Selling fencing as freedom

What happens when companies start to sell the idea of a frictionless consumption that helps people at the same time?

Image © Lisa Ann Richey.

On Saturday, March 26th, 2022, I spent part of my morning at an “upcycling” crafts fair in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Like hundreds of other—almost exclusively white—people, I paid my moderate entrance fee, for which I received a large reusable shopping bag with the event name, “Kamers, Makers,” and a stylized glass reusable water bottle. South African artists and artisans sold locally designed and made clothes, household design products, specialty food items, personal care products like soaps and creams, and, of course, wine. At the end of my visit, I entered a gallery space that was labeled “art,” and noticed, among the large-scale paintings and sculptures, an interesting chandelier.

Three bulbs glowed from glossy cages with uneven edges. I read the tag on the piece, which stated that the price of the lighting was 40,000 Rand ($2,628). I looked around and saw other pieces from what was called “The Legacy Collection.” These were small, framed bits of fencing from Robben Island. I asked the young woman working at the counter if she knew anything about the artist and she did not, but she called over the gallery manager, who did. He said that the artist’s name was Charmaine Taylor and that she had recovered the Robben Island fence and made art out of it. I inquired then on where the profits from this work went, and he didn’t know. He said he thought, for sure, that they went to support some kind of cause, but said that I could contact the artist and ask her. He gave me a folio about the project, which stated: “This emotionally rich collection symbolizes the power of forgiveness, compassion, faith and love.” He also gave me the artist’s business card. I knew that perhaps, instead of finding a light for my dining room, I had found an epithet for my book in progress on “commodifying compassion.”

Image © Lisa Ann Richey.

Later in the same day, I was meeting old friends—who I had not seen for 16 years—for lunch at a wine estate. They are educated, liberal white people who have traveled extensively in Africa. One of these friends has started her own NGO to organize environmental education and adventure stays in southern African wilderness parks for young people. I showed her the folio for the Legacy Collection. Immediately, she responded positively: “That’s great!” She went on to explain that the organization that receives “a percentage of the profits” is one that works to support organic farming in the townships. Organic farming calls forth the imagined resonance of an Africa based on “pure” agriculture in the townships, an indisputable good that feels true in the hearts of most educated South Africans and other cosmopolitans. Everyone knows that Africans in townships have poor diets. Everyone knows that organic farming is good for producing food, caring for the planet, and dealing with stress. Everyone forgets that the reason the townships are located where they are is that the land is completely arid and useless for agriculture. When the apartheid state partitioned land in the country, race and fertile land were clearly demarcated. Black people were systematically displaced from their land and moved into white imaginaries of violence. Yet the hope produced by the idea of supporting a project that transforms gangsters into gardeners produces a profitable commodity from a piece of torn fencing.

My research has focused on consumption-based models of humanitarian helping. Companies sell imaginaries of frictionless consumption that help people at the same time. How much helping is actually done has been the subject of considerable debate. The Legacy Collection folio I was handed states only: “Percentage of profits [sic] to both the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Abalimi Bezekhaya, which translates to ‘We Are The Farmers.’” No actual percentage is given officially on the website, but a linked article in the Cape Argus newspaper states that “10% of the profits are donated to local educational projects.”

A few days later, a Black Zimbabwean colleague-friend was having dinner at my place, and I showed her the same folio and asked for her thoughts. She hesitated for a while, and then said to me, “You know, this is a very difficult history for some people…” Her voice trailed off and stopped. I nodded, and she continued, “I don’t think they should be making money out of that.” And indeed, I wondered what it would have been like, if I had decided to hang that chandelier over my table, when I invited over friends whose families, friends, or country had been torn apart by the violence of apartheid. I knew the answer to that.

Image © Lisa Ann Richey.

The beautiful and highly curated Legacy Collection website features a page entitled, “The Story of the Fence.” At the time I first checked it, it read: “The story of how the Robben Island prison fence was acquired goes back to 2009, when Cape Town-based artist, Chris Swift, was using discarded material to create art as a comment on environmental issues. Chris’ continuous search for discarded materials made him acutely aware of things being thrown away, and so it was that on an educational visit to Robben Island he noticed the historical prison fencing bound for a landfill. It had been replaced with new fencing as part of a revamp for the 20th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela. After establishing the significance of the fence as part of South African history and Robben Island being a UNESCO World Heritage site, and anything on it being part of history, Chris arranged to rescue this valuable heritage through a series of enquiries and then took ownership of the fence when it reached the Cape Town mainland, where he spent the better part of 3 months processing the material.”

The significant details are that the artist is represented as “local” but not as “white.” His good intentions are signified by his purpose on the island to begin with: he was “on an educational visit.” The “rescue” of “this valuable heritage” is attributed to his acute awareness of discarded objects, which had been useful in his previous work. He “rescued the historical fencing from being abandoned in a landfill in 2009,” according to the flier on the collection. He performed significant labor over time (“the better part of 3 months”) in order to “take ownership of the fence.”

This narrative is in direct contradiction to a statement from Thabo, a young black male tour guide employed by the South African state to conduct “educational tours” for buses of visitors to the island. When I arrived on Robben Island on the morning of April 5th, 2022, from the Krotoa ship (the name by which the ferry to the former island prison is known), I joined approximately 30 other tourists on a bus, where Thabo would guide us around the island. He told us about the history of the island, including its use as a leper colony, the early prisoners and preparation for battle during the Second World War, and the terrors and threats to political prisoners under apartheid. He spoke from a lay pan-Africanist ideology and neither downplayed nor sensationalized the stories of incarceration on Robben Island. He recommended that we all read the book How Can Man Die Better by Robert Sobukwe. Sobukwe, the leader of the Pan-African Congress, was convicted without trial and confined to solitary confinement for six years in his Robben Island cell.

Image © Lisa Ann Richey.

Thabo said that Robben Island is designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, meaning that “nothing can be bought or sold from it.” After the tour finished, I was able to ask him about this statement privately. He explained that he had heard that there was a key to Mandela’s cell that someone had tried to sell and now it was in court—it was all reported in the media. I asked directly about the selling of the fence, and indeed, he had heard of that too. “They took pieces of the fence and put it in a frame and sold it for big money,” he explained to me. “Did any of that money come back to the island to support the work that you all are doing here?” I asked him. It had not. When I probed to hear what he thought about that, he replied, “No one is allergic to money, ma’am…” and then ended our conversation by saying, “I’m just here to serve.” No one could be blamed for seizing the opportunity, seemed to be the point of our conversation. Yet still, there was no expectation that profits accrued by white people who “took ownership” of black heritage items would be shared with black or poor people.

On my departure from Robben Island, I passed a very small and nondescript gift shop located at the pier between the prison and where the tourist boat was moored. The shop was full of typical souvenirs, from the ubiquitous face of Mandela on coffee mugs, t-shirts, coaster, keyrings, tote bags, plates, plaques, and kitchen mitts to stuffed African penguin plush toys in all sizes. I asked the young woman at the counter if they sold any of the jewelry made from the Robben Island fence and she, clearly with no idea what I was talking about, said no. I snapped a couple of photographs on my phone with permission and returned to the ferry for the voyage to the Cape Town mainland, picturing the words from the website that the artist Chris “took ownership of the fence when it reached the Cape Town mainland.” The fence became like the diamonds, copper, coltan, coffee and so many other African commodities whose value is understood as being added at the end of a journey through the skilled intervention of a white man.

The Legacy Collection webpage on “The Story of the Fence” concludes with the following ambition: “This prison fence has an even grander purpose. We want the fence to come full circle, from holding captive the champions of human rights and democracy such as Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe and many more to freeing ordinary people from the prison of poverty. In this way the Robben Island prison fence, through art and conservation, is helping to create sustainable jobs and move South Africans towards a brighter future.”

Who are these “ordinary” people who will be freed through the purchase of a curated piece of fence? And who would not be considered “ordinary” in the coupling with any of the list of legendary freedom fighters who serve as unwitting brand ambassadors: Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe? (For the reader, Mandela, Kathrada, and Sisulu were ANC leaders. Sobukwe’s party rejected the constitutional negotiations for a new South Africa as inadequate and boycotted them.)

I discussed the initiative with other South African scholar friends from all backgrounds, and none had heard of it before, but perhaps this is because they are not really the target market for these products. Highly educated, knowledgeable about South African history, and dealing on a daily basis with the legacy of racial inequality left from apartheid, they are not likely to provide a good audience for imagining the “grander purpose” of this art. At the suggestion of one historian that there might be Legacy Collection pieces for sale in the shop at the Waterfront’s “Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island,” I went to ask. The gateway is where the ferry to Robben Island leaves from. It is a huge and diversified commercial space where one can buy anything from South African diamonds to discounted Easter chocolates.

The small shop was just inside as you pass through the metal detector for entering the ferry, and it has many of the same products as the shop on Robben Island, but some apparently targeting wealthier tourists as opposed to the school trip goers. Displayed next to the checkout counter were plastic beaded bracelets labeled “100% not-for-profit,” with messages that purchasing them would “Protect a Child from Malaria,” “Leave a Legacy in Africa,” and the self-proclaimed “World Best Seller”: “Save the Rhino.” Inside the glass display case, beside tiny ceramic figurines of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu (a popular anti-apartheid cleric and postapartheid, the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission), was a bracelet priced at 3,600 Rand ($200) and rings at 1,635 Rand ($91) from the “History of South Africa Heritage Collection.” A brand card read, “It’s not just jewelry, it’s history.” Still, there was no sign of the Legacy Collection, and no one working at the shop had heard of it. I bought Robert Sobukwe’s book—as recommended by Thabo, my tour guide—and a pack of Robben Island playing cards, and I left the shop.

The Legacy Collection is hardly the first brand aid product to profit from the legacy of Nelson Mandela, Robben Island, or the Long Walk to Freedom after apartheid. In fact, the controversial “466/64bracelet with Mandela’s prison number was one of the first products I showed to students to demonstrate that the commodification of compassion was not limited to American celebrity-laden spectacles, but was becoming part and parcel of the ways that profitable political consumerism was funding nonprofits globally.

Image © Lisa Ann Richey.

The Legacy Collection’s website specifically answers “Frequently Asked Questions”—just not the questions of politics. How was the Robben Island Art Company and Trust (RIACT) formed in 2009 and why was it agreed in 2013 to cede exclusive rights to the Robben Island fence to Charmaine Taylor? On her flier, the explanation reads, “As a designer and owner of a marketing firm,” Taylor “shared RIACT’s vision that the fence could become a positive part of South Africa’s legacy through art.” How was marketing art supposed to transform otherwise nondescript worn fencing into a treasure for South Africa while avoiding any restrictions on conservation of national heritage imposed by UNESCO or the government of South Africa?

The political connections and celebrity strategic partnerships are implied on the Legacy Collection website, but details are missing. “Legacy Celebrities” is one of the lead tabs where we can see global and South African celebrities being given or wearing pieces from the collection. And like other world-saving products, the Legacy Collection has its share of celebrity spokespeople, or at least people whose photographs wearing the jewelry are allowed to stay on the company’s website. Idris Elba, Sean Penn, and Terrance Howard are the topliners on the “Legacy Celebrities” page. “Penn,” the page reads, “came to direct a movie here in South Africa and was gifted a piece of framed art by WESGRO (The Western Cape Tourism, Trade and Investment Promotion Agency).” In total, 21 celebrities are shown sporting remnants of the upcycled Robben Island fence. Eleven of these are South African celebrities and ten are “international” celebrities, including “Carola,” a Swedish Eurovision winner who, according to the website, “loves South Africa and often visits with her family including her adopted daughter Zoë Haggkvist who she adopted from South Africa.” Indeed, most of the Legacy celebrities are said to have some “local” connection and affective claim to South Africa. This, of course, is the power of celebrity to perform caring involvement. Celebrities manifest the desire for uncomplicated solidarity across vastly unequal terrain without too much effort or any loss of power for the privileged.

The chandelier that originally caught my eye at an upscale crafts market had a tag attached to it by a silver linen ribbon. The tag told its story, beginning with Bible verse Ecclesiastes 4:12. The scriptural reference attempts to raise the meaning of the iconic work to levels above even Nelson Mandela—exalted all the way into the spiritual resilience provided by a Christian God. The metaphorical use of lights, reconciliation, and hope is a beautiful anodyne for those people who find themselves on the wounding side of racism. Especially when they themselves feel a profound longing for missing camaraderie.

The fact is that Mandela’s historical narrative is powered by his actual embodied experience of 18 years in isolation on Robben Island—not just on an island isolated from the rest of Africa, but in a solitary cell as a dangerous political leader who was kept separate from his comrades. But by the time we view this chandelier, hanging in an art gallery of a wealthy wine estate, surrounded by well-intended, upcycling, organic farming, mostly middle-aged women in expensive but comfortable linen sundresses and Birkenstock sandals, Mandela is dead, and his relationship to Ecclesiastes is known only to the spirit world. In this world, it is known as marketing.

Further Reading