While interning at Africa Action, I received a black T-shirt with a gray image of the African continent on the front. Over the top of the picture of Africa, the words “END GLOBAL APARTHEID” can be seen in bold, red capital letters. I have long contemplated those powerful words and how it applies to the world these days, particularly when people comment on the shirt with looks or words. Sometimes I wonder whether they understand the reference to “apartheid,” what it means, its history in South Africa, or its implications…or whether they think I’m just a pretentious white guy, walking around in apparent protest to a system that privileges me. Honestly, most of the time, people don’t say anything at all – but the responses I have gotten have been positive. In fact, the most positive comments on my shirt have come from South Africans themselves.
Before I share some of my most memorable experiences wearing the shirt, here’s some quick background if you’re unfamiliar with apartheid in South Africa: The word “apartheid” is Afrikaans for “separateness.” Therefore, separating, or keeping people apart from one another was what apartheid demanded. I find it easier to think of it as meaning “apartness,” hence apartheid.
First: In April 2009, I was traveling with some friends from Pimville, a township in Soweto, to Johannesburg and considered wearing my “END GLOBAL APARTHEID” shirt. I asked a friend whether she thought it would be appropriate to wear it around; in response, she pointed at her own shirt, which read, “100% BLACK,” and said with a smile, “I’m wearing this.” Clearly answering my question! We went into town to pick up some things and, as we were walking back to our car, I suddenly heard a shout from across the parking lot: “Hey, you should be wearing that shirt in London.” I looked around to see a man dressed business casual with a tie, getting into a nice car. He was Coloured, someone who would have been oppressed during the apartheid era. I was a little surprised at his comment, and then I realized that it was also the same day as the G-20 summit on world economic recovery in London. It occurred to me then that, in South Africa, people know exactly what apartheid means – they all struggled to end it not so long ago. By wearing my t-shirt I was unconsciously showing my involvement in and support of that struggle.
The other story goes like this: I had gone over to the salon of Dr. Dread with my friend Motlalepule. We were in Pimville, walking in Zone 2, the section of the township that had been meant for Basotho people during apartheid.
[Quick Backgrounder #2: Apartheid was not only the separation of different races, but of different tribes as well – the philosophy being that different tribes would fight each other if not kept apart. Ironically, in Soweto, the many different ethnic groups – Sothos, Zulus, Pedis, Xhosas, and others from all over South Africa – have been living together for sometimes three generations: they adopt aspects of one another’s cultures, and even blend languages, borrowing words in Sesotho, Zhosa, Zulu etc. Even during my trip I could see the ways that people come together and work and live together – highlighting even more clearly how unnecessary the philosophy of separateness is, and how much of an obstacle it was to peaceful interactions between human beings.]
So, I was wearing my “END GLOBAL APARTHEID” t-shirt and walking down the street; we could see people out in their yards, chilling and braaing (barbecuing and drinking) because of the Festive Season. I greeted a group of guys listening to house music in Sesotho: “Dumelang, bontate,” which started up a whole conversation. One of the guys, on hearing that I was from the U.S., commented that a major problem is that the only white people he ever sees walking around the township are from foreign countries, never from South Africa – very few live there. He thought it was nice that I had come and said I was welcome. He also looked and my shirt and said, “END GLOBAL APARTHEID…I like that. I like that very much.”
Finally, Another friend of mine, Thabang, invited me to an African National Congress (ANC) meeting [The ANC has been South Africa's governing party since the end of the apartheid regime in April 1994] He told me that it makes him proud to see me walking around in the township. Coming from a man who has lived in the township all his life, and struggled and fought just so he and I could have the freedom to simply sit and speak to one another, I told him that I was so grateful and humbled.
The philosophy of apartheid claimed that white and black people couldn’t get along and needed to be separate. But my experiences in South Africa, making friends and being accepting into families and into the community, are just further examples that such ideas are untrue. Furthermore, the freedom to speak with another human being is worth achieving, as Damian Marley puts it, “by any plan and any means and strategy.” Wearing my “END GLOBAL APARTHEID” shirt in South Africa, and the responses I received, made me hope even more that one day, here in U.S., we will get to experience such a positive vibration and feel what it means to end separateness. The specifics of the system are different here, but I don’t think it’s any less dangerous.
If we really try to be honest with ourselves about history, and consider the inequalities which have affected the indigenous people on our own continent, as well as Latin America, the Caribbean, and the African continent….if we become aware of these issues we will certainly see more clearly where we are today and what still needs to be done to improve the conditions colored in many ways by colonialism, imperialism, by racism, and unequal power balances between different peoples. Such understandings of how we are part of the making of history and, thus, the making of our future, will help us see that the t-shirt, “END GLOBAL APARTHEID,” is really a prophetic call to action, not only because Global Apartheid will and must end, but also because once our consciousness is awakened by voices and action coming from places like Soweto – as it did in Jamaica, Ethiopia, in the U.S., so many other places – we will naturally find ourselves working to build structures that protect the freedoms that will inevitably be enjoyed by the posterity of this earth.
By Nick Carl, a former Public Education and Mobilization Intern with Africa Action