From pulling in tourist dollars to twisting the arms of business tycoons for charity, Mandela is one of South Africa's hottest assets, embodying its transformation from pariah state to free democracy.

But as more businesses seek to capitalise on what has become one of the world's leading brands, South Africans fear the image of their national hero may become devalued.

"It cheapens what he did for our country," said one caller to a debate on national radio sparked by a new six-metre statue of the former president in the newly re-named Nelson Mandela Square shopping centre in Johannesburg's sparkling Sandton business district.

This Day newspaper described the rebranding "one of the most crass examples of capitalist commodification".

This Day newspaper described the rebranding "one of the most crass examples of capitalist commodification"

Advertising hoardings proclaim "Record Breaking Demand!" for a new limited edition Mandela gold coin and the municipal council in Port Elizabeth on the south coast near his ancestral home has rebranded itself the "Nelson Mandela Metropole".

One businessman has even suggested putting up a statue of the great man in the city's run-down harbour tall enough to eclipse the Statue of Liberty.

It all seems a long way from the Nelson Mandela who was freed from jail in 1990, was elected South Africa's first black president in 1994 and held the country together through the first faltering years of majority rule.

Integrity and trust

Public relations experts quote a US survey placing Mandela second only to the mother of all brands, Coca-Cola

When South Africans gather on 27 April to mark the 10th anniversary of their landmark first democratic elections, many will be crediting Mandela - who stepped aside in 1999 for current President Thabo Mbeki -  with their salvation.

"He stands for integrity and trust - the qualities you look for in a world-class brand," Jeremy Sampson, chief executive of Interbrand Sampson in Johannesburg, told Reuters.

Public relations experts quote a US survey placing Mandela second only to the mother of all brands, Coca-Cola - which pledged $151,400 to Mandela's Children's Fund linked to a special can series marking 10 years of democracy this month.

"If you look at the country like a company, the chief executive helps to preserve the company and the brand," said Reg Rumney, director of Johannesburg's BusinessMap Foundation, which studies economic transformation in the new South Africa.

"He's like the chief executive - image is very important and Mandela had an amazing brand: international and untarnished, better than Mother Teresa actually."

With Britain's Queen Elizabeth II:
Mandela mixes easily with anyone

For the founder of a guerrilla army, comparison with the late nun in line for a sainthood may appear unlikely.

"He is a powerful icon and he's really given a face to South Africa," said Cheryl Carolus, head of South African Tourism and a friend of Mandela.

"Nelson Mandela is the thing that people most commonly identify with South Africa."

His backing is seen as a huge boon for South Africa's bid to hold the continent's first soccer World Cup in 2010.

Over-zealous reporters

Mandela's right-hand woman Zelda La Grange, who shields the 85-year-old from over-zealous reporters, says the use of his image is carefully controlled by a team of advisers.

An appreciative community
thanks its beloved 'Madiba'

Requests are considered only if the proposal "embodies the values Mr Mandela stands for".

"If there is financial gain involved, the request needs to be forwarded to the Department of Trade and Industry for approval as Mr Mandela's image is protected by the South Africa Trade and Merchandise law," La Grange said.

When a toy company launched "MissDela" in December 2003 as "South Africa's first handcrafted plastic black doll" named after the former president, the company issued a statement within hours clarifying that "MissDela is in no way associated or endorsed by Nelson Mandela".

La Grange says Mandela, himself a lawyer, has never had to sue as most organisations quickly comply with any requests.

So do the international business figures and stars Mandela taps for donations to his Children's Fund and other charities.

Beyonce Knowles, U2's Bono, The Corrs, and more music stars turned out for his November AIDS fundraiser for his 46664 campaign - named after his prisoner number

Beyonce Knowles, U2's Bono, The Corrs, and more music stars turned out for his November AIDS fundraiser for his 46664 campaign - named after his prisoner number. Talk show host Oprah Winfrey and supermodel Naomi Campbell are also friends.

Despite looking increasingly dependent on a walking stick or a supporting hand, Mandela shows no sign of letting up his fundraising activities and campaigning.

He seems driven to leave his Foundation and Children's Fund in good shape to continue his work after his death, his name and image a powerful draw for the charities he has championed.

Grateful South Africans are eager to pay tribute - and preserve the dignity of an unrivalled national figure.

"I'm sure every major town will have a Mandela Street," said Interbrand's Sampson. "It's important for any country to celebrate its heroes - who else are we celebrating?"