That the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) should have seized upon the Clicks hair advertisement to showcase their propensity for violence was only to be expected. Ditto Cyril Ramaphosa’s supine response.
As for President Ramaphosa’s cabinet, it is no surprise that it issued a statement which concentrated on condemning the “profoundly offensive and racist” advertisement, but almost as an afterthought said that the right to protest “came with the inherent responsibility to do so peacefully and without infringing on the rights of others”.
Even the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), some of whose members are no strangers to EFF-type violence when it suits them, showed a better sense of proportion. That organisation thus warned businesses against perpetuating racism. It then attacked the EFF’s “headline-grabbing stunt” for its “violence, thuggery, pure criminality, anarchy, lawlessness”, and the like.
Business Day published an editorial which found it “difficult to sympathise” with an EFF protest that had been marked by “chaos, violence, and criminality”. But it did not get around to even this rather mealy-mouthed criticism until it had first spent half of the editorial berating Clicks and endorsing “tough action” against those responsible for the advertisement.
Come again? This newspaper seems to feel it cannot criticise the EFF for inciting violence before it has proved its credentials by devoting an equal amount of space to denouncing Clicks for an advert which, if it was offensive, was unintentionally so – and which Phumzile van Damme of the Democratic Alliance (DA) more accurately labelled as “stupid”.
Business Day’s attitude is reminiscent of that of many journalists and some liberal organisations during the ten years of violence leading up to the election in 1994. Before they could bring themselves to condemn assassinations or necklace executions carried out by revolutionary cadres, they first had to recapitulate all the horrors of apartheid.
Fortunately, not everyone is as morally confused as Business Day in its evident view that there is some sort of equivalence between an advertisement that intended no harm to anyone and the EFF’s clear incitement to public violence. Several commentators were in no doubt about the threat posed by the EFF. The Sunday Times likened the EFF’s incendiary actions to Kristallnacht, when Nazis attacked Jewish business throughout Germany in 1938.
Other newspapers said the advertisement showed that racism was “still embedded in South African society”, that it remained a “huge problem”, that the advert “sought to perpetuate apartheid and colonial stereotypes”, and so on. Chris Roper wrote in the Financial Mail that the advert had “accidentally” revealed “the racism that is still at the core of a lot of the advertising industry”.
Can this be true? Advertising in this country, as elsewhere, is pervasive. Whether they like or not, people see and/or hear advertisements day in and day out. There is no shortage of politicians, whistleblowers, journalists, trade unionists, “diversity consultants”, statutory watchdogs, human rights activists, and others ready to pounce upon instances of “racism” whenever these appear in advertising or anywhere else.
Yet when explicit examples of allegedly racist advertising are listed it’s the same old suspects: the Heineken video, that H&M photograph, Dove soap, and now Clicks. The same applies to racist remarks: Penny Sparrow, Adam Catzevelos, Vicki Momberg, and various others.
The first thing that is remarkable about all these incidents is not how many there are, but how few. The second is that allegations of anti-black racism swiftly lead to apologies, as well as to repudiation by both liberals and conservatives – which is more than can be said for anti-white remarks by various politicians, journalists, trade unionists, and others.
Clicks thus lost no time in issuing an apology, caving in to extortionate demands by the EFF, suspending employees, and even endorsing the EFF’s attempt to blame the violence it created on “agents provocateurs”. This the company did in a joint statement with the EFF.
What kind of corporate governance, not to mention sense of justice or honesty or morality, allows a company to suspend employees for an unintentional offence and then sign up to a press statement that is designed to mislead the public and its own employees and shareholders (not to mention whitewash the EFF)?
If the Clicks incident is anything to go by, boards and managements of confused and guilt-ridden companies will now lay out plenty of money for diversity consultants and the like, all on the assumption that business is awash with racism. Before they fork out they should ponder the remarks of Mike Abel of M&C Saatchi Abel, as reported in the Sunday Times.
“Every single day thousands of ads are posted across the country without incident, which translates to a 99.99% success rate… I do not believe our advertising is Eurocentric and it is deeply respectful of our society, and this looks like a witch-hunt.”
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.