Bryan Mukandi
Bryan Mukandi

Mandela: Commodity or icon?

I remember, as a poor varsity student, begging and borrowing money to visit Cape Town. A former schoolmate who had relocated to that beautiful city invited me to spend the week with him there. After some financial gymnastics, I eventually scraped enough money together to make the trip.

In Cape Town, I decided to make the most of the experience and used the bulk of my money on a tour of Robben Island. It was an important historical site and I thought it might help me make sense of a country full of contradictions. That turned out to be a big mistake.

Perhaps it has since changed. But when I did it, the Robben Island tour had very little to do with an important period in South Africa’s history and development. It was an ego massaging exercise aimed at foreign tourists. It felt like going to watch a film dedicated to the viewer, which leaves you feeling as though you are a central part of the betterment of the world. By the time it was all over I wasn’t sure if I was sick from the boat ride or from what I had witnessed.

From the beginning, tourists were repeatedly thanked for the sanctions their governments had imposed on South Africa. The tour guides kept making it seem as though the people on the boat and then the bus, and by extension their governments, were the sole reason South Africa was a free nation. After that came the commodification of Nelson Mandela.

At every turn his name was evoked. Like some magic charm or deity, he was mentioned as often, it seemed, as possible. His cell and his captivity, during that tour, stopped being symbolic of a brutal system that had finally been overcome. Instead they seemed to be turned into a theme park where, having paid a couple hundred rand, you could get your picture taken over the carcass of an imaginary dragon you had supposedly helped slay. The whole thing was perverse. All I could see was money being churned out of a place that should have been almost sacred.

In my frustration, I asked an elderly tour guide, a former inmate, if what was going on around us was what he had been imprisoned for. Very graciously, he reminded an impetuous young man that reality trumps romanticism. He told me that a commitment to unrealistic ideals was what had led to the destruction of Zimbabwe’s economy. South Africa would not go down that route he explained.

I left Robben Island angry. But I wasn’t angry at those who had built it or those who had incarcerated people I had been brought up to think of as my heroes. I was angry at the fact that those heroes were being treated like commodities. Objects almost, that could endow the buyer with a sense of the heroic too.

As I watched clips of Mandela campaigning with presidential hopeful Jacob Zuma, I was reminded of the Robben Island experience. Was this just another example of the commodification of Mandela? Did some political consultant somewhere calculate that the admiration and support enjoyed by Mandela could just be transferred onto Zuma? Was Madiba seen as a magic cure or whitewash to wipe the slate clean and get all the issues surrounding Zuma removed from view?

In terms of pure politics, it was a brilliant move. How many ANC people are going to desert the party when Mandela still supports its leadership? Without expending too much energy, Cope can be cast as a party of Mbeki supporters, or some other fringe group, which the ANC is better off not having. Zuma’s ANC can be portrayed as a party that embodies Mandela’s ideals.

But surely the likes of Zuma should have to fight for, and win, their own atonement? Otherwise isn’t Mandela in danger of going down the same path as so many heroes of old? Won’t who he really is get lost somewhere along the line and be replaced by some symbol? A symbol that, bearing little resemblance to the man himself, appeals to most consumers for the greatest profit. Worst of all, won’t lessons that should be learnt be lost in the profit-maximising practices of some commercial venture?


  • Madiba’s tears
  • Are South Africans really all capitalists at heart?
  • A commemoration of Nelson Mandela
  • Rhodes Fell