Mandela uses charm, image for nation's poor

He charms companies into donating money for charitable works

April 22, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOGWASE, South Africa - They call him "father," an uncluttered title that reflects the closeness South Africans feel for Nelson Mandela.

When the former president's chauffeured Mercedes-Benz arrives in this dusty rural village in South Africa's North-West Province, the gray-haired man with a wide smile wades into a crowd of 3,000 who greet him as part holy man, part pop star.

Children and adults press toward him, reaching to touch his hands. Women chant and swoon and cry out his name. He stops just once to chat with a little girl who somehow sneaked past his bodyguards.

Then the 82-year-old, who describes himself as an "unemployed pensioner," walks shakily to the seat the village has prepared for him - a zebra-skin-upholstered throne.

Mandela is here to dedicate another school built by yet another giant corporation, the sort that he regularly overwhelms with his charm and singular significance.

On this recent morning, the company is Sun International, a multimillion-dollar South African hotel and resort chain. Mandela approached Sun's leaders and asked if they would build a new school and clinic in his hometown of Qunu, in the Eastern Cape.

"He asked in such a friendly way. It is very difficult to say no to that," explained Daniel Ntsala, chairman of Sun International's corporate social investment program. In fact, the company soon agreed to build Mandela a third project, a $250,000 addition to the Holy Family School in Mogwase.

Since 1994, when he was elected the first president of the new South Africa, Mandela has wooed more than $22 million in corporate cash to build more than 120 schools and medical clinics. And since Mandela stepped down as president in 1998, the pace of the corporate-sponsored projects has quickened.

Two to three times each month, local newspapers and television news programs feature Mandela shoulder to shoulder with another captain of industry who donated a school or clinic. For corporations, this is the payoff for their charity. The mere association with the mystique of Mandela is priceless.

A poll last month found Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years by the apartheid government before becoming South Africa's first democratically elected president, to be the top role model for South Africans ages 16 to 34.

"Everyone wants Mandela somewhere," remarked one of the mothers cooking a feast in anticipation of Mandela's arrival at the Holy Family School.

And Mandela's influence is not confined to South Africa. Lately, it seems he is everywhere. He struggles to broker peace in the 20-year civil war in the tiny Central African nation of Burundi one day, meets with the Libyan family of the man convicted for the bombing of a Pan Am jet in 1988 the next, and then appears at a school or clinic opening or some other effort that attracts his interest.

Consider the story of the Health and Racquet Club, a national chain of gyms in South Africa that went bankrupt this year. As South Africans fretted about their memberships, Mandela phoned flamboyant British entrepreneur Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin Group, for help.

"I was in the bath one morning," said Branson on a Johannesburg radio show recently. "It was actually quite remarkable that somebody his age could ring somebody in the U.K. and say, `Look, this is 5,000 to 6,000 jobs at risk, and would you look to just see whether there's any way you can save the clubs and save the jobs?'"

Branson had never heard of the clubs, but he agreed to send some representatives to investigate the struggling chain. A few weeks later, Branson announced that he would buy the operation and bring it into his Virgin Active health club group.

"I don't think I would have thought about it if he hadn't phoned first of all, so I don't think we would have ended up buying them if he hadn't phoned. And I don't think we would have taken the time and trouble," Branson said.

At times the Mandela name and image, appearing on everything in this country from T-shirts to drink coasters, are attached to events that have nothing to do with him. The world heavyweight title fight in Johannesburg yesterday in which Baltimore boxer Hasim Rahman defeated champion Lennox Lewis, for instance, has been closely tied to Mandela. When Rahman and Lewis landed in South Africa for the fight, each boxer invoked the name of Mandela.

"I look forward to shocking the world for him," said Rahman. When Lewis waved to fans upon his arrival at Johannesburg International Airport last week, the first thing he shouted was "Madiba Magic!" - a reference to Mandela's clan name, used as a term of endearment by South Africans.

Local newspapers gushed with stories of how Mandela himself was responsible for bringing the fight to South Africa. And it seemed that Mandela, a boxer in his younger days, would be at ringside on fight night.

The reality?

Mandela had nothing to do with it, according to promoter Rodney Berman.

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