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The man and the myth: A portrait of Mandela as currency

Julius Caesar was the first living Roman Emperor to have his face adorn a coin (denarius), something akin to a blasphemous act at the time since it was largely regarded as the practice of kings, and Romans did not consider themselves the subjects of a king but citizens of a republic. With one fell swoop Caesar made himself king, fuelling, one can imagine, some of the historical theories that now exist about the possible reasons behind his assassination. But let us not concern ourselves with Caesar for he surely rendered unto himself what was his.  

This week marked the beginning of the circulation of South African paper-money bearing the portrait of our most beloved post-apartheid and first democratically elected president Nelson Mandela. Unlike Caesar, Mandela did not stay in the halls of political power long enough to have his name defiled by dictatorial infamy and the kinds of administrative maladies and incompetence we now face. But, like Caesar, he has lived long enough to see his own personhood become a brand. In Mandela we have the icon, the man and, undeniably, the myth.

He was the face of the South African struggle, the face of its miracle transition and now, he is the face of its currency. The obvious question one could ask is how much more immortalised can one man become? But we could equally ask how such an expanse of feats and contradiction found refuge in one man? I suspect we will never fully know. One thing is certain, the image and name of Mandela has helped fuel the cult of his commercial personality. His name has been used to sell all kinds of things.

It's bad enough that he shares a title with the late imperialist Cecil John Rhodes, as if somehow they shared the same goals and vision. But this is South Africa, the redeemed "rainbow nation" of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, symbolised at its most miniscule level – contradiction.

Given that Mandela is already considered in many ways, the saviour of South Africa, the generations that follow shall look upon the money in their hands with reverence at this great son of the soil. What could contradict that belief when he is the sole president to find post-retirement on the back of fiat money. I know, it seems far-fetched right now but myth often starts out resembling the unbelievable and absurd. Eventually nobody can tell what is false and what is true save for whatever dominant narrative holds sway at the time.

Roland Barthes, in his famous tome Mythologies, argued that myths primarily normalise things or signs if you may. They are not created nor exist for purposes of being critically read and engaged with but instead are to be received like manna from the sky … Okay I digress with that one.

But reflecting on Barthes, political theorist Andrew Robinson wrote: "They always contain some kind of analogy which motivates them. In contrast to ideas of false consciousness, myths don’t hide anything. Instead, myths inflect or distort particular images or signs to carry a particular meaning. Myth doesn’t hide things, it distorts them. It alienates the history of the sign."

In this instance Mandela is the sign, the currency of R10, R20, R50, R100 and R200 notes, his signifiers. Brand Mandela has become Rand Mandela in a way and this seemingly simple and harmless exercise on the part of the South African Reserve Bank and the minds that thought it up is further mythologising of Mandela the man. Of course the irony of having Mandela as the face of South Africa currency will be those unavoidable circumstances where his portrait is subject to the exchanging of money in dodgy dealings and the hands of occasionally corrupt politicians. It certainly won’t be easy parting with your hard earned Mandelas when thievery announces itself.

But to end off on a slightly more serious note – no pun intended – it’s not the fact that Mandela's face now occupies the R100 in my pocket that leaves me disconcerted but rather that the myth of the man has now reached that critical stage of solidity. Attuned historians and other critical readers of myth might have to painstakingly point out everybody else whose significant role in shaping this country was left out.

Follow Mpho on Twitter: @mphomoshe

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Mpho Moshe Matheolane
Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry.

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