“SMILE!” the visitor implored, an edge of forced bonhomie in his voice, as he held up a camera to take a snapshot.
But the face of Nelson Mandela, the 94-year-old leader of the struggle against apartheid who became South Africa’s beloved first black president, remained impassive as stone.
He looked confused and irritated, as if his rheumy eyes failed to register the faces of the top leaders of the African National Congress who came to see him last month, even though he had known them for decades.
The images, captured by a government camera crew and broadcast nationwide, were the first to appear in more than nine months of the ailing Mandela, who has been in hospital four times in less than a year.
Far from being honoured, Mandela’s relatives were furious over the broadcast, saying party leaders had invaded his privacy and exploited his frailty to reap the political benefits of being seen in his company at least one more time.
“I was really, really livid,” said Makaziwe Mandela, Mandela’s eldest daughter, arguing that the filming took place against the family’s wishes. “They should have had the sense to not publish those pictures.”
As Mandela fades away, the struggle to claim his legacy, his image, his moneymaking potential and even the time he has remaining has begun in earnest.
The governing African National Congress, which Mandela led for decades, is accused of using him as a prop to remind voters of the party’s noble roots at a time when it has come to be seen as a collection of corrupt self-serving elites.
The party’s main rival, the Democratic Alliance, has come under fire too for using a photo of him embracing one of its white progenitors, spurring complaints that the opposition is trying to co-opt Mandela’s image to unseat his own party.
All the while, his descendants are engaged in a very public fight over Mandela’s financial legacy. Angry that a trust set up for their welfare and upkeep is partly controlled by someone they consider an outsider, his friend George Bizos, the family has gone to court to remove him as a director.
“Everyone wants a piece of the Madiba magic,” said author William Gumede, using the former president’s clan name. “This is just a preview of what will come when he goes.”
The phrase “when he goes” is the polite euphemism used by anyone who dares to hint at the inevitable death of Mandela, a revered figure across the globe. But Mandela’s age and fragile health have led to the increasingly acrimonious war over how he will be remembered – and what he has to pass on.
Last month, two of Mandela’s daughters sued Bizos and two other associates of their father to force them off the boards of two companies set up to sell a series of paintings Mandela had made with his handprints, one of several commercial ventures devised to raise money for him and his heirs. The Mandela family includes a sometimes squabbling assembly of three daughters from two marriages, 17 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
The suit asserts that Bizos and two other people were improperly appointed to the boards. Bizos, a prominent human rights lawyer, appears stung by the effort to oust him; he helped defend Mandela against charges of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state 50 years ago and remained a close friend. A newspaper, the Star, quoted Bizos as saying that Mandela’s daughters “wanted to get their hands on things that should not be sold and the money in the companies”.
In a statement, Mandela’s grandchildren angrily rejected efforts to “paint our family as insensitive money grabbers with no respect”, adding that “most of us are gainfully employed, work for our own companies and run our own projects”.
Makaziwe Mandela said: “This issue that we are greedy, that we are wanting this money before my dad passes away, is all nonsense.”
She added that Bizos was “making himself as if he is the super trustee, above everybody else” and pointed to documents that created the trust, which stipulate that money from it can be used for almost any purpose by Mandela’s descendants – buying a house or a car, starting a business, paying tuition or even taking a holiday.
Despite her father’s fame, she said, the family is not wealthy: “This idea that somehow because we are Mandelas we are born with a diamond spoon is actually a very false idea.”
Makaziwe Mandela, who has a PhD in anthropology, serves on several corporate boards and runs a wine company with her daughter, Tukwini, called House of Mandela.
The Mandelas are hardly immune to money troubles. A court ordered that a tea set, paintings and furniture owned by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Mandela’s second wife, be auctioned off this week to pay a debt she owes to a private school for tuition and boarding for a relative.
Protecting Mandela’s image has always been an onerous task. His face and name are everywhere – on South Africa’s currency, on T-shirts and clock faces, on bronze statues and in songs.
While Mandela never shied from using his image and name to further causes he supported – such as children’s rights, HIV and Aids research and peacemaking – fighting unauthorised commercial use costs the Nelson Mandela Foundation hundreds of thousands of pounds every year.
These days, Mandela wishes only to be left alone to enjoy his family, said his daughter. “We never had Tata, even when he went out of jail,” she said, using the Xhosa word for father.
“This is the only moment we have as a family to dote on him. I think we should be given the time to enjoy whatever years Tata has left in front of him.”