Of art and craft: Mandela sues ally

Andrew Meldrum

JOHANNESBURG: Once Nelson Mandela and his lawyer, Ismail Ayob, stood shoulder to shoulder in their battle against apartheid. Now the legendary figures are about to clash in a bitter lawsuit in which the elderly Mr. Mandela is battling to preserve the integrity of his name.

In a case highlighting how the post-apartheid era's first democratic

leader has unwittingly spawned a memorabilia industry, the former President is to sue Mr. Ayob for allegedly passing off his signature and misrepresenting him in the sale of lithographs depicting his years in jail on Robben Island.

Mr. Mandela's admirers are saddened to see his diminishing energy

sapped by a lawsuit. Others are dismayed that Mr. Ayob's celebrated career as one of the leading anti-apartheid lawyers is being sullied.

Although there is no suggestion of personal gain, informed sources say Mr. Ayob, Mr. Mandela's personal lawyer for more than 20 years and

one-time close friend, will be asked to account for the equivalent of about Rs. 25 crores in allegedly unauthorised sales of a limited series of prints purportedly signed by Mandela. The buyers include Oprah Winfrey, David Beckham, Bill Clinton, Samuel Jackson, the Sultan of Oman and Prince Charles. "We are drawing up papers to sue Mr. Ayob and his associate, Ross Calder. We intend to file in the next week to 10 days," said Mr. Mandela's present lawyer, George Bizos. "It is a sad, troublesome case. It has caused Mr. Mandela considerable vexation. He is highly upset about this."

Mandela is highly marketable. Increasingly frail at 86, he has cut down on his public appearances. . The case highlights the difficulties facing the elderly Mandela in

preventing others, including close associates and even family members, from

exploiting his name. Mr. Mandela has had to threaten lawsuits to stop his name or image being used on 40 different products, ranging from gold coins to T-shirts. To raise money for his charities, he endorsed the art scheme

devised by Mr. Ayob. The first works were of his handprints, with the

outline of Africa in his palm, which were produced in 2001. There followed

six prints of different views of Robben Island, sold as a limited edition

with his signature. It is claimed they were based on rough sketches by Mr. Mandela which were `enhanced' into colour lithographs. Artist Varenka Paschke, the granddaughter of the apartheid-era Prime Minister, P.W. Botha, is said to have created the final works from which the prints were produced. Publicity releases said that Ms. Paschke `tutored' Mr. Mandela.

Marketed as limited editions, the lithographs were sold round the world.

Half of the proceeds were to go to the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund and

the other half to the Nelson Mandela Trust. Mr. Ayob was the chairman of that trust and two of Mr. Mandela's daughters are on the board. Mr. Ayob claims the trust's funds have been fully accounted for. The works are appealingly gentle depictions of the island. Buyers all over the world queued for these pieces of Mr. Mandela magic.

Mr. Mandela was, however, unhappy when it became clear that far more than the original sets of prints were being sold. He stopped signing them and withdrew his endorsement two years ago, said Mr. Bizos. But the prints continued to be sold.

The lawsuit will claim that the prints were mass-produced and Mr. Mandela's signature was mechanically reproduced.

The last straw appears to have been the sale of prints to heads of state, celebrities and industrialists at the World Economic Forum in Davos,

Switzerland, last January. Mandela is said to have been furious.

Mr. Ayob expressed surprise at the lawsuit and said: "At no stage have I benefited or done anything improper."

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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