Nelson Mandela's Hi-Tec sneakers.

COMING HOME: Nelson Mandela’s sneakers have come back home to South Africa.

The late South African president and global icon of freedom, affectionately known as Madiba, walked out of the notorious Robben Island prison in 1990 after a total of 27 years of incarceration and hard labor wearing a pair of white tennis shoes, U.S. size 10, with the Hi-Tec logo in blue.

“They were a classic design of tennis shoes called Hi-Tec Wimbledon, given to Mandela by his then wife Winnie Mandela,” recalled Frank van Wezel, chairman of the Netherlands-based multinational sports footwear and apparel company.

When the sneakers came up for auction in 1996 to benefit the Nelson Mandela Foundation, van Wezel wasted no time putting in the winning bid for the pair. They were scruffy and worn but no less significant.

“Our shoes were on the feet of the person who had written ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ on the day that he was finally liberated. His walk started with our sneakers. There was so much history in that one pair of sneakers. And humor, too. Because there were certainly no tennis courts on Robben Island! But Mandela always had a playful sense of humor.”

Van Wezel clearly remembers the price he paid for the pair, but said that it would “remain a secret between the Foundation and me.” At any rate, Mandela’s choice of footwear quickly changed after his release, as he now had to put on a suit and tie and leather shoes to begin negotiations with the government for the transition of South Africa to full representative democracy after apartheid. Mandela eventually became democratic South Africa’s first president when elections were held in 1994.

In December last year, van Wezel felt it was time to return the sneakers to their rightful home after being on display at the Hi-Tec Amsterdam flagship. He chose to put the sneakers on permanent display under a glass case at the storefront window of the new Stellenbosch store, a university town in the Cape Winelands two hours away from Cape Town. The words “STEP INTO GREATNESS” beckon to passersby.

The reaction from the public has been “sensational.” Stellenbosch is home to around 40,000 students, and van Wezel said that students have walked into the store and asked, “are they really Madiba’s shoes? ‘We didn’t know he was wearing quite modern sneakers,’ they’d say, ‘since he was an old man.’ But what they don’t realize is that he was a young man once; in fact he was quite young when he entered Robben Island. He was only 45.”

According to van Wezel, that particular style of sneakers is no longer in production. “The sneaker industry is moving so fast these days. New ranges now come out every three months or so.”

Back in the day, the Hi-Tec Wimbledon tennis shoes worn by Nelson Mandela would have cost around 300 South African rands, or around $30 then. “They were not very expensive shoes then, as in those days Winnie Mandela did not have much money.”

Today, van Wezel says a similar pair would be double that price. A similar style, intended for squash or tennis, retails at around 700 South African rands, or just under $60.

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