The use and abuse of the Mandela name

Posted on August 1, 2016


July — Mandela month — is over. Around the country and in many parts of the world, many people, with the best intentions, devoted their 67 minutes for Mandela in order to improve the lot of humanity at large. It was another demonstration of how potent is the symbol of Mandela.

During his life, to be associated with or to in any way be seen to have been close to such an international icon was the intention of hundreds, perhaps thousands of politicians, business people and celebrities who wished to polish their images or to use such claimed relationship for self aggrandisement or even financial profit.

Nelson Mandela was — and still remains — an international icon. And from the åtime he stepped out of Victor Verster prison in February 1990, he was a magnet for those who wished to bask in his reflected glory. Many — in particular a slew of film and music celebrities — simply for personal aggrandisement. Others, among them politicians and business people, clearly in the hope that apparent proximity to Madiba, the clan name Mandela insisted on using, would benefit their electoral standing or business prospects.

Throughout his post-prison life, Madiba was beset by requests for interviews and meetings, for photo opportunities. He also sought out wealthy individuals in order to persuade them to contribute to his various community causes. Many did, photo opportunities included. Some did not.

Even after he retired to his home in Qunu in the Eastern Cape in 2011, with his health failing, the demands continued. But by that time, Mandela was frequently tired, forgetful and, as his long-time personal assistant. Zelda la Grange noted: “Some people started to take advantage of this when they realised that he no longer had the ability to argue or to stand by his principles.”

All of this is perfectly understandable. And there was little the Nelson Mandela Foundation could do to halt the Mandela name being used — and abused — by individuals flaunting claimed relationships based on a photo opportunity or two.

Around the world there are now politicians, business people, singers, musicians and others who proudly display their pictures with Mandela. But only one who has gone beyond this to repeatedly lay claim to have been a close personal friend and, above all, physician to Madiba: Dr Iqbal Survé who is now in control of South Africa’s largest English language newspaper empire.

One of Survé’s published claims, that he was Nelson Mandela’s doctor “both on and off Robben Island”, first raised questions for me. Since Mandela left Robben Island in 1982 when Survé was a junior medical student, this hardly seemed possible. But he also told journalist and author Suzanne Belling that he “treated Mandela for ten years before his release”. That meant that Survé was just 17 years old, having just completed matric at Livingstone High when he “treated” Mandela.

So I checked. And checked again. And again. I discovered that there was no available evidence of Iqbal Survé ever being “Nelson Mandela’s doctor”. But there was plenty that indicated that he had never treated the icon, let alone been his close friend.

However, there were also a number of other apparently extravagant claims that seemed to beggar belief. So I investigated them and then asked Dr Survé to please clarify some of what I had discovered.

His response was both frustrating — and revealing. He repeated, even elaborated on, a Cambridge University Fellowship he claimed to have, but said that he could not answer my queries because he did not “wish to be scooped”” about facts in an autobiography he planned to produce.

But the Cambridge Fellowship he claims does not exist. And the Cambridge Institute for Sustainable Leadership says it has written to Survé asking him to stop claiming this honour relating to the institute. But then the 1996 national soccer team also has no knowledge of the man who claims to have been the “mind coach” who carried them to Afcon victory. And the Indian team he claims to have carried to world renown notes: “Never heard of.”

Instead of replying to a request for him to explain or clarify these and other claims, Dr Survé used — and I would say, abused — the columns of one of his publications, Business Report, to attack my bona fides and those of several other journalists who had questioned his claims and his business practices.

It was a crude example of slandering the messengers in the hope, apparently, that the messages would be forgotten. As Adolph Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels once memorably noted: “It would not be impossible to prove…..that a square is in fact a circle”. The secret was repetition. So Survé has taken to repeat that those who question him are part of a racist vendetta apparently motivated by the opposition Democratic Alliance.

Yet he has merely been asked to explain himself, especially with regard to claims which may have opened doors for him, given him unwarranted prestige and perhaps, business advantage. What is certainly true is that he told his tales, particularly of the claimed relationship with Mandela, to journalists, Harvard University academics, and to others who took him at his word and that he promoted such material.

The various journalists, including me, who have raised these questions, come from different backgrounds and probably have vastly different political, religious and other convictions. These issues are irrelevant unless the information presented and the questions raised are untrue and invalid. They are not.

Given his position within the media and his claims to be “one of the most influential businessmen and philanthropists on the African continent”, Dr Iqbal Survé owes the public a full explanation, if not an apology for lying. Mandela’s legacy deserves no less.

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