Active citizenry to a tee – duo merge art and justice to fashion a call for South Africa to ‘wake up’
In the run-up to the 2024 elections, and the 30th anniversary of South Africa’s democracy, the fashion brand behind the We, The People T-shirt campaign have their sights set on getting citizens to ‘stop complaining and do something’ about the country’s problems. They call it All Rise.
For many, hearing the words “All Rise” evokes a picture of a courthouse, with everyone rising as a sign of respect. But for constitutional lawyer Lwando Xaso and designer TSHEPO Mohlala, it is also a rousing call to action.
And now, it is also the title of a new T-shirt collaboration between Mohlala and Xaso’s consultancy firm, Including Society.
“All Rise is very ancestral and historical… people have throughout time always commanded themselves to rise against such adversity, such oppression, and just because we have a Constitution it doesn’t mean we get to sit down. This is the part where we work, we rise to make the Constitution real,” said Xaso.
Using different mediums to convey a message
Including Society, founded by Xaso in 2016, focuses on building spaces of belonging, living with the values of the Constitution, and constructively challenges certain aspects of the Constitution. Its work includes consulting with schools when there has been a conflict, with Xaso using her legal background to mediate, while she also offers “creative ideas and work that combines the ideas of art and justice, like I have collaborated with Tshepo”.
“When I met him a couple of years ago, I kind of got a sense that he was doing more than just a fashion line, that he really had something powerful to say about what clothing can mean in our lives,” said Xaso. He was creating clothing in a way that did not ignore the realities of living in South Africa. “We live in a very volatile country, and in as much as fashion can be about escapism, I think Tshepo was saying that we can look cool, we can escape, but there are moments where escaping is not the right thing and where the message needs to be clear.”
Mohlala founded Tshepo Jeans in 2015, and central to the brand’s identity is storytelling.
“I wanted to tell stories that are true and authentic to me, using fashion as a platform, but moreover using a platform that is loved by everyone in the world,” he said.
Mohlala thought about the best way to use the business and brand he had created to solve social issues, while Xaso wondered how to use her knowledge of the Constitution and how to work with someone from a different discipline to reach other audiences.
The pair met in 2017 and have collaborated over the years to share powerful messages, particularly around constitutionalism and social justice. Mohlala had the idea to use the first three words of the Constitution after hearing Xaso read the preamble at a public gathering in 2019
“We, The People, was just about highlighting the power that we have as individuals to change the environment. Through fashion, through law and through other different types of mediums, we can change the environment that we see around us,” said Mohlala.
More than a T-shirt
Xaso, an aspiring historian, said a significant part of what she does is grounded in knowing constitutional history. One of the tools of defiance against apartheid was clothing, as evident with the United Democratic Front (UDF), which offered an example of how T-shirts can be used as a silent but loud protest through everyday objects, she said.
“The UDF relied a lot on T-shirts with slogans to build the movement and then created that spirit of togetherness,” she said.
Even Nelson Mandela had used clothing to convey a message. “I’ve always seen the choices that people make about what to put on their bodies as another way of speaking without speaking and you can even see that in 1962 when he appears in court wearing traditional Xhosa clothing to signify an African nationalism.”
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Mohlala explained that since the launch of We, The People he has come to realise that it is not just a piece of clothing, but a mindset. “Everyone who wears these shirts, they think, they move, they breathe, and they do things in a certain way. These people are also very conscious of their surroundings, the actions they take, and what they say in what spaces.”
Mohlala said his collaboration with Xaso was about channelling the energy of people who have an empowered mindset. Their T-shirts were released in April 2023.
“The reason we went with T-shirts is because it is a moving billboard. It’s a reminder to anyone in the world, whenever you meet somebody who’s wearing an All Rise T-shirt, it’s almost like we come from the same place and believe in the same things and that connects and unites people.”
The T-shirts, which are a commercial venture, can be bought at Tshepo’s shops in Hyde Park and Victoria Yards, as well as online.
The inspiration behind All Rise
Xaso said the decision to use “All Rise” was inspired by hearing “All rise for the Constitutional Court” when she was a law clerk at the apex court.
“Dikgang Moseneke, the former deputy Chief Justice, had also titled his book All Rise, and I found it so powerful, because it was at the time  when the country felt like it was on its knees and he is saying ‘no, this is when we rise’,” she said.
“I thought amplifying that message as broadly as possible was very much necessary considering the things that were happening the last couple of years, the fact that we are going into an election year, and also next year marks the 30th anniversary of democracy in South Africa.”
Xaso also cites one of her favourite authors, Ta-Nehisi Coates, as a source of inspiration for the shirts. “He says that it’s always important to say ‘I don’t believe the lies’, and part of the lie is that we are an apathetic people, and we are not,” she said.
“I think that the country doesn’t stand as it does today without the work of so many people doing their best, and for me this T-shirt is inspired by them.”
For Mohlala, All Rise means being the best version of yourself, regardless of the space you are in.
“The big part of it was: how do I get the people around me to stop complaining and doing something? And the message of All Rise really resonated with me personally,” he said.
“All Rise is a movement of empowering people in whatever space they are in to see that why they do is so important and so vast.”
Mohlala said the design and typography were inspired by the forced removals from Sophiatown in the 1950s and how residents resisted, writing messages like “we won’t move” on the wall.
“When you see something like that, it is a strong statement that makes you want to be part of the zeitgeist of the moment,” he said.
“The message still holds the same energy. It still holds the same feeling and the same sense of defiance against the incursion of people’s rights. We need to unite and change the current situation in our country, or in our communities.”
A clarion call and a message of light
For Mohlala, All Rise is a clarion call for people who are no longer active in the economy or in social issues. “Part of the All Rise message is to get people to wake up and participate in whatever is happening within our communities and within our economy.”
Xaso said that in light of next year being an election year and the 30th anniversary of the country’s democracy, All Rise seeks to be a galvanising force. “Nothing is concrete yet, however, we want to expand it beyond it being just a T-shirt on our backs. We want it to materialise into more content that we want to produce, more conversations, and gatherings that we want to host in support of that with hopefully more partners.”
When asked about the goal of this collaboration, Xaso quotes Coates: “Resistance must be its own reward.”
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“So often what we are fighting for may not be achieved in our lifetimes, and I think for me, part of creating a message like this at this time is a form of resistance, and it doesn’t mean that the things that we want are going to materialise tomorrow, it doesn’t mean that the things that we want to change are going to materialise tomorrow because we made a T-shirt,” she said.
“But for me, always insisting on who we are, always bringing a message of light, and of possibility, is the work we have to do. The point is to always carry a message of possibility at a time that can feel so impossible.” DM