McMandela? Protecting the Brand of a Legend

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Nelson Mandela was still in jail when the first street was named after him. By the time he retired as President of South Africa, hundreds of streets, squares and schools bore his name, as did many more pop songs, books and movies. Not hard to understand. After all, Mandela, who endured 27 years of incarceration under apartheid only to emerge with forgiveness for his racist jailers and become an icon to the world, is an inspiring figure. But what about unauthorized books that bear Mandela's name? Or charities that use his name to boost their profile? What about, God forbid, a Mandela Burger?

As his legend has grown ever larger, Mandela has been faced with all of these situations. (The Mandela Burger — 200 grams of beef, topped with salad, tomato, cheddar cheese, and accompanied by fries and a choice of guacamole, salsa or jalapeños — costs a whopping $24 at Café Mandela in Copenhagen.) Increasingly, however, Mandela's handlers are fighting back.

Earlier this month, Republic of the Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso included a 53-word excerpt from a speech Mandela is said to have given on a visit to the Republic of the Congo as a foreword to his autobiography, Straight Speaking for Africa. In it Mandela praises Nguesso as "not only one of our great African leaders ... but also one of those who gave their unconditional support to our fighters' demand for freedom, and who worked tirelessly to free oppressed peoples from their chains and help restore their dignity and hope."

The Nelson Mandela Foundation, based in Johannesburg, vehemently denied that the former South African leader endorsed the book by Nguesso (who first came to power in 1979, was ousted in an election in 1992 and seized control again in a 1997 coup). "Mr. Mandela has neither read the book nor written a foreword for it," the foundation said in a statement. "We condemn this brazen abuse of Mr. Mandela's name." Officials of the Republic of the Congo — also known as Congo-Brazzaville — said the remarks came from a speech Mandela gave at a banquet in 1996, though the foundation said it has no record of it.

Mandela, who will be 91 this year, rarely appears in public and increasingly relies on the managers of his foundation to manage his affairs. Now they're grappling with a tricky issue: At what point does a very famous man become a private brand, a legacy to be protected? And is it possible to copyright history?...

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