“Each trade agreement, each product bought, each bank loan, each new investment is another brick in the wall of our continued existence.” (South African Prime Minister John Vorster in the Johannesburg Star 26.8.72)
The snow rolled up six feet on either side of the road. As the car swept into a cleared driveway it was as if a giant white blanket had dropped from the sky and feathered itself upon the land for as far as eyes could see. But the land, it seemed, would not be subdued. Timber, trunks, glass and tiles pushed their way upwards to emboss their form on the darning and rip vertical holes filled with colours, textures and reflections invisible to Google Earth. It was here, in one of these holes under the snow, that I began to learn some of the historical geographies of the above image. I wanted to understand how sun-drenched oranges from South Africa became anti-apartheid weapons in Europe. The story I’d heard was that from 1973 onwards, the South African Outspan citrus conglomerate did not sell a single orange in Holland until the fall of apartheid. It was the Swedish winter of 2011, and I was visiting the home of Esau and Ann-Marie du Plessis in the countryside not far from Malmö.
Their home, an old farmhouse, is also an anti-apartheid and transnational activist archive. Among the many things it houses are anti-apartheid books, artwork and speeches from the 1950s through to the 80s, anti-colonial volumes and Africanist histories, anti-apartheid campaign materials, letters, photographs and action-plans – but most importantly it homes Esau and Ann-Marie themselves. The son of farmers, Esau du Plessis was born in Maclear, the Eastern Cape in 1938. He left South Africa to pursue a career in medicine in London in 1959. During this time he volunteered in the ANC London office alongside future African poet laureate Mazisi Kunene and was consequently banned from returning to South Africa. He left for Holland in 1965 to study Non-Western Sociology at Leiden University. Once there, he worked for the African Studies Centre, and joined various Dutch anti-apartheid organizations. However he became increasingly frustrated by the lack of hard actions that these groups were willing to commit, and in 1970 he formed Boycott Outspan Action (BOA) alongside graphic designer Rob van der Aa, and the scholar and journalist Karel Roskam.
For the BOA the plantation of citrus fruit in South Africa was an expression of the environmental, structural and embodied violence of European capitalism. Oranges, the BOA argued, had always been a white crop. Imported from St Helena by Dutch colonist Jan van Riebeeck in 1656, they were intended for consumption by the Dutch elite and sailors rounding the Cape of Good Hope. More contemporaneously, exposé’s by Ruth First and Rosalind Ainslie suggested that the abuse of black labour on citrus farms was widespread in 1970. Responding to calls to boycott South African commodities from the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), du Plessis and Roskam decided that the orange would be an apt vehicle for bringing Dutch-South African diplomatic relationships and “blood ties” into sharp focus. In drawing from the somatic rhetoric common across Dutch and English media reports of the famine in the resettlement areas of 1970, the orange export crop was described by the BOA as “soiled,” “infected” and “leaving a bad taste in the mouth.” With its fleshy water-drenched interior and hard exterior prone to rapid dehydration once separated from the flesh – the orange was an obvious contender to mimic the environmental conditioning of human bodies so explicitly depicted in media reports of the famines. As van der Aa’s image shows, metonymically, the skin and flesh of the orange become human. The essential quotidian violence of preparation to eat or drink an orange (squeezing, dissecting, peeling, segmenting, sucking, grating) is made allegorical to the social and spatial squeezing of the black labourer and the famine victim. The creation of a blood-citrus topos is pronounced in the slogan ‘Pers geen Zuid Afrikaan uit! (Don’t squeeze a South African dry!). Through the old humanitarian antislavery trick of mobilising white-on-black anthropophagy (a reversal of the Caribbean myth of black cannibalism), the BOA emoted racialised disgust for anti-apartheid ends.
This image is one of many that the BOA produced over the 1970s and 80s. As common with iconic pictures, the BOA poster produced extreme reactions. The Outspan boycott did not receive full support from other Dutch anti-apartheid organizations. Connie Braam former leader of the AABN recently criticised the image as “unappetizing” and the boycott as too radical and misdirected. Her extended critique (published in recent doctoral thesis from the University of Amsterdam), seems to show that her sympathies lay more with Dutch working class rather than apartheid labourers. Furthermore, the image purportedly gave Dutch children nightmares, and was banned from publication across national print media by the Dutch advertising agency for alleged indecency. Ironically, the repression of the poster lent the squeezing trope and the BOA’s citrus boycott a wider audience. The Dutch liberal press championed their successful court battle to have the injunction overturned, and the BOA were able to bring anti-apartheid and antiracism to the broader social movement politics of the time. The image was fully endorsed by the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), with their European delegate, James Phillips, declaring that the hand should “squeeze a bit harder, because that is in fact what I think is happening in South Africa…I believe that the hand itself should show how tense the muscles are as they squeeze the life out of our people”. (Translated from Dutch. BOA Dokumentatiemap II, 1973: 15)
Hugh Crosfield is a visiting lecturer and teaching assistant at Royal Holloway, University of London.