All white South Africans benefited from apartheid in some way. So why is it so difficult for so many to admit it?
Coming to the rescue are two white South Africans, Roger Young and Leonard Shapiro. Their black T-shirts with white lettering says it all: “I benefited from apartheid".
South Africans can purchase the T-shirts from a specially created website that contains an artist statement, if you will: “It’s time to admit it. You’re white and you benefited. It’s okay, people will appreciate it and forgive you if you just acknow-ledge 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, due to the way you embody transformation in your daily dealings, you are 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.”
Young, a filmmaker, photographer and journalist who is working on a film called Suburban Whites, said the idea came one evening as he was taking part in a slave tour of Cape Town, visiting sites of historical importance.
“It was about the time the whole Woolworths debacle was happening in which white people were boycotting the store because of its employment equity policies,” Young said.
“I was with my friend Leonard and we were walking around Cape Town being confronted by all this racist, violent, hidden past of South Africa and at the same time we were talking about the Woolworths boycott. At one point I said: ‘All white people who complain about employment equity should all be made to wear a T-shirt that says ‘I benefited from apartheid’.”
The project started out as part of Belinda Blignaut’s A Shot to the Arse exhibition at the Michaelis school of fine art at the University of Cape Town, where Young and Shapiro, who works as a product developer in the craft sector and is studying art theory, printed 10 shirts and put them in the exhibition with a sign that read “Free T-shirts, whites only”.
Young said the T-shirts were gone in five minutes and in the weeks that followed he started to see people wearing them.
He wanted to know what reaction they were getting from wearing the T-shirts in public. So he started asking them.
The pair received one of two reactions. Some thought they were being smug and the wearers were confronted in an aggressive way until the statement was explained to them. Others thought it was a brave and honest thing to do.
“I don’t think it’s an honest thing,” said Young. “It’s obvious. However, I think that these interactions on the street around the T-shirts are very important. We all need to start talking about these issues as South Africans.
“White people in South Africa need to admit that they benefited before they can start saying things like this country is crumbling.”
But Young said he has received a lot of racist hate mail, mostly from expatriate white South Africans living in the United Kingdom or Australia.
One Facebook post read: “Let it go already we are all apartheid-ed out. We are in a new world run by racist blacks so what now, do we print a T-shirt for the Africans to say they benefited from this?”
Young and Shapiro have since printed another 30 T-shirts, 17 of which have alreay been sold in pre-orders. “I am buying my step-father one for Christmas,” said Young, “because he says the most ridiculous things.”
For more information, go to ibenefitedfrom.someammo.com. The shirts are retailing on the site at £10 to £11