy to overlook the role played by Winnie Mandela in broadening the Mandela appeal. A darling of the struggle, she helped feminise the brand.

Already among African-Americans, Mandela was a relevant figure, a Malcolm X. Through Winnie, Mandela also bled into the growing feminist movement.

In Mbongeni Ngema’s 1980s musical,Sarafina! Leleti Khumalo, in a suit, pretended to be Mandela, singing the lines, “freedom is coming tomorrow”.

It was the Release Mandela campaign, with its links to the Anti-Apartheid Movement, that took the brand global.

“And now suddenly our struggle is reduced to Release Mandela,” says Nieftagodien with a hint of annoyance. As a historian he is cynical about the “cherry-picking” that created brand Mandela and points to the internal debate in the ANC about one man representing the entire movement. But by then it was really too late.

“He was the world’s even when he was in jail – look at the Mandela Wembley concert in London. The world had appropriated him as a symbol of their struggles,” says Matabane.

Today his foundation celebrates Mandela’s birthday with the 67 Minutes campaign, which has grown international legs. We sometimes forget that Mandela’s birthday was an international event as early as July 18 1978. His sixtieth birthday became a demonstration of anti-apartheid solidarity.

More than 10 000 letters were reportedly written, demanding his and Winnie’s releases.

For his seventieth birthday in 1988, the British Anti-Apartheid Movement staged an 11-hour concert at Wembley Stadium in London. Peter Gabriel, Whitney Houston, Phil Collins, Simple Minds, Eurythmics and Dire Straits performed. By association, Mandela was a rock star to many of the 1 billion people watching the bash live on TV in 60 countries. “Last night in New York, with Mandela and Madonna, that’s about as famous as it gets,” are the lyrics on a track by 90s band Everything but the Girl.

“As a public personality, Mandela is a cosmopolitan social construction,” writes academic Tom Lodge, “a celebrity in a global setting in which media personalities have become generational mentors.”

At various stages during his prison term, artists consulted those who visited Mandela – his family and lawyers – and tried to depict what he looked like as an elderly man. Of them all, portraitist Reshada Crouse’s probably came closest. But even she had to revise it once Mandela was released from prison.

Nelson Mandela gestures as he is accompanied by his wife Winnie, moments after his release from Victor Verster prison in Western Cape in this February 11 1990. Picture: Ulli Michel/Files/Reuters


“I watched him being released and the image didn’t match. I saw a frail older man in a suit. It messed up the images I had of him,” says Matabane, voicing a common experience.

Yet the image that remains is of the elder statesman with one fist in the air, the other holding Winnie’s hand. It was no longer just the raised fist of the militant revolutionary, but also the fist raised in victory, partly a wave, a Statue of Liberty.

It was instantly clear that the charismatic Mandela was still made for TV. He would become its latest star, elected president as the former apartheid air force thundered across the Pretoria skies in celebration.

“It is true that by the time he came out of prison the media landscape had changed considerably, including, most significantly, the introduction of television in the country and that the result was a more highly mediated media environment to which Mandela was not used to,” says Jacobs.

“But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t active in his own construction. Yet I think it was less about formula and more about work.”


In the beatification of Catholic religious figures such as Mother Teresa, the church requires proof of miracles.

The violence in the lead-up to South Africa’s first democratic elections and the surge of international goodwill when those elections passed peacefully bred the notion of the “miracle” nation, with Mandela as miracle worker in chief and dispenser of reconciliation. Much will still be written on Mandela’s very human and openly acknowledged failings as president and as overseer of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

On a day of extraordinary symbolism and brilliant political strategy, the first dose of the beatification of Mandela was served up at a rugby match, this time to an estimated audience of 2.5 billion in 120 countries.

Relive it through the eyes of Eve Fairbanks in Newsweek: “The 1995 rugby World Cup in Johannesburg, when Mandela donned a South African rugby jersey (itself a huge gesture, since rugby was the Afrikaners’ favourite sport and anti-apartheid activists generally hated it) and taught the mostly white South African team how to sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the trademark song of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Like biblical lepers informed that they had been cured and could step out in public again, the stadium full of Afrikaners reacted overwhelmingly to Mandela’s effort to fuse shut the national wounds. ‘Nel-son! Nel-son!’ they chanted.”

The phrase “Madiba magic” took wings, along with the Madiba jive and the Madiba shirt. As outlined in Janis van der Westhuizen’s Beyond Mandelamania?

Madiba was used to sell Brand South Africa, “alive with possibilities”, and to represent the country in pitches for sports events. As the country’s trump card in “the global beauty pageant” of nation branding, Mandela spoke to the fact that we are unique among nations.

Nieftagodien has numerous problems with this: “It undermines the person Mandela. It renders him simply as a brand constituted of these cherry-picked notions, and the complications of Mandela are eviscerated from that. It makes him a saint, whereas he was a complicated character. Of course we want to celebrate Mandela, but it’s also important for us to move beyond Mandela, to recognise our ordinariness.

“So we can confront our demons, we can confront the fact that we not unique. All societies have problems. And I fear that the light that shone very brightly from brand Mandela sort of blinded us and the rest of the world.”

As presidential brands go, Mandela was the miracle and Mbeki the African Renaissance. Jacob Zuma is the populist Africanist who, from his inaugural address, tried to sprinkle himself with Madiba magic. “Madiba healed our wounds and established the rainbow nation very firmly,” he said.

“He made reconciliation the central theme of his term of office. We will not deviate from that nation-building task. Thank you, Madiba, for showing us

the way.”


In 2008 Mandela’s ninetieth birthday was again celebrated in London. Academic Elleke Boehmer was there and describes the scene in Beyond the Icon:

“The concert - in front of the symbolic number of 46 664 guests, officially to launch his foundation’s worldwide HIV/Aids campaign - revealed Mandela’s fans to be in the main content to admire, gasp and, generally, be overawed.

‘There he is, there he is!’, the whisper ran through the crowd when the great man briefly appeared to read a prepared statement; and then, ‘It’s him, it’s him!’ Although standing towards the back of the crowd, I could feel people around me strain forward to see him more clearly, as if to be blessed by the holy man passing through. From our vantage point, Mandela was visible only as a very small speck on the stage; yet he also presided in gigantic form on the various screens positioned around the concert area.

There was a metaphor in this somewhere, I remember thinking. Mandela wasn’t clearly visible without the help of cinematic projection: the living myth was a function of celebrity imaging – and he was indeed accompanied on stage by a whole range of musical or TV celebrities.”

Although the 46664 charity, named after Mandela’s prison number, is a new-school economic model – creating product to raise money for good rather than blindly feeding the capitalist gods – it is nevertheless a commodity. Its products include bracelets, cellphone starter packs and clothing.

Today you can buy any of a number of Mandela products – from illegal fridge magnets to dubious reality shows – with your Mandela rands. Earlier this year, House of Mandela wines was launched by daughter Makaziwe Mandela and granddaughter Tukwini Mandela.

The website quotes Madiba: “I was shaped by the cultural traditions and values of my ancestral roots.” It then says: “To help carry these traditions forward, the Mandelas have created wine that captures the soul and energy of South Africa.” Why wine? Because “like wine, South Africa is a kaleidoscope of different colours and textures”. This is the true Disneyfication of Mandela, gaudy trinkets to offer to the votive shrine of a man who has become in death, to all intents and purposes, a saint.

A stained glass homage to former South African president Nelson Mandela at the Regina Mundi church in Soweto.


In later years, before fragility immobilised him, Mandela was most commonly signified as smiling and dancing. It was the tone of his presidency, but also what the world wants in its saints, a fertile, healing source of inspiration.

Today it is not surprising that the Regina Mundi Church in Soweto has a large stained glass window depicting saint Mandela. Some more audacious pop culture commentators predict offshoots of religions devoted to him.

South Africa’s poet laureate, Keorapetse Kgositsile, offers a counterpoint to that notion: “When a people or a nation is in crisis, they need a figure, a face, someone that exists at an almost mythical or metaphorical level. We built Mandela into that. But unfortunately though, I think, after 1994, I think we pushed him up to a pedestal so high that we almost deified him and, like most gods, made him almost irrelevant.”

The task of drawing meaning – and not just commodity – from the legacy that is now entrenched in the pop culture firmament is work that many take seriously.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Mandela Centre for Memory is now headed by Sello Hatang. At the Houghton building, a large round table is housed in a room where people can come to negotiate and resolve conflict. Hatang wants it to be a place where the youth can find a voice, where human problems can be aired.

“What Mandela appreciated most was being seen as being human,” says Hatang. “He rejected the idea of sainthood and all that.”

Matabane has for some years now been working on a feature documentary called A Letter to Mandela. He has flown around the world talking to the likes of the Dalai Llama, Nadine Gordimer, Naomi Campbell, Wole Soyinka and Ken Saro-Wiwa Junior.

“The idea,” says Matabane, “is to use Mandela as a template to understand broader issues – conflict, division, resolution, how to bring people together. We are battling to co-exist. We need the possibility to sit down and talk. I take the ideas of Mandela and see if we can find a solution and test it with people across the world.”

He bristles when I raise the incredible number of Mandela films that are going to be making their way on to the world’s small and large screens in the next few years.

“I’m not using the Mandela name to make cash.” Yet his film is a commercial product. “Ugh. I don’t know,” he responds. “I suppose by its nature my documentary is also a commodity that’s part of the brand. That’s not what I want it to be though.”

As cynical as one might be about the myth machine that ate Mandela, it is also true that he, along with Aung San Suu Kyi and the Dalai Llama, was part of the last generation of brave, principled, uncompromising political superstars.

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