06/24/2013 02:01 EDT | Updated 08/24/2013 05:12 EDT

Margaret Evans: The battle over who 'owns' the Mandela legend

There is a small ceramics factory in the countryside about an hour's drive from Johannesburg where the light is soft and the colours muted by the combination of a gentle South African winter and the dust that hangs in the air. They make tiny stone figurines of Nelson Mandela here, his face and form repeating on dusty shelves again and again.

"He is a father figure to me," says Shadrack Madzhara as he aims an air gun at them, sharp puffs attacking the dust. "And he is a father figure to the whole world."

Some are fridge magnets. Others are pieces for a special chessboard they make, pitting the historical figures of the apartheid era and its aftermath against each other. Mandela, of course, has pride of place.

"He is our King, isn't he?," asks the factory owner Carol Starkey. "I mean, if it wasn't for him this country could have been chaotic. We could have had war. And you know he's our icon, whether you're black or white or pink."

But as Mandela’s slow and painful withdrawal from the world is played out, there are growing fears that his legacy is being moulded more and more to suit the agendas of others.

"In a complexity of ways there is this battle for who owns Madiba," says Wits University vice-chancellor Adam Habib in Johannesburg, using Mandela's clan name.

"The answer is everyone does, and we all want therefore that our part of the image is the dominant one. But it can't be like that."

Controlling the image

A walk through Johannesburg’s tough downtown neighbourhoods or the townships that ring the city is a kaleidoscope of graffiti-filled tributes to Mandela the man and the legend. But use of his image for commercial purposes is carefully controlled in South Africa.

Tourists come from all over to snap pictures next to his towering figure in Mandela Square in the posh suburb of Sandton, but news crews can't film it without permission.

Buying a Mandela T-shirt or one of the famed bracelets with his former Robben Island prisoner's number on it is also not as easy as you might think. Only certain stores are given permission to sell them, and only approved designs are allowed on merchandise.

"Even the little statues that people come and ask for of Mandela, you can’t get them," says Hannah Melunsky, a clerk at a South African craft store. "I mean, there is one gallery that got permission, the original Nelson Mandela. But you need to get permission. Because he's such an icon."

Copyright lies with the Nelson Mandela Foundation and its Centre of Memory, the non-profit organization charged with protecting Mandela's legacy and promoting projects true to his ideals.

Chief executive Sello Hatang says they don't want to give the impression that they clamp down on the use of Mandela's image unnecessarily.

"It's actually impossible to do it," he says. It's "appropriate use of the image" they’re worried about.

Trading on the Mandela name

The major exception is the Mandela family. Children and grandchildren can do what they like with their own name, and some have been trading on it. There's a clothing line called "Long Walk to Freedom," and even a reality television show called Being Mandela.

Adam Habib says that kind of profiteering makes him queasy.

"I mean, for God sake, this is not Kim Kardashian, this is Nelson Mandela. South Africa as a group in general would like there to be a more dignified behaviour around Madiba, both by the family and by the leaders of the ANC."

Senior African National Congress members were accused of exploiting a clearly ailing Mandela for political gain when they released a photo-op with him earlier in the year, with South African President Jacob Zuma scrabbling at Mandela's inert hand.

There will be elections in 2014 and the ANC is currently mired in a series of damaging corruption scandals. Analysts say opposition parties are fed up with the ANC trying to appropriate Mandela's image for themselves alone, despite his long history with the movement.

"The Democratic Alliance and other parties would like to de-link Mandela from the ANC," says Habib. "They would like him to be seen as the father of the nation.

"The ANC would like him to be understood as the father of the nation, but they want him to be known as the father of the nation that they produced … that can translate into votes."

Veteran anti-apartheid campaigner Mamphela Ramphele adds, "We need to remember Mr. Mandela's own words, that this freedom we are enjoying today is not the product of one single organization or one single person."

Ramphele, the former partner of famed anti-apartheid campaigner Steven Biko, who died in police custody in 1977, has just launched her own political party, accusing the ANC of failing its people.

Nelson Mandela’s former lawyer, George Bizos, who acted for him during the Rivonia trial in the 1960s, says his old friend would not be pleased with some of what's being done in his name by some of those accused of corruption.

"He would be very disappointed that his image is being used or abused in many instances in order to say we are walking along the path that Mandela walked."

The outcry over the ANC's publication of the photo-op was widespread and fierce in South Africa, and even within the ANC itself, with Zuma accused by critics of exploiting the nation’s hero at his most vulnerable.

That kind of reaction acts as a protection of sorts, says Hatang of the Mandela Foundation, promoting a sense here that it is the people who will protect Mandela's legacy.

Even at that small factory outside Johannesburg where they make their living from the image they keep pouring into moulds, there is a sense of real guardianship, that his integrity will be protected.

"It is important to me," says Sarah Madzhara, seated at a table with a group of women using brushes to fill in Mandela's features on all those stone figures.

"Because Mandela gave us our freedom in South Africa."