February 11. On this day in 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison. When Nelson Mandela arrived on Robben Island in May 1962, a warder told him: ‘This is the island, here you will die.’ The man was probably right: Mandela, prisoner 46664, was sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state. Robben Island, a former leper colony, had acquired a notorious reputation, known for its primitive conditions and brutal regime. The daily routine was simple: every day Mandela and his fellow prisoners were chipping white rock in a limestone quarry, while the sun was burning mercilessly on them. Fine dust glued the prisoners tear ducts shut, making them unable to cry.
Mandela, lawyer and anti-apartheid revolutionary, was an enemy of the state and the South African government did their utmost best to erase him from the public mind, banning his speeches and photographs. However, he was never fully forgotten and in March 1980 the Soweto newspaper The Post started a campaign with the banner FREE MANDELA! As this coincided with a renewal of the resistance to apartheid in South Africa, Mandela was becoming one of the world’s most famous prisoners.
‘Mandela’s presence on Robben Island soon reached mythic proportions. Awards by foreign governments, universities and cities were showered upon him; streets were named after him; songs were written about him’, writes historian Martin Meredith. Mandela remained on Robben Island until he fell seriously ill with tuberculosis, just after his 70th birthday in December 1988. He was transferred to Victor Verster Prison, which he left on February 11, 1990. After 27-years of imprisonment, he was finally free.
Mandela’s release sparked great joy all around the world and to commemorate this historical event Vlisco made a Java-print with Mandela’s portrait. Vlisco designer Jan Mollemans had worked on a framework to suit different portraits, but it was Mandela’s photo that featured the Java-print 4990R. The commemorative cloth was characterised by special colour effects in the printed areas (colour gradients), making it a so-called Maxi-Print. It was sold in South Africa, Cameroon, Togo, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire and Niger until 1998.
A commemorative cloth is very common in Africa to memorialize a person, a political event or a specific momentum such as a royal anniversary, state visit or funeral. Their meanings are very accessible, because the pictures and symbols used for the commemorative cloth, express the message clearly for everybody. They quality of the cloth however is very diverse; some are cheap and given away to crowds to gain political support – that’s why most commemorative Mandela cloth has the colours and symbols of the African National Congress (ANC). Other cloth, like Vlisco’s 4990R, are of high quality and free of any political allusion. What makes the commemorative Mandela cloths special, is the fact that before 1990, it was forbidden to portrait Mandela or use the ANC colours in public.
After his release from prison, Nelson Mandela became even more legendary than he already was: he became the first black president of South Africa, he abolished apartheid, he introduced democracy and received the Noble Peace Price in 1993. His ‘long walk to freedom’ was eventually interpreted as Africa’s long walk to freedom. Mandela passed away at the age of 95 in December 2013. He did not die on Robben Island as the ward told him in 1962, but as a free man.