JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - From books and T-shirts to bracelets and ostrich eggs, Nelson Mandela art and memorabilia have been flying off shelves and stalls as mourners search for a memento of South Africa’s anti-apartheid legend.
Souvenirs bearing the likeness of the former president, who died peacefully at his Johannesburg home on Thursday, had never been hard to find in South Africa, where he was already revered in life as a national hero for his struggle to end apartheid.
But the outpouring of emotion - a mixture of grief for his passing and celebration of his remarkable life - generated by his death has sent South Africans and tourists rushing to buy items that perpetuate the memory of his famously smiling face.
At the upscale Sandton City mall in Johannesburg, primary school teacher Salo Mathen had just bought two T-shirts from a store selling clothing and items bearing Mandela’s handprint or the number 46664, his prisoner number during the nearly three decades he spent in apartheid jails.
“It’s all sentimental with what has happened ... It’s just drawn me to this shop,” Mathen said. The shop sells brightly colored polo shirts, trousers, dresses, and flip flops.
A store assistant said sales had been up about 50 percent since Friday morning. Many customers were from overseas, including Ghana, Swaziland, France, Britain and the United States, and a condolence book contained about 20 messages.
“Madiba, you transformed a nation of hate into one of love. Thank you Tata,” read one. “Madiba” is Mandela’s clan name and “Tata” means father in the Xhosa language.
Among the most popular items bought by memento-seekers were the multi-colored ‘shwe shwe’ shirts that were a favorite of Mandela‘s, including a mustard and orange one selling for 449.95 rand ($43.56).
A proportion of the revenues generated from the store’s sales goes towards grassroots projects in underprivileged communities in South Africa.
“It’s a way of honoring him and it’s a way of giving back,” said Mathen.
Other souvenir shops had sold out of ostrich eggs bearing Mandela’s painted image, but still had a few miniature bronze busts on display. But an assistant in one store said they had decided against bringing out their Mandela T-shirts.
“We’re not displaying them because it’s sad to make money out of him,” she said.
Bookstores at the mall prominently displayed Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom”, as well as other books chronicling his political career, his imprisonment in the notorious penal colony of Robben Island and his historic election in 1994.
At a gallery that sells work by local artists, a black and white Mandela painting in the window worth 7,200 rand had already been sold. Customers there were also snapping up bronze busts of Mandela, including one with his fist raised - his famous gesture when released from prison in 1990.
“We’ve always been selling Mandela things but suddenly, since yesterday morning, people were coming in and asking for Mandela-this, Mandela-that,” said the sales assistant.
A colorful resin sculpture of Mandela reading to a group of children was still awaiting a buyer however, probably due to the hefty 41,000 rand price tag, she added.
On the sidewalk outside another shopping mall, in Rosebank, a small crowd of admirers gathered around a Zimbabwean portrait artist called Emaz as he began an oil painting of Mandela.
Emaz reckoned he had completed about 10 portraits of the Nobel Peace Prize winner over the past few years, and said he hoped for brisk sales in the coming days.
“I’ve always liked him, that’s the reason why I‘m painting him,” he said. “Most politicians make people fight but he makes people want to be together.”
Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Kevin Liffey