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The days of a political T-shirt are numbered… time for the insult to stop

Sankarist, David Letsoalo

Sankarist, David Letsoalo

Published Oct 25, 2021


By David Letsoalo

WE have evidently come to a point where a T-shirt has become a sine qua non for any political leader or party to embark on any activity or campaign. It’s as if we have reached the level of mental bankruptcy, the nadir of our imagination, creativity and innovation.

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The vexing issue has, for some time, kept me awake at night. It was therefore expected that the election season was going to catalyse the agony as this textile piece was bound to impose its “relevance” in the political scene.

When EFF leader Julius Malema, in his recent campaigns, ridiculed the ANC T-shirts and warned communities against choosing T-shirts over more pressing issues affecting their lives or futures, I took him seriously.

I didn’t find his remarks amusing because they touched the core of what has been bothering me. We need to interrogate the power of T-shirts in our political spaces, and what this clothing item means to our people, what it reflects about them and, most significantly, what it demonstrates about the inner side of politicians themselves. What is their mentality, attitude and moral disposition?

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There were times, in our anti-apartheid Struggle history, when a political T-shirt was a symbol of immense honour and stature. In those days, it signified something far different from what it’s being used for these days. It was not used to attract all and sundry (like ants to a sugary spot), it was not used as an item to dupe the people; nor was it used to popularise a movement or an individual politician.

In any case, it was not safe to be wearing a T-shirt of an anti-apartheid organisation. T-shirts were, then, seen as items of commitment and pride in the organisation. The T-shirts of the likes of Azaso, Azapo, Azasm, Cosas, the UDF and so forth, then, were simply priceless.

They remain sentimental and highly valued by those who have managed to keep them even up to this day. In this light, I can only imagine how special it must have felt for people to catch that moment in December 1983 when the late Jamaican musician, and ardent pan-Africanist, Peter Tosh, wore a PAC T-shirt.

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A T-shirt in the current political space (not only in South Africa, by the way) has assumed a different role, one that borders on popularisation, cunningness and disrespect for the people. I often ask my colleagues whether T-shirts are necessary, and when will their use finally come to a dead-end.

Have we really come to a state of mental lockown that we cannot imagine politicking without a T-shirt? Hungry and poor as we are, do we ask how much is collectively spent on the promotional items? The T-shirting business has thus become hugely lucrative.

Do we ever imagine a situation where all the monies pumped into these items were spent on providing for the needs of poor communities? This viewpoint might initially sound simplistic, but a lot can surely be done with these monies, from pragmatic and social developmental perspectives.

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The stark realities are so pervasive during moments such as today’s in Azania where our people are essentially lured to, and by, the various political parties and individuals in lieu of the impending elections. It’s an agonising experience to observe the incumbent or ruling party expending huge resources on publicity on the eve of elections.

Ideally, the incumbent should not be campaigning for votes because they would have had enough time and space, during their tenure to demonstrate with their deeds in state programmes and access to state resources, to convince the electorate on what they are capable of doing.

It’s absurd for the state to also benefit the incumbent with the so-called “political party funding”. I am sure one of the reasons hampering service delivery ethos on the part of ruling parties is that they do not see this as an aid to their profile and receptivity in the minds and hearts of the people. In other words, ruling parties do not see service delivery as a crucial element of their investment which they may use during election time to make a good case for the electorate to return them to office.

Rigorous campaigning by ruling parties is an act of self-indictment or acknowledgement that they did not do much during their terms of office to persuade the voters. This is by no means far-fetched.

I am reminded of an SRC election instance at the pre-1994 University of the North (Turfloop). During election seasons, there was a standing arrangement for student leaders (and their organisations) to address the student body gathered in the Great Hall (now named Tiro Hall, after a Black Consciousness Movement leader, Abram Onkgopotse Tiro) as a way of canvassing for their votes.

In that year, the SRC president was Ernest Khosa, with Victor Kgomoeswana as the secretary general. The pair had made the best of their incumbency, to the extent that they had overwhelmingly won the hearts of students.

Tense as the election milieu was, Khosa ascended the stage to a reverberating and drowning cheer from the crowd. He stepped on to the podium, grabbed the microphone, saluted the crowd and said something to the effect that: “I have accepted the nomination for re-election as president. However, I choose not to campaign or canvass”.

The moment will remain indelible in my mind. By the way, the outcome of thee elections was that Khosa had emerged victorious after an unprecedented landslide.

Decades later, I am sitting here witnessing the charade of the local government elections in Azania. I see the erstwhile liberation movement, the ANC, having abandoned the Freedom Charter, expending so much on T-shirts and other desperate means (like last-minute fixing of potholes, apologies and even further service delivery promises) to try to convince the people to vote for it.

But, the undeniable truth is that the ANC has been in political office for 27 years. Like the Ernest Khosa and Victor Kgomoeswana of the then Turfloop, it is the incumbent.

It is worth observing that there is nothing wrong with a T-shirt per se. What is at issue is how it is used or the motive of its use. This reflects on the psyche of the voters and the conscience of the political leaders.

The gullible or ignorant citizens feed this vulture-like tendency, by continuing to fall prey to the chicanery of T-shirts as opposed to having their socio-economic challenges addressed. The T-shirt reveals a lot about our mediocre attitude and absence of vigilance or discernment. As long as our people are not conscious of these delicate matters, the politicians will not stop the practice. After all, it works for them.

In recent weeks, I have been observing leaders from the ruling ANC going to un-serviced communities, which are effectively squalid places symbolic of poverty, pain and suffering for black people.

What I found heartbreaking has been the confidence, if not the temerity, with which they distribute the T-shirts while offering no substantial account of why they should be voted into office again and again. Could it be that Black people are so trapped in poverty and ignorance that they are inextricably connected to the love of the T-shirt or what? What is the psychology of a poor black person?

As the oppressed in our own land, we must stop reducing ourselves to empty vessels devoid of intellect. With this despicable tendency, we indirectly feed the stupid monster of white superiority complex. How do other races regard us? Are we reinforcing the stereotype that we are cheap, docile or sheepish? I can hear the shrill cry of Black Consciousness!

What is even more painful is that as you wear a T-shirt, you automatically turn yourself into an advert apparatus that promotes or endorses the name of the party or the individual emblazoned thereon. In other words, the people are further abused by promoting the party free of charge. In this vein, I get an unimaginably searing pain in instances when I see protesters wearing the T-shirts of the party whose government they are protesting against. It’s inexplicable.

But then, I remember that in the run-up to the 1994 elections, the incumbent party then, the apartheid National Party, used to distribute their T-shirts to many black people, and our people (victims of that party’s apartheid policies) would obliviously be seen wearing them all over the place. Some would find themselves in our rallies singing Siyaya ePitori or Oliver Tambo thetha noBotha while wearing the T-shirts of PW Botha’s party!

We should pray for the day when our people are going to start to become discerning and stop being fools by allowing charlatans to assuage their pain, anger and frustrations through T-shirts and crumbs such as food parcels.

The political T-shirt in our socio-political space is more than just a piece of clothing. It has become the most potent weapon in the hands of the ruling parties in Africa to sustain the neo-colonial and neo-apartheid status quo hegemon. This is detestable and outright repugnant.

Are the days of the political T-shirt numbered? It’s time for this insult to stop – for good.

David Letsoalo is a Sankarist, an activist and law academic