‘I Benefited From Apartheid’ Campaign – Interview with Leonard Shapiro and Roger Young

It’s okay, people will appreciate it and forgive you if you just acknowledge it. Wear this t-shirt and let people know that you benefited from apartheid. Black people, don’t be shy… we’re sure you know some white folks who have tried to tell you that Employment Equity is racist. Get them a shirt! If you don’t know of any, just buy a couple and give them to the cashiers at Woolworths to hand out to their next customers.

If, however, you are, due to the way you embody transformation in your daily dealings, in no need of acknowledging publicly that you benefited, maybe you can get one for anyone of your myriad friends who still, embarrassingly say things like “these people” at dinner parties. These shirts also make excellent Christmas gifts for grandparents who think that there never used to be any coloured people in Constantia, and don’t understand why they want to move in now, dammit!”

We first noticed this shirt when a debate began raging when a friend uploaded a photo of himself wearing this shirt. We soon noticed news articles being posted about the campaign, both positive and negative. It soon became apparent that the people behind this campaign are as sick of ignorant, racist attitudes in South Africa as we are. Racism and discrimination have no place here. We think this campaign is awesome, and hopefully will achieve the goal of creating conversation, understanding and eventually forgiveness. We spoke to Leonard Shapiro about the campaign…

Who are the brains behind this campaign? Can you give a brief description of yourself/yourselves?
Leonard Shapiro and Roger Young collaborated on this campaign. Leonard Shapiro is studying an art theory course at the University of Cape Town and is focussed on art being politically informed as well the way in which art is able to contribute the ongoing political debate. Roger Young is a journalist, a film maker.

Who/What inspired this campaign?
This collaboration between myself and Roger Young unfolded due to a very natural process. In 1998, a friend of mine returned to South Africa, having lived in exile during the apartheid era. One day, she asked me, “did you benefit from apartheid?” I replied, “yes, I did”. She told me that I was one of the few ‘white’ people whom she had spoken with who acknowledged this. In 2012, I was walking with Roger Young on a GIPCA (Gordon Institute for Performing Arts) tour of the Slave Lodge and other places in Cape Town where slaves were sold as well as executed.

We began talking and we came to the realisation that if it were not for the history of slavery, colonialism and apartheid, many European immigrants would not have come to South Africa. They came because at the time South Africa was favourably disposed towards ‘white’ people. So, we decided to make these t-shirts in order to begin what we feel is an important conversation about this “issue”. This is not about feeling guilty about being born into a system where whites were privileged. Rather, It is about acknowledging it and discussing it in order to continue a healing process in South Africa.

What do you hope to achieve with campaign?
Leonard: The intention was to get what we felt was an important conversation started; a conversation that would encourage white South Africans to acknowledge that they benefited from apartheid. We must stress that the idea was not that people feel guilty about benefiting. The idea was that by acknowledging benefit, the ‘air could be cleared’ around this issue by acknowledging the ‘elephant in the room’.

Roger: I don’t think we had “hopes” as such. We’re not professional activists. It was an idea that we thought would start a discussion within a small group of people. It blew up quite organically. Well, with the help of a few paranoid Rapport readers.

How have you found people’s reactions in general to the shirt and the idea?
Leonard: Many white South Africans who visited the facebook page and the online media articles were extremely defensive. One of their defensive tactics was to dismiss the fact that they benefited by pointing to current corruption within the government. This is not under discussion as it is a completely separate issue from whether white South Africans benefited or not.

Roger: Varied, strange, quite depressing really. Not that I didn’t know they were out there, the mindset behind those responses is what informed the t-shirt in the first place. But to say it hasn’t been overwhelming would be a lie, the depth of the denial is quite scary. There have been a lot of positive responses as well, and of course these aren’t as rabid. The defensive minority is VERY vocal.

What is the most mind-blowingly ignorant or stupid statement or comment you’ve heard or seen written about this campaign?
Leonard: There are so many, I can’t pick one. However, there were many very, very coherent comments acknowledging benefit and these added a powerful voice of hope to the discussion.

Roger: The ones where people go on about how White people did Black people a favour by colonizing Africa, because it bought them the written language, roads and modernity. Those always freak me out. I mean to think that African nations did not have unique and complex cultures before “We” arrived is such naive thinking that it’s hard to unpack it step by step.

Do you think that the majority of South Africans, in general, are ignorant to what Melanin is, and the fact that the colour of someone’s skin is dependent on Geography? Why are we so obsessed with it?
Leonard: In South Africa, race and class are intertwined. In South Africa, the apartheid regime defined a working class based on (black) skin colour.

Roger: We’re obsessed because it was drilled into the generations before us that that was important. Our society is still divided on racial lines. It’s how we see things. In order to dismantle that thinking, we have to make things equal economically, we can only do that by talking about race. That’s the complexity. It’s going to take generations to sort it out. But that’s no excuse to put your head in the sand.

“We accept no responsibility for any violence or redemption resulting from wearing this shirt.” Have you had any feedback from people’s experiences while wearing the shirt?
Leonard: Many black people are heartened by the acknowledgement from white people. History has shown that it is the oppressed who, after being liberated, find it within themselves to forgive their oppressors. One reason for this might be that the oppressed know what it is like to have the violence of oppression inflicted upon them and for this very reason do not want to inflict the same inhumanity on others, including their oppressors.

Roger: Feedback is only starting to filer in now. I had a story the other day from someone who bought a shirt, but can’t bring himself to wear it. I’ve been thanked for wearing it, I’ve been called honest, brave, a fool and a traitor. Wearing it to a Woolworths really fucks with people.

I have seen some comments online that criticize the idea for being a money-making scheme to sell t-shirts. Do you have any comments on this?
Some people seized upon this as a way of denying the issue. The fact is that no profit whatsoever was made from the sale of these t-shirts. It would have been a contradiction in terms to benefit financially from a t-shirt that states, “I benefited from apartheid”.

What would you say to someone who thinks that Employment Equity is racist?
Leonard: I do not move in circles where I hear this said. But, if I did hear it my response would be, “apartheid was racist and deprived black people from education, the right to own land, the right to engage in the economy and so Employment Equity is a way of redressing this”.

Roger: I’d say read the unemployment stats. I think you’ll find that white people are significantly less unemployed. It’s hard for people to hear that a: white people aren’t that badly off, and b: the fact that you can’t apply for that job is a neccesarry historical correction, but the bottom line is, it’s true, deal with it.

Do you think that there is a chance that the wearer of this shirt could be interpreted as being proud or happy to have benefited from apartheid? Do the think that the message could be misunderstood?
Leonard: Yes, it could be misunderstood. But then the wearer can easily explain the intended meaning to anyone who questions them about it.

Roger: It’ll happen. We can’t control that. I don’t advise wearing it to an ANCYL rally.

Why do you think that so many white people vehemently deny that they benefited from apartheid? Guilt?
Leonard: It takes courage to acknowledge that one benefited from something criminal; and apartheid was criminal.

Roger: Because admitting means they then have to act differently, people resist personal change. It’s too hard.

If anything, reading the comments on the facebook page and the ones you’ve posted on the blog has made me more pessimistic than optimistic about the potential complete rejection of racism in future South Africa. Maybe I am a bit idealistic. What is your opinion on this?
Leonard: These posts on the facebook page come predominantly from people who read the article on the t-shirts in the Rapport and who are part of a facebook group called, “South Africa from the Inside”.

Roger: Comments on anything on the internet make me pessimistic. I found through talking to some of “those people” that they had genuine fears, no matter how they came about. They’re human too, they just need reassurance and some kind of guidance. That’s extremely patronizing of me to say, I know, but they’re lost, they’re afraid, and they want so desperately to believe in this country. Like I say, it’s going to take generations, and there is no one who is prepared to engage on that level that we should be dismissive of.

Check out the Facebook page.
Check out the blog.
Purchase the t-shirt here.

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