Shown above is a tee-shirt that now resides in the Anthropology Division of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History, an item of clothing that I donated several months ago. Why should such a mundane artifact deserve preservation one of America’s premier museums? Therein lies a tale.
In March 1989 as a consultant I was selected by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), in coordination with AFL-CIO officials, to lead a team to evaluate USAID-funded, union-run programs aimed at assisting black labor organizations in South Africa. My being selected was related to similar prior evaluations and my history as a member of a labor union.
The assignment proved to be a memorable one. While the policies of the George H. W. Bush Administration were not antagonistic to South Africa, still in the grip of “Apartheid” policies that denied blacks virtually any rights, pressures to do something for that population had led to funding a modest AFL-CIO program.
Agents of the South African government followed me and my evaluation team everywhere. Under cover of night we were forced to meet union leaders like Cyril Ramaphosa, show here, then the head of the black mine workers union (NUM) and now president of South Africa.
Despite the surveillance, the team’s evaluation went well and about a year later, I led a team on a follow-up assignment. During the ensuing period things had changed. F. W. de Klerk, shown here, now was president. He was moving to remove discriminatory laws and had indicated that Nelson Mandela would be released from prison. My team was not followed. Somewhat dissatisfied with the AFL-CIO program, USAID employees had begun their own labor initiatives.
One of their efforts involved a garment factory in Durban. Although the project was beyond my mandate, the Mission Director asked me to go to Durban to assess the situation. Purchased from a private individual and now owned by USAID, the factory had been given to the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU) to operate. That union only recently had been formed from two completing unions. SACTWU was multi-racial and predominantly made up of women.
The idea of USAID owning a South African clothing factory was intriguing and I soon hied off from Pretoria to Durban, shown here. At the airport I was picked up by SACTWU representatives and taken to the site — the Zenzeleni Clothing (Pty) Ltd. Inside, dozens of workers, mostly female, were busy in all stages of making items of clothing but chiefly tee-shirts, some with militant messages. As part of the formalities of the afternoon, I was presented with the shirt shown at the top of this post. The raised fists so prominent in the design were a note of militancy against the government and its restrictive laws against black unions.
While it was evident that the factory was clean, well-lighted and appeared to be operating efficiently, the thought was unsettling that a U.S. government agency owned it and had given its use to an organization strongly opposed to the existing government. While I agreed with the sentiments on the SACTWU tee-shirt, my recommendation to the Mission was to divest itself of the factory as rapidly as possible, potentially by arranging to give it outright to SACTWU. Eventually that occurred. A Zenezeleni clothing outfit still exists in Durban. I have no idea of its relation to the factory I visited.
Upon my return to the U.S., I stopped in London to discuss the South African situation with officials of the British Trade Union Congress (TUC ). In the midst of our discussion, a staff member burst into the room to announced that Nelson Mandela had been released from his Robin Island prison. A new era was about to begin in South Africa.
In subsequent years, I wore the SACTWU tee-shirt to Labor Day picnics. In recent times, however, it languished in my closet until it occurred to me that the tee-shirt deserved to be preserved as a historical artifact. After some calls and emails, I was put in touch with Dr. Mary Jo Arnoldi, a specialist of African anthropology at the Natural History Museum. After consideration of my gift by Smithsonian curators, it was — to my great glee — accepted for accession and available for posterity. That is the tale of the tee-shirt.
Afterword: In 1995 I returned on business to South Africa. By that time union leaders with whom I had met surreptitiously were cabinet members. They included Jay Naidoo, shown here, who had headed the black union federation, COSATU. Now he was Secretary of Labor in the Mandela government and about to issue a new labor law, one replacing the Apartheid period laws. I was humbled by his making me an “honored guest” at the ceremony attending the new law.