Nelson Mandela, the Brand and other Heritage-related things in South Africa

December 14, 2013

In this past week, there has been a lot of talk on Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. He has been called by his clan name, Madiba. He has been called Tatomkhulu. The grand/father of the nation. He is Mutimkhulu. The big tree (that has now fallen). Madiba, has been on wine bottles.

I am reminded of Chapter 4 of my PhD dissertation into which Mandela crept in. He is almost invincible, this man. There I was writing about Xhosa traditional music (specifically the overtone singing Ngqoko Cultural Group) and there, Mandela appeared. Almost from nowhere. But I was, and still am, thinking of Mandela, the brand. I paste here an unedited excerpt from that chapter:


[1] The phrase Proudly South African is from a campaign that seeks to sensitize the general South African population on the need to buy locally produced goods and to support local talent. Alongside another similar slogan, “local is lekker [local is good]”, this campaign, has been extended not only to speak of goods but also to elicit a sense of patriotism and pride in being a South African citizen and national. Like in Kenya, where the Post-Moi regime (from 2003) coined a similar slogan “Najivunia kuwa Mkenya [I am proud to be Kenyan]”, the use of Proudly South African has proliferated in popular parlance as one of the ways of moving from subjectivity to identity in the ‘New’ South Africa.




4.2 The ‘Memory Project’: ReMembering the Past

From an investment perspective, [Mandela] represents stability. When an investor wants to put money into any country he wants to know the money is going to be safe, protected and that it is able to grow … What the Mandela brand says to the rest of the world is that your investment will be safe […] As for tourism […] hordes of foreigners flock to the country simply to walk in Mandela’s footsteps – to visit Robben Island and his home in Vilakazi Street, Soweto. (Times Online; My emphasis)[1]


The world rejoices in a newly popular faith: the cult of heritage. To be sure heritage is as old as humanity […] But only in our time has heritage become a self-conscious creed, whose shrines and icons daily multiply and whose praise suffuses public discourse […] To share a legacy is to belong to a family, a community, a race, a nation. What each inherits is in some measure unique, but common commitments bind us to others within our group.  (David Lowenthal 1996:1-2; my emphasis)

This section of the chapter opens with two, seemingly different but closely related, quotes.  These quotes, the first from a newspaper article and the second from a scholarly take on a contemporary ‘obsession’ with heritage, are particularly decisive in the unpacking of the way heritage projects are embedded in emerging and changing constructions of the nation. Indeed, in this way, the idea of the nation is read in relation to the way individuals (and collectives) perform the imaginings of citizenship and (un)belonging; how that belonging is often educed by a selective/selected manipulation of memory and how, together, these notions are brought to bear in the production of heritage. Before we can begin to explore the chapter’s particular concerns with the performance and narration of the nation and nationhood/nationness, let us first attempt an analysis of these two quotes in light of the arguments that follow thereafter.

The first quote from Times Online, analyses the centrality of South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela, in the generation of a ‘new’ understanding of South Africa’s place in the world. In this newspaper article, interviewed ‘experts’ in investment, politics, tourism all seem to separately (and together) argue that Mandela is a brand in South Africa and as such is crucial for the country’s economic development. According to “African brand expert” Thebe Ikalafeng  (cited in the epigraph), Nelson Mandela is a brand that has often been marketed to foreign investors whether in the form of direct business investment or as revenue accruing from related industries such as tourism or the hotel industry.[2] 

This thesis as put forth by Ikalafeng, is debatable and perhaps misses the nuances of the enigma that has become Nelson Mandela not only in Post-apartheid South Africa but also across the world. While Mandela’s construction as a figure representative of reconciliation, forgiveness and of course the ultimate hero of the struggle against –and transition from –apartheid to democracy is nothing novel, attributing the country’s investment latitude to him requires a deeper and a much more nuanced interrogation than this chapter is in a position to engage with. Nonetheless, in the present discussion, Ikalafeng’s ‘branding’ of Mandela can be taken towards another direction. The article raises three important issues which are of prime importance for the concerns with which this chapter seeks to address within the context of the Ngqoko Cultural Group. Firstly, while focusing on a single Apartheid struggle individual, the article links the idea of a nation (called South Africa) to that particular individual; a nation for which he becomes representative, viz, Mandela becomes not only a symbol of the geopolitical matrix that is South Africa but also a site for an evaluation of the economic environment and condition (read: political and economic stability) of that nation-scape. Secondly, this individual’s life (hi)story is invoked in a way that connects it to not only a particular time in the country’s history (apartheid) but also to very specific physical spaces and places. In other words, speaking of Mandela is speaking about an archive of collective memory/ies of apartheid, facets of which are ‘stored’ at Robben Island and Vilakazi Street.  This collective memory (as located in time and place) is mapped not only as in the past but also as relevant for the present moment for the benefit of a collective sense of selfhood (‘South Africanness’): this is a shared past.  Thirdly and finally, this ‘memory project’ is, in Ikalafeng’s investment terms, directly linked with tourism (as an industry in itself) using a very particular corporate concept of Branding. As shall be shown in the course of discussion, given that the article is an attempt to mark International Nelson Mandela Day (18th July), these three issues are an interesting entry-point into the examination of the kind that this chapter seeks to undertake.

The second quote is of a different kind but it, in more ways than one, could be taken as an explanation of the first. However, this quote from David Lowenthal’s (1996) critique of what he calls the “heritage crusade” might seem, at face value, to be an oversimplification of what is a very complex social and political process. Lowenthal uses what seems to me as a rather unfortunate allegory to open his discussion of heritage in the contemporary world. Lowenthal’s choice of metaphors such as “crusade”, “faith”, “cult”, “creed”, “shrine” and “praise”, all conjure up religious connotations which of course, on Lowenthal’s part, could be a tacit way of showing just how much the heritage crusade has penetrated the everyday but which, I would like to argue, presents to the reader a false sense of totality. Heritage, in Lowenthal’s allegorical postulation, appears as a creed that the world recites unquestionably–albeit self-consciously– as though its construction was not political and mediated. Of course this is not the entire argument that Lowenthal makes in The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History: Possessed by the Past for he does make some very valid points on why “all at once heritage is everywhere” (1996; ix). Indeed, heritage is a much more complex process in a people’s history than Lowenthal’s metaphors would have us believe (to this we shall return); heritage is intertwined with social and political processes ranging from, but not limited to, dealing with a sense of loss to celebration and commemoration.

  So, in what ways do these two quotes relate to the present discussion? Why is ‘Mandela’s branding’, for example, important in a discussion that focuses on a group of ‘traditional’ musicians/music such as the Ngqoko Cultural Group? How, where and why does the group fit in within Lowenthal’s heritage crusade?  Pumla Dineo Gqola (2005) has argued that after the 10th year of South Africa’s democracy, “rainbow nation” has disappeared almost entirely from public parlance. “It is possible that at the precise moment we perceived ourselves as achieving “rainbow nation” status, its assertion became redundant”, Gqola posits. While in the first decade of South Africa’s democracy “the media had given us little reprieve from declarations of “rainbow nation” citizenship”, Gqola argues that just at the onset of the 11th  year of this citizenship, the dominant trend in the media was now pointing towards an “apparent commitment to uncovering the textures of that status” (2005:6). Gqola’s “uncovering” is what Njabulo Ndebele had predicted as early as 1991 in the postulation that, “[t]he emergence of an identity, with social values embedded in it, will in time, solidify into memories of cultural practice, which can be both a blessing and a curse, that predispose us to replicate our values and social practices wherever we are in the world” (Ndebele 1991; my emphasis). Ndebele’s argument –which was later to be paraphrased by former South African president, Thabo Mbeki,  in his 2007 ‘state of the ANC’ speech[3] – is a crucial way of unpacking the anxieties of the then seemingly  ‘fragile and hopeful future’ for South Africa. It is this connection between an ‘emergence of an identity’ and the eminent ‘solidification of memories of cultural practices’ that is of interest in this discussion and it is important, at this point,  to raise several questions with regard to the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. Why is ‘South Africanness’ such an important question for the members of the Ngqoko Cultural Group, to the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, to the Department of Arts and Culture? What constitutes that kind of self-definition/selfhood? How does such a self-definition fit in the idea of the ‘nation’ itself? Is it even consistent? In what ways is that selfhood played/play itself out in the performances themselves? When does it become important/in what specific contexts does it become important to play out that sense of nationhood and why? And perhaps even most importantly, what are the Ngqoko Cultural Group’s performances about in terms of the song lyrics and their presentation? Do these performance forms always refer to South Africanness, even vaguely, or is this a narrative coming from elsewhere? And where? Do these performances even tally with the grand narrative of ‘South Africanness’ that is so emphasized? For whom is this narrative meant then? How does this specific way of being South African tie in/differ with other ways of being?

[1] Nashira Davids “Madiba Brand Priceless to SA” 18 July, 2011 Accessed on 18 July 2011.

[2] In fact, on the SA Venues: South Africa Explored website (, a tourist information website, Mandela appears under a section titled, “Proudly South African” alongside other categories such as World Heritage Sites, South African Wildlife and South African Birdlife.

[3] See ANC Today Vol. 7, No. 13 (6-12 April 2007), Available on

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