Mandela's popularity was legendary and, according to a May 2007 survey conducted by the Markinor research company, he was becoming more popular with age. On his 89th birthday, in a survey of 3 500 people representing South Africa's adult population, Nelson Mandela scored an average rating of 9.2 out of 10, making him the country's most beloved leader.
But just when Mandela was at the pinnacle of popular acclaim, he and the Nelson Mandela Foundation were busy trying to 'demythologise' or, put more crudely, to 'rebrand' him. The Foundation has asked for public input as to how this could be done.
Foundation staff have come up with the idea of removing the image of Mandela's face from their publications and replacing it with an image of his outstretched left hand with the wedding band prominently displayed.
Although it appears that Nelson Mandela was the moving spirit behind the project, the reasons for wanting to do this are unclear. At least one newspaper columnist, William Saunderson-Meyer, reacted with surprise and was trying to understand the reason for what he termed a 'bizarre' intention.
The Foundation's intentions are all a bit fuzzy. A successful symbol is not some kind of Rorschach inkblot test, into which you read whatever you happen to be feeling at that moment. The best symbols are consistent, unambiguous embodiments of qualities, values and aspirations. Mandela, himself understands this well. It was his crucial intervention that saved the Springbok as the century-old symbol of South African rugby, when the African National Congress took Power in 1994.
It is difficult to know why the Foundation wanted to interfere with the success of the Mandela phenomenon. Perhaps God and Muhammad need some judicious market repositioning — a bit of tweaking here and there to draw support in a critical, fickle world. But is that necessary for Mandela?
This was a man whom the whole world adores and was elevated to the status of its first secular saint. A United States branding survey a few years back valued the Mandela brand as second only to Coca-Cola internationally. Coke spends billions to build and safeguard its brand. Mandela simply goes around being himself.