Mandela the man is gone, but the fight for his brand lives on

Family is battling with his foundation and the African National Congress over the rights to his name

Nelson Mandela at the 46664 Concert in his honor, held in London in 2008.
Gareth Davies/Getty Images

"Long live Mandela!" was a popular South African slogan during the struggle against apartheid, and even though Nelson Mandela was finally laid to rest at his ancestral home in the village of Qunu on Sunday, the power of his name will live on. Indeed, rival politicians will surely start battling over ownership of his legacy ahead of next year's general election in South Africa. And ownership — in the sense of intellectual property rights — over the iconic Mandela brand name is already the subject of an intensifying conflict between members of his family, his foundation and the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa's ruling party and his political home.

The South African public and many in the Mandela clan were horrified by news in July that the former president's grandson and heir to his tribal seat, Mandla, had exhumed the remains of three of Mandela's children two years ago and moved them from the gravesite at Qunu to Mvezo, where Mandla's tribal seat is situated. He was accused of taking advantage of his grandfather's wish to be buried with his children, hoping to prompt the world leader to choose a final resting place on land to which Mandla controls access. Many members of the family, including Mandla's aunts, accused him of pursuing financial gain, took him to court over the exhumation of the bodies — and won the case.

But Mandla would not be the only family member accused of seeking personal gain from a relationship with the brand. Since 2005, Mandela's daughters Makaziwe (from his first marriage, to Evelyn) and Zenani (from his second marriage, to Winnie) have been embroiled in a legal tussle to remove their father's friend and lawyer George Bizos and anti-apartheid stalwart Tokyo Sexwale as the custodians of the Nelson Mandela Trust, and to assume control themselves. Nelson Mandela became angry when he learned of this effort, Bizos wrote in a sworn statement. Makaziwe defended her actions in a Financial Times interview in April: "This is what we are, in a sense, entitled to, that my father worked for, and he did it with his own hands to create something for the welfare and upkeep of himself and his children."

In March of this year, Makaziwe and her daughter Tukwini launched the House of Mandela range of wines, despite her father's aversion to being associated with alcohol and tobacco products. According to Verne Harris, head of the Nelson Mandela Foundation's memory program, the former president had wanted to avoid exploitation and didn't want his face on commercial products.

Needless to say, Mandela's political comrades are taken aback by the idea that the purpose of his political work had been to enrich himself or his family. 

A number of his grandchildren also own a line of caps and sweatshirts sold under the brand name Long Walk to Freedom, taken from the title of his autobiography. And two of his granddaughters, who are based in the U.S., have a reality TV show called "Being Mandela" broadcast on NBC's Cozi TV.

Mandela 'belongs to the ANC'

Nelson Mandela's daughter Makaziwe, left, and her daughter Tukwini with bottles of House of Mandela wine.
Jennifer Bruce/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps less surprising is the effort by the ANC to hold onto the universally popular Mandela image as a source of political legitimacy in the face of growing criticism over the party's flaws as a ruling force. "Mandela belongs to the ANC first, and then to the whole country," said ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu in defense of the party's insistence on wheeling out a frail and faltering Mandela for a photo opportunity with party president Jacob Zuma earlier this year.

"It's critical to measure how important and significant the brand is to these stakeholders," said Monwabisi Thethe, a brand consultant and editor-at-large of the South African men's magazine Blaque. "The ANC will want to claim the brand, because it will bring them more votes at the polls."

He added that the reason there's so much jockeying for position now is that the death of Mandela the man signals a whole new era for Mandela the brand. While the leader's life span was finite, the brand could be timeless — and ownership of it a potential source of both enduring prestige and enduring financial gain.

It's difficult to put an exact value on Mandela's estate. His real worth in monetary terms has always been a closely guarded secret and is a topic that not even local media have actively pursued, presumably out of respect for the beloved national figure. Besides, he had demonstrated at the start of his presidency in 1994 that enriching himself was not a priority when he cut his presidential salary. He started the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund and donated one-third of his remaining income every month to the organization. 

His personal estate includes a home in the upmarket Johannesburg suburb of Houghton and a humble rural homestead in his home village of Qunu. He also earned royalties from his books "Conversations With Myself" and "Long Walk to Freedom."

Last year the Nelson Mandela Foundation, a nonprofit charity organization, which also engages in fundraising, made $2.2 million in income and held assets worth about $29 million. The Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, which was established to give voice and dignity to African children, also has the rights to use the Mandela name for fundraising; it raised close to $120 million between 1995 and 2012 and paid out $46 million in grants.

"The brand Nelson Mandela is not like the brand Coca-Cola," said the foundation's Harris to a local newspaper recently. "It's huge, it's complex, and there are many sub-brands within that brand. We implement protections in a relatively small space."

Mandela brand keeps growing

Swati Dlamini, left, and Zaziwe Dlamini-Manaway, granddaughters of Nelson and Winnie Mandela and stars of the reality show "Being Mandela."
Bebeto Matthews/AP

And according to Thethe, the power of the Mandela brand is set to grow exponentially in the near future, citing the example of various valuable Mandela coins, issued by mints around the world to celebrate the man and spread his humanitarian message. The first South African Mandela coins were the Mandela Inauguration coins issued in 1994, the year he became president. Others include Nobel Laureates Mandela coins, Robben Island Mandela coins and the 90th Birthday Mandela Set. "Before Mandela's death, the Mandela coins received about 1,000 inquiries a month," Thethe noted. "Now, after his death, they are receiving 3,000 inquiries per day."

The 46664 pop-up shop in Sandton City, the shopping center attached to Nelson Mandela Square in the north of Johannesburg, started three months ago, and it has sold out of merchandise, Thethe said.

The 46664 brand takes its name from Mandela's ID number during his incarceration at Robben Island prison, and consists of a stylish and contemporary clothing range for men and women. The label is not tied to Mandela and doesn't benefit him or his organizations, although the brand claims to be a "nonprofit organization founded in 2002 to promote Nelson Mandela's humanitarian legacy." These are just examples of the rapidly growing interest in and monetization of the Mandela brand.

Technically, the brand is copyrighted, and Mandela's foundation has over the years shut down numerous operations that were established simply to cash in on his respected global status. But even though the foundation is the custodian of the Mandela name, it appears that it does not have total control of the brand.

"It has been reported that some people are already making a substantial amount of money worldwide off the brand," said Motlatsi Seleke, an intellectual property lawyer in Krugersdorp, near Johannesburg. "The brand is being exploited from all fronts, and its usage is in contravention of the values and ideals which Nelson Mandela stood for."

Seleke fears that the exploitation of the brand could dilute its power. "Usage of the brand for products like alcohol in an era where alcohol is found to be a large contributor to social decay is in direct conflict with the 'nation building' concepts that Mandela so strongly believed in," he said. "And reports of family feuds over the usage of the brand and proceeds thereof may ultimately taint the reputation of the brand."

Seleke also foresees intensifying political competition over the Mandela name with South Africans due to go to the polls next April. "Other political parties may possibly dispute the ANC's claim that Mandela was indeed a product of the ANC," he said. "They may even argue that he was born with his own values and principles before he joined the ANC."

Managing the use of the Mandela brand would be more effective if it were housed under a single legal umbrella, Seleke and others believe. But that would require agreement between the family, the Mandela Foundation and the ANC. And if those stakeholders can't find an amicable resolution, the name Mandela may once again appear on the rolls of South Africa's courts.

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