Get It Off Your Chest

It was the satirical red T-shirt at the centre of a recent free speech row in South Africa, taking the piss out of the world’s second largest brewer, that made me want to talk … er, shirt. OK, poor pun. But we’re talking T-shirts where bad puns and simple messages aren’t just tolerated but celebrated. Our chests are like billboards next to a highway, the message has got to be short and sharp. The ubiquitous T-shirt is perhaps the most direct way of communicating with the world things such as where we stand, who we support, who we oppose, and what we think is funny. So there.

But it is not all rib-tickling “my grandparents went to Disneyland and all I got was this lousy T-shirt” stuff. As T-shirt-wearing walking billboards, our bodies provide the place to get political messages across, too: party politics, personal politics, environmental and economic politics, and social-political politics, such as owning up which tribes we belong to, and so on.

As a T-shirt collector of note for decades now, that is, who likes to get his message on his chest, I know it is also a 100 percent cotton way to test free speech, especially where freedom of expression is or was suppressed. Take our old apartheid rulers here who lived by the maxim of killing the messenger if you don’t like her message – literally that is. But being the enthusiastic fascists they were, they took it to its fullest conclusion: kill the messages too, whether they were on T-shirts, in music, on movie screens, even on coffee mugs.

Political and satirical T-shirts were often used as a significant weapon in our deemed as dangerous by those jittery white men in power. They knew how T-shirts conveyed the messages across the world via the visuals taken by those foreign TV crews they so despised. At the state broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) where the satellite feeds back to the capitals of the world, lackeys of the apartheid government monitored and down-linked every picture that got sent out of Johannesburg. That is where they got “evidence” to boot out BBC and ITN (the independent British TV news service) reporters back in the ’80s. T-shirts also played the role of creating solidarity among protestors – seeing a mass of 80,000 people clad in red union T-shirts rolling down the street towards you made even the hardest-arsed and young cop swallow dryly . . . these unarmed protestors seemed three feet taller in their ‘uniform’. The United Democratic Front (UDF) was the ANC’s unofficial internal wing during the ’80s. I bet the organisation’s yellow T-shirt with its logo of a group of South Africans carrying a black flag emblazoned with bold white letters saying “UDF”, and its message saying “UDF Unites, Apartheid Divides”, has been engraved into the memories of all who saw them.

But to T over not to T during the apartheid era came with severe risks. For example, in the ’80s when I was working as a journalist, a T-shirt I was wearing got me and some colleagues detained by the brutes of the security police in one of the most notorious police stations in the rural parts of South Africa. It was a red labour federation T, extolling all to “Advance to a people’s democracy!”, or something worthy like that. I wore this while we were looking for people who were resisting being forcibly removed as part of apartheid’s grand plans. When the cops stopped our car I didn’t cover the T properly with my jacket. They saw what I “advertised” and locked us up. Our cell had fresh bloodstains on its dirty carpet and walls – those dudes meant business when you were on their wrong side! After confessing to our lie that we weren’t really “a bunch of lost teachers” (yes, admittedly it was a rather weak excuse!) but that we were in fact journalists, the thick-necks called their HQ and reluctantly let us go. We were shit-scared but fortunately unharmed, unlike some previous detainees.

As media academic and former editor, Anton Harber, wrote in The Legacy of Apartheid (ed. Joseph Harker, Guardian Newspapers, London, 1994) by the 1970s there were well over a 100 laws in South Africa that controlled the flow of information in every nook and cranny of the country. During that period the South African government declared several states of emergency, short for “we suspend the rule of law and allow our thugs to do as they damn well please”. Such acts invigorated the faceless and secret Publications Control Board (PCB) to fulfil its usual censorship role with even more gusto. In its Orwellian parlance the PCB deemed “offensive” or “undesirable” stacks of seemingly innocent political T-shirts to be banned. Such behaviour is, of course, indicative of paranoid regimes anywhere – they are not only brutal, but also become completely absurd in their attempt to control thought and expression.

The provocative End Conscription Campaign (ECC) was probably the most subversive of the anti-apartheid organisations because its members had a wicked sense of humour, which they employed skilfully in their campaigns against the draft. Military duty was compulsory in our highly militarised society where the Army’s top brass had more say than most cabinet ministers. The ECC’s posters were priceless, like the one before a general election that said, “The problem with this Election is that we don’t know which General we’re electing”. This poster was summarily found “undesirable”. We had many joyful, drunken nights printing cheeky ECC posters in some inconspicuous printing press in the industrial side of Johannesburg, and then posting them all over town. The next day they were torn off by sweating cops and a few weeks later they were deemed “banned”. The wheels of bureaucracy couldn’t keep up with us.

The PCB censors sat in judgement of films, theatre, books, records, sex aids, key rings and other paraphernalia that “threatened the South African way of life”. Such threats included the hippy peace sign, the children’s book Black Beauty (how Freudian can you get?!) and key-rings with suggestive remarks on them. Harber quotes the chairman of the Publications Appeal Board on a 1978 calendar: “This nudity can be clearly seen from a distance of four metres. According to the view of the board regarding South African community standards, the entire or partial or substantial visible nudity of female breasts is indecent or obscene …”

The control board banned a compilation album of punk, funk, and folk music called There’s a Naartjie In Our Sosatie. The old white men clearly understood what these musician subversives were up to. They weren’t referring to a seemingly innocent “naartjie” (South African for tangerine), or a sosatie (synonym for kebab) – they got the pun in the album title: there’s anarchy in our society. They also banned a song by punk band Flash Harry called “No Football” because it made reference to playing soccer on a Sunday. Sport was banned on Sundays during South Africa’s pious 1980s.

Protest singer Roger Lucey’s album The Road is Much Longer was banned because of its political lyrics. One particularly angry track, “Lungile Tabalaza”, was about a black activist who “fell” five floors to his death while in security police custody. It happened a lot in those days that activists “jumped” from high police buildings or “slipped” on soap while in detention. This song was very much a case of art describing what was happening in brutal, real life South Africa. This album fell into a special category: it was illegal to “possess and distribute”. If you owned and/or shared this album and were caught, it could land you five years in prison. Roger told me that a security policeman who was “on his case” back then, told him recently that they prevented him from playing in the US by intercepting his post and destroying many occasions to play there. “They even tear-gassed one of my gigs by pumping teargas through the folk club’s aircon!” The state broadcaster went even further. They had an in-house censor who literally scratched out the grooves of “offensive” songs making them impossible to play. These went beyond the banned ones, making sure that anything even vaguely political or even sexual didn’t fall between the tracks (pun intended). Needless to say, Roger’s album never even made it past the record library’s front door.

But this absurdity applied even to the less formal parts of culture and media. There was the sad case in the mid-80s of an elderly black man who worked as an office messenger at a South African business firm. In those dark days black staff wasn’t allowed to use the same teacups as the white staff in many offices. This old man had a tin mug that he used for tea. On it he had scratched the name, “Mandela”, showing his support for the man who was to become our country’s first democratic president, not to mention one of the icons of peace internationally. At this time, Mandela was still being incarcerated on Robben Island. Well, this man’s boss spotted his mug in the tearoom, told the cops, and of course, he was arrested. The court agreed with the boss and the cops, clearly seeing the “threat” this tin mug posed to state security, and sentenced the man to a year in prison!

But back to being a walking billboard during apartheid. One of my own personal favourites was the T-shirt that we all bought and wore at a late ’80s “run for peace” around the picturesque Zoo Lake in up-market Johannesburg. It was a white T-shirt with the universal octagonal red traffic Stop sign, with “Apartheid” written underneath the “Stop”. There were more riot policemen and foreign TV crews than our small gathering of unfit joggers who’d organized the race for the opportunity of a visual protest. The cops declared this an “illegal gathering”. But when the start whistle blew we simply ignored them and started running.. Turns out they filmed us and took down our names as we stumbled across the finish line.

Many of the other anti-apartheid T-shirts featured numerous acronyms of the you-had-to-be-there sort, and simple slogans celebrating our political organizations and heroes, fallen or alive. Many of my Ts got lost or mislaid in the communes I stayed in and some were never returned by ex-girlfriends. There is one particular collector’s item I am sorry I gave away in a moment of hero-worship one night in November 1990, while backstage at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre. I gave it to protest singer Billy Bragg, while suggesting he wear it one day when I our country was free, ideally while during a performance in Johannesburg.

It was an off-white, heavy cotton shirt, beautifully illustrated in thick black writing and African-style illustrations of the main demands from the “Freedom Charter”: The people shall govern, all shall enjoy human rights, all shall be equal before the law, the land shall belong to all who work it. Indeed, the non-racial People’s Congress adopted this historical charter in June 1955. It urged the establishment of a democracy that would represent every South African, in which there should be equal rights and job and educational opportunities. Various bodies, including the ANC, signed the Charter, but the apartheid government of the day banned the publication of the document until 1984.

A right-on rocker like Bragg couldn’t have asked for a more right-on piece of apparel. Not only was there The Message to be worn on his chest, but there was an even more genuine element to the T: the 100% cotton anti-fascist weapon was made by members of a workers’ co-operative in our then highly volatile province of Natal. They set up the socialist co-op to put food on their tables after being fired from a factory nearby – this because they went on strike after their bosses refused them basic union rights.

It was probably a bit naïve of me – the litres of English ale might well have contributed – to think that cross-continental concert deals get signed based on the handing over of a single, crumpled T-shirt. Bragg never did make it to South Africa. Pity. Because it was a damn nice shirt.

I can’t retrace the exact hops, skips and jumps my brain took all the way back to Bragg in the Bloomsbury Theatre, but it was probably a recent case in our country’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, about a red T-shirt which prompted the mental visit to the off-white one that Billy Bragg now probably uses to wash the car. The subversive tradition in T-Shirts still continues in South Africa, but these days with apartheid largely dead and buried, the messages have changed from those serious fist-in-the-air Freedom Charter-type to those lampooning mostly big corporations and their omnipresent brands. p>The David vs. Goliath case that comes to mind involved T-shirt maker, Laugh It Off Promotions. The T-shirt mocked Carling Black Label beer, which is owned by the world’s second largest brewer, SABMiller. The case was about balancing the constitutional right to freedom of expression against the right to protect a brand or trademark. Now, Laugh It Off Promotions is seeking free speech protection from the Constitutional Court. Laugh It Off, a two-person outfit owned by iconoclastic journalism student Justin Nurse, substituted the words “America’s lusty, lively beer, Carling Black Label beer, enjoyed by men around the world”, with “Black Labour White Guilt, Africa’s lusty lively exploitation since 1652, no regard given worldwide”. Pointedly, 1652 was when whites first arrived in South Africa. The T-shirt used a spoof logo, similar to the one on the beer bottles. They were distributed through a chain of funky stores aimed at a trendy but limited student market, and only about 200 were even sold.

The clearly miffed brewer successfully sought an interdiction in 2001 in the Cape High Court, stopping Laugh It Off from “using” its trademark. Laugh It Off appealed, arguing that the brewer had been guilty of exploiting black labour by paying them pitiful salaries. (In the brewer’s defence I have to say that they actually pay their workers relatively decent salaries). But the Supreme Court of Appeal found in favour of SAB, the local subsidiary of SABMiller, saying the T-shirt’s message could take unfair advantage of, or cause detriment to SAB’s trademark.

For Laugh It Off there was one last chance, which was the next but final stop, namely the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court and final arbiter on matters pertaining to South Africans’ rights. And Laugh It Off was in luck because the judges there clearly have a sense of humour. Last month (27 May) they unanimously ruled in Laugh It Off’s favour, with costs. Handing down the judgement, Judge Dikgang Moseneke, a man known not to suffer fools, found that SAB had not proved that the T-shirt-maker infringed on their trademark with the message on its shirts, or that it had economically harmed the beer.

“There is not even the slightest suggestion that, from the time the T-shirts saw the light of day to the date the interdict proceedings were launched, there had been a real possibility of a reduction of its (Carling Black Label’s) market dominance or compromised beer sales,” Moseneke said in his ruling to the court. Only a few hundred T-shirts appeared to have been sold, which was negligible, he said. The judge compared this with SAB’s “awesome marketing machinery bolstered by impressive advertising spent on every conceivable medium”. The right of freedom of expression should not be “lightly trampled upon”, he added.

Moseneke’s colleague on the bench, Judge Albie Sachs, knows better than most about freedom of expression. During the ’80s he worked as lawyer for the ANC in exile in Zimbabwe. The South African regime hated any black person belonging to the ANC, but they despised whites like Sachs who had joined their “mortal enemy” even more. In an extreme attempt to silence him permanently, agents of the apartheid regime planted a bomb under his car. He nearly died in the explosion and still carries the scars today, having lost an arm and an eye. But, like many people who overcame such tribulations, he has a sense of proportion and asked in a concurring judgement if the previous court should not perhaps have displayed a sense of humour. Answering in the affirmative with what could be seen as a swipe to the oh-so-serious appeal judges, Sachs said: “The evidence indicates that everybody concerned with the T-shirts, whether producer or consumer, knew they were intended to poke fun at the dominance exercised by brand names in our social and cultural life.”

He warned that the brewer’s over-zealous protection of their brand could have a detrimental effect on the free flow of ideas. By trying to block free speech, Sachs said these companies do themselves more harm than good. “Simply bringing proceedings against Laugh It Off risked being more tarnishing of Carling Black Label’s association with bonhomie and cheerfulness than the sale of 200 T-shirts could ever have done (“Laugh It Off can now guffaw after ruling”, Kenneth Chikanga, Sunday Independent, 29 May 2005).”

Free speech lobby group, the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) welcomed the constitutional protection the court gave to cultural jammers: “The SAB action can only be interpreted as bully-boy tactics trying to stamp on the rights of ordinary people, and the FXI welcomes the fact that the court has put them in their place.” After the ruling, an elated Nurse, who on a previous occasion wore a Hawaiian shirt featuring prints of Sadam Hussein’s face to court, was kitted out in one of his Black Label spoof T-shirts that sparked the furore. “Freedom in South Africa did not end when Nelson Mandela finished the long walk to freedom,” he told journalists outside the court. Nurse now plans to auction off 1,000 new Black Labour T-shirts, planning to donate proceeds to an anti-alcohol charity (“Laugh It Off wins fight against SAB”, Gillian Jones, Sapa wire agency, 27 May 2005).

Nurse told the Rapport newspaper that about 30 other parodied companies have threatened to drag Laugh It Off to court over the past few years, but after this ruling it will be impossible for them to succeed. Flat broke after having had all his time consumed with fighting court cases, Nurse is discontinuing his satiric T-shirt production. So in a way the victory was bittersweet and certainly not complete. “The victory was certainly not financial, but rather moral … I feel that I stand at the foot of a number of mountains and that I still have to decide which one to climb (“SAB should have a sense of humour”, Pieter Malan & Anoeschka Von Meck, Rapport 29, May 2005).”

Back to my own cupboard. A few years ago someone stole two huge bags of dirty laundry. I couldn’t really blame anyone but myself, because I left the laundry room unlocked. But with that theft I lost a few great T-shirts, including one from the demised Living Marxism magazine with a Warholesque drawing of the Queen of England with a strapline saying “Abolish the monarchy”.

I still collect Ts these days. The best is perhaps the one that comes with a bag of letters that you can attach on a Velcro strap on your chest, making you master of your own message. My friends maintain that I’m always in top form when I DJ at my local bar if I wear one of my commie T-shirts such as the one that parodies Levi’s, substituting it’s logo with “Lenin” and using the old revolutionary leader’s face as illustration. “Quality never goes out of style” says its cheeky strap-line. This weekend I’ll be wearing a red T with a hammer and sickle and a message calling on media workers to join the communication workers union. What I like about my bar is that there is no set dress code or music policy. We are “free” to express ourselves, as we will.