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Cashing in on Mandela

SOWETO, Feb 10 – Oscar winner Charlize Theron, Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso and 2010 World Cup fraudsters have learned the knuckling-rapping lesson: the Nelson Mandela brand is not for sale.

All have been rebuked by representatives for the 91-year-old who guard against misuse of Mandela\’s name and image, which crops up everywhere from t-shirts to email scams 20 years after his release from apartheid prison.

"The Nelson Mandela Foundation has had the difficulty with having to protect Madiba\’s name," said Sello Hatang, of the office Mandela established in 1999 after retiring as South Africa\’s first black president.

"Any abuse is abuse. Whenever we pick up on the problem we deal with it."

Despite keeping a low-profile, the ageing Mandela remains globally revered. Feted by world leaders and celebrities, he is adored at home as a living symbol of forgiveness after decades of white minority rule.

It\’s an allure that many want to cash in on — from the Mandela Auto Body Parts shop in Port Elizabeth, South Africa to New York\’s Madiba Restaurant in the United States.

In the bustle of Soweto outside Johannesburg, hawkers at the township\’s anti-apartheid tourist sites sell a sprinkling of crude clay busts, 1994 election campaign badges, T-shirts and flags bearing his face.

"The people from Mandela House say that Mandela\’s image is copy-righted and we are not supposed to sell them. We have to get permission first," said Kgomotoso Mahlasela who trades opposite Mandela\’s former home turned museum.

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But the 25-year-old, who makes a 200 percent profit on the badges he sells for 30 rand (less than four dollars, less than three euros), says Mandela\’s image should be freely available.

"It should be open for everyone because it\’s our icon. It\’s Mandela. He\’s our icon. We are selling these things to people of the world — they are the ones that want the Mandela image."

While Mandela\’s lawyer declined to comment on the scope of copyrights in his name, the foundation has a link for fraudulent activity on its website and has issued several press releases to fight off name theft.

The scams range from using his office\’s name to solicit money to winning claims in World Cup lottery draws for the tournament hosted by South Africa this year.

"It\’s not only damaging to his reputation and his good name but also damaging to the image of these organisations that he has established," Hatang told AFP.

Even the dazzle of Hollywood and presidential offices are not spared by Mandela\’s handlers.

Last October, South African-born starlet Theron was censured for throwing in a bids-boosting meeting with Mandela at a charity auction without running it past his office.

"Not even the charity foundations Mandela himself established are allowed to auction off time with him," responded the foundation\’s chief Achmat Dangor.

In the same month, Congo leader Nguesso was chided for "brazen abuse of Mr Mandela’s name" in a book which claimed a foreword penned by the global icon.

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Mandela\’s protectors now hope that the United Nations adoption of Mandela Day, celebrated on his July 18 birthday, will show how best to use his name by urging people to do good deeds in their communities.

"What we are trying to do is use the name for good," said Hatang.

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