The politics of Madiba magic

A spree to baptise roads, bridges, public places and universities after South Africa’s anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela continues unabated, sparking criticism in some quarters that his name is being exploited, sometimes for commercial reasons.

On Wednesday, a square in Johannesburg’s poshest shopping mall, Sandton—slap bang in the heart of a white-dominated northern suburb—saw a bronze statue of the revered leader unveiled after the piazza was renamed after him.

Mandela, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and became South Africa’s first black president a year later, now has a plethora of areas named after him—a far cry from apartheid times when he spent a total of 27 years in prison and his name—at least in his own country—was officially almost taboo.

Now there is the relatively new Nelson Mandela bridge traversing Johannesburg’s city centre, Nelson Mandela Drive in Pretoria, the Mandela Metropolitan Municipality comprising the southern port town of Port Elizabeth and its environs and the Mandela Cup (football) ... the list is long and ever-growing.

In a lengthy page devoted to Mandela, the African National Congress (ANC) party’s official website has an impressive list of the honours, awards and distinctions bestowed upon Mandela.

Especially in the 1980s, several places—especially in Britain and the United States—were baptised after him. Although few would contest this flurry of renaming, there has been criticism that the places concerned often have no link whatsoever with Mandela or the apartheid struggle.

Others argue that his name is being exploited for commercial gains. The former Sandton Square, now renamed Nelson Mandela Square, got a mixed response.

“If you visit (the square) on a warm summer evening, you will see all around you the Rainbow Nation that Mr Mandela fought for so long to achieve. People of all colours, all backgrounds, old and young, mixing easily and securely at restaurant tables or simply strolling and enjoying each others company,” a press release on the event said.

But others take a far less rosy view.

“Everyone wants a piece of the Mandela myth,” wrote journalist Gail Smith in the This Day newspaper.

“The renaming of Sandton Square to Nelson Mandela Square is one of the most crass examples of capitalist commodification. The struggle for liberation has been stripped of its radical and sold back to the few who can afford it.”

“Mandela has been reduced to the bits and pieces that constitue a corporate brand,” she added. Others criticise the hysteria but not on political or
ideological grounds, arguing that the trend was reaching almost ludicrous proportions.

“Seeing that we risk having everything Mandelarised, perhaps it would be a good idea to rename South Africa Mandelaland (or something like that) and we’ll then all be known as Mandelans,” South African journalist Mojalefa Mashego wrote.

Mandela, who now focuses mainly on raising funds for a children’s fund named after him, tackles the subject with his characteristic humour and modesty.

While attending the innumerable inaugurations or ceremonies at events linked to him, he refuses to read his name (“I have problems reading”) and often tells the audience he is surprised that they have turned up to see a “has-been” like him. - Sapa-AFP

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