Mar 23 2011

The Depressing Commercialization of Nelson Mandela’s Imprisonment…


I don’t really want to write about this today but I feel compelled to. Nelson Mandela is 92 years old and he is a real hero of mine. While I was in college, I was the director of our campus Southern African Committee for two years. I was active in pushing our campus to divest from the Apartheid regime of South Africa. I was in college when Mandela was released from prison on February 11th 1990. I remember watching the coverage of his release on television in tears. I was so excited to see him walking hand in hand with Winnie. It was an indelible image. Later in 1991, he came to Ottawa Canada and I was one of the student leaders invited to meet him. I still have a photo of him from that day. It was one of the most memorable days of my life.

So you will pardon me if I feel sick to my stomach after having read yesterday that Mr. Mandela’s Foundation is launching a clothing line. My problem is not that Mr. Mandela is associated with clothing. After all, images of Malcolm, Martin, Che etc… are all over t-shirts. My particular disgust is reserved to the fact that the clothing line will be called “46664 Apparel.” You read that correctly. 46664 is Mr. Mandela’s prison number from his incarceration on Robben Island. I have no right to care about this at all. The man was imprisoned for 27 years and he can do whatever he wants. Who cares what a peon like me thinks? But I have to say that I am really uneasy about this type of commercialism.

From the article:

The 46664 apparel line was introduced earlier this month by Mandela’s foundation of the same name, which was established in 2002 as a global HIV/AIDS awareness prevention campaign. Besides helping to sustain the foundation’s charitable gifts, profits will also assist in boosting South Africa’s troubled textile and clothing industry. Designed by Seardel, South Africa’s biggest textile and clothing manufacturer, the line will feature brightly colored men’s sportswear and intricately patterned, African-influenced women’s wear that will be interchangeable for the office or casual weekend wear. At present, U.S. retail for a T-shirt will cost about $26 and a man’s collared shirt will cost about $86.

The quote cited above suggests that Mr. Mandela initially allowed his prison number to be used to set up a foundation to address global hiv and aids. Now the proceeds from the clothing line will be used to support the Foundation and also buttress South Africa’s textile industry. So technically this is a social enterprise. And yet…

The profits will go to elected projects that are in line with, and take forward, the humanitarian legacy of Nelson Mandela. It is important to note that all monies raised by 46664 will not accrue to any individual. Information relating to each of these elected projects will be made available in the build up to the launch.

The contribution to 46664 will come as a percentage of turnover starting at 7% and ending at 9% of annual turnover. This represents a significant financial commitment to 46664 when measured against current achievable clothing margins. In addition, the terms of the license obliges Seardel to pay minimum guarantees per year, which in turn assists 46664 with long-term planning, through a sustainable income stream.

I don’t know what this means except that it seems unlikely that no one is making any money off this endeavor. Mr. Mandela is not profiting but I can’t believe that this company Seardel is not going to making money from this…