Winnie Mandela, an anti-apartheid activist, is trying to stop further screenings of a cable-television movie about her marriage to Nelson Mandela, an imprisoned African National Congress leader, on grounds that it turns history into fiction for commercial exploitation.
"To these people, we are nothing but a source of dollars," she said through her lawyer about the producers of the film "Mandela," which was televised Sunday night by Home Box Office Inc. in the United States and is scheduled to be shown later this week in Britain and 30 other countries.
Pushing aside producers' assertions that the film would aid South Africa's anti-apartheid movement, Mandela said in a statement issued by family lawyer Ismail Ayob, that she had not seen the film and believed from the accounts of those who had that it was "totally devoid of political content . . . and ignorant of the hope and goals and history of the struggle."
"These people should please leave us alone," the statement quoted her as saying. "This film serves no political purpose and was made solely for commercial reasons. The producers are just cashing in on the name of the family."
In the United States, Robert (Buzz) Berger of Titus Productions in New York, which co-produced "Mandela" with Television South of Britain, expressed surprise about the statement made public by Ayob.
He said in a telephone interview that "all of the African National Congress people who have seen the film have applauded it" and that he thought Mandela would change her mind "if she could see the film."
Berger said that a cassette of "Mandela" had been sent to her and that he and other representatives of the producing firms have tried unsuccessfully to reach Mandela by telephone to read to her some of the positive comments by reviewers that have appeared in major U.S. news media.
Berger said that Television South had suggested to Ayob that he talk to ANC attorneys in London and New York "who have seen the film and think it's marvelous."
On the commercial aspect of the production, Berger said the producers "are so far in the red, we will never recoup the money invested in this film."
Here in Johannesburg, Ayob said he would attempt to keep the film from being televised on Britain's Independent Television on Thursday, acknowledging that Mandela had acted too late to prevent its showing Sunday in the United States. "We feel this is a severe invasion of privacy," Ayob said of the film, which was made a year ago in Zimbabwe.
The Johannesburg Sunday Times quoted Mandela as saying, "No one under international copyright law has the right to depict me or my husband without our consent. I have been surprised by the many people, particularly Americans, who are either writing books or going to produce films about the Mandela family without even bothering to consult us."
Gordon Tucker, a spokesman for Television South, said in London that by the end of this week, the film would have been seen through most of the English-speaking world, except for South Africa, and "could be of tremendous value for the Mandelas."
"There has been an exchange of views between the lawyers, and on the advice of our lawyer we are going ahead with the film," Tucker said. "We do not accept that there is a breach of copyright law because this is a drama, not a documentary. We were very accurate in the legal part of the story, but on the love story we obviously used poetic license."
The Mandelas were married in 1958, four years before Nelson Mandela, commander of the ANC's military wing, Spear of the Nation, was arrested and eventually convicted of plotting a campaign of sabotage to overthrow the country's minority white government. Now 69, he is serving a life sentence, but could soon be released as part of a government political initiative.
Ayob said that the family had already granted permission to Harry Belafonte, the singer and actor, to make a film on the life of Nelson Mandela and to Camelia Cosby, the wife of Bill Cosby, the actor and comedian, to make a film on the life of Winnie Mandela, who has emerged as a major political leader in her own right.
Winnie Mandela said she had not cooperated with Ronald Harwood, the writer of the "Mandela" screenplay. She described his portrayal of her life with Nelson Mandela as "typical of the mentality of some South African whites who do things for us without bothering to consult us."
"To some Americans, we are just a newly-discovered commercial industry," she said. "This is outrageous and typical of people with racist mentalities.
"I wish these people would realize that we are ordinary people and, despite the fact that we have lost our rights in our own country, we still have the right to our private lives."
Tucker said the producers had wanted to make an unbiased film and decided as a result not to consult anyone involved.
The HBO film features American actors Alfre Woodard as Winnie and Danny Glover as Nelson. Both have spoken strongly in recent interviews of their belief that the film makes an important political statement.
"It makes a contribution," Glover told The Times last week.
"The main objective is to reach people, not to make a documentary. You want to personalize the story in some way."
Winnie Mandela, who has been hospitalized in recent weeks for bronchial pneumonia, learned that "Mandela" was ready to be broadcast only when friends who had seen previews telephoned her, Ayob said.