Nelson Mandela: So big, he's a holiday too

JOHANNESBURG — Nelson Mandela, perhaps the world’s most recognizable living icon, is becoming even more famous.

The most well-known face of the anti-apartheid movement and the first black South African president has lent his name to streets, museums, a university and even a metropolitan area, but now he has gone one step further, endorsing an effort to name a holiday after him. Mandela Day, which coincides with the 91-year-old’s birthday July 18, has been launched by international campaigners as a call to community service honoring the leader's own dedication to the welfare of others.

"It is in your hands to create a better world for all who live in it," said Mandela in a message endorsing Mandela Day. "Our struggle for freedom and justice was a collective effort. Mandela Day is no different."

“He has had an amazing life and I think he has affected each and everyone of us,” said Ruth Rensburg, who is in charge of fundraising for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, “but I think the message now is that it’s in our hands, it’s our turn to pick up those burdens.”

For Mandela Day, people across the world are asked to spend 67 minutes of their time for worthy causes. The number 67 echoes the years Mandela spent in public service, from his early political involvement with the African National Congress in 1942 to today. Participants’ pledges have ranged from spending time with the elderly and distributing food to the needy to planting trees.

July 18 will also feature a concert in New York starring a range of celebrities including France’s singing first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Alicia Keys. Morgan Freeman, who plays Mandela in an upcoming movie, is also expected to attend the event, whose proceeds will be shared by the various Mandela charities. Mandela himself will spend the day at home with “friends, family and comrades,” Rensburg said.

Mandela Day is the latest installment in the shaping of Mandela’s legacy after his presidential term ended in 1999. The Nelson Mandela Foundation aims to preserve Mandela’s memory and promote dialogue in South Africa and abroad, while 46664, named after Mandela’s prison number, focuses on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The Nelson Mandela’s Children Fund supports the cause of the South Africa’s children, and the Mandela Rhodes Foundation seeks to foster leadership in Africa.

Looking increasingly frail, Mandela is now officially retired. His public appearances are rare, and he communicates mostly through recorded messages. Yet, his place in South African society is difficult to overstate. In a letter addressed to Mandela for his birthday, President Jacob Zuma said: “If by chance an inspirational life story was equated to a monetary value, then the life Madiba (Mandela’s clan name) still lives would remove South Africa from the clutches of the global economic recession!”

As Mandela is retired from public life, many claim to speak in his name, and his legacy is seen as a valuable political asset. Earlier this year, opposition parties criticized the ruling ANC for parading a visibly weak Mandela at a rally in the Eastern Cape. Mandela’s subsequent appearance at a second ANC rally in Johannesburg just before the April elections served both to reaffirm his commitment to the party and give yet another demonstration of his enormous popularity.

Mandela’s value is also commercial. His smiling face adorns everything from T-shirts and coasters to gold coins, much to his dismay and that of his charities, which count on merchandise sales to raise funds.

“Mr. Mandela is personally uncomfortable with the commercialization of his own name and image,” Rensburg said. Things may be improving on that front. Don MacRobert, an intellectual property lawyer who has represented the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said his caseload has decreased recently. “People are backing off,” he said. “I think out of respect for the wonderful gentleman.”

Yet the full-page newspaper ads taken by corporations to wish Madiba a happy birthday and the throngs of celebrities lining up to shake the icon’s hand cheapen his heritage, some say.

“I find it obscene the way everybody and his or her partner — the ex-presidents and other vacuous and egomaniacal politicians, the starlets and coke-addled fashion models, the intellectually challenged and morally strained musicians, the hollow international jet set — treat you like some exotic teddy bear to slobber over,” wrote South African writer Breyten Breytenbach in a recent essay.

Political analyst Adam Habib said such appropriation of Mandela’s legacy is inevitable given his iconic status. Habib said that Mandela’s performance as a president was far from perfect, with AIDS and unemployment both surging under his watch, but he said Mandela focused on the most important task at that crucial moment of South Africa’s history: avert civil war and start the treacherous reconciliation process between blacks and whites.

“It will be a tragedy the day Mandela moves on,” Habib said. “Will South Africa collapse as a result of it? No, because what Mandela did create is he established an institutional foundation on which to build a nation.”

The change brought about by Mandela’s lifelong efforts and the distance South Africa still has to travel are both apparent in the life of Freedo Vukela. The 30-year-old guide at the small Soweto house Mandela occupied for 15 years starting in 1946 is still poor and said he left his previous job because of his racist white bosses. But Vukela said he is also eternally grateful for the new opportunities Mandela has created for all South Africans.

“To me he’s a great man,” said Vukela who shook hands with Mandela less than a week ago during his visit of the museum. “I call him the black Jesus.”

More GlobalPost dipatches from South Africa:

Where the pursuit of gold can turn deadly

Pretoria's new symbol of freedom

Soweto: Tennis anyone?