It is fruitless to have debates about whether the H&M advert with a black kid wearing a hoodie saying “coolest monkey in the jungle” is deliberately and intentionally racist or not, writes EBRAHIM FAKIR.
Given centuries of offensive racist tropes associating black people with monkeys ought to have informed the entire chain of product developers, copywriters, marketers and merchandisers at H&M about how offensive that item of clothing on a black kid would be. So the faux pas (it was one) is inexcusable. It justifiably requires a commensurate response. But what would constitute a commensurate (and concomitant) response? Was the EFF’s trashing of several H&M stores around the country, one? Was the EFF’s response either justifiable or commensurate. Was it even consistent with what it claims?
The short answer is no.
The Economic Freedom Fighters’ trashing of the H&M store was a part of an orchestrated, deliberate & sustained campaign of destabilisation, a needless exploitation of emotions on a fictive basis aimed at a fictive enemy wrapped in a display of faux radicalism rather than real and sustained campaign for change.
Let’s contextualise this. This “action” came after a week in which irresponsible calls were made for people to flood higher education institutions after Jacobs Zuma’s reckless and poorly thought out announcement of “free higher education for young people from poor and working class backgrounds”. In a move of understandable caprice, the EFF used this to capitalise on the systemic and policy weaknesses in the lack of institutional and governmental readiness for this policy programme, fomenting instability by adding fuel to an already unstable situation. In addition to the tragedy at the Capricorn TVET College, the UNISA Sunnyside campus is now unstable and as more Higher Education institutions open for the year, greater volatility is likely.
Is this the first time that the EFF’s hand is present in fomenting instability? No. In 2013, soon after the expulsion of Malema from the African National Congress and the formation of the EFF, there was a call to make the mines ungovernable. In 2014, the call was to render Gauteng ungovernable. In 2016 it was the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, and in 2017, after giving power to what it claims is the “racist DA” in 3 Metros, the EFF decided it was appropriate to stick its nose where it didn’t belong, in the DA’s often messy internal business. All of this, building on the now legendary tactic of “disruption” pursued in parliament, provincial legislatures and local councils that the EFF has become known for.
That the H&M hoodie was distasteful & ill-advised is now near universally recognised. H&M have apologised and retracted the offending image from the web catalogue. But Let’s examine the facts further.
Was a black customer badly treated at an H&M store, refused a purchase? Refused service? Barred entry to a shop? Overcharged for an item, refused as sale or given poor or racist service?
After all these things happen regularly to blacks in South Africa. The demon of racism is deeply rooted and is nowhere more pernicious than it is in our political economy, where more egregious acts of not just capitalist exploitation, but because of South Africa’s peculiar brand of capitalism, racist exploitation (or blacksploitation), yet very little by way of direct action from the EFF is directed and targeted at them. Not after the Marikana massacre. Not after a series of mishaps in our state-owned enterprises. Not after Zuma and the Guptas ransacked the state, nor after mineworkers continue to live lives of squalor on the hovels that are hostels. Not after Shoprite workers were doubly exploited. Not after an errant white farmer killed a black farm worker. Not after the Aurora Mining Systems robbed workers of years of wages and pensions.
H&M became an easy target, where the toxic mix of emotive fiction was visited on inanimate objects devoid of the capacity for reprisal or to effect consequence. This makes for dramatic political theatre, but does it fight racism or effect social change?
Some post-hoc justifications suggest that H&M had what’s coming to it. After all, it and brands like ZARA exploit workers. But we’ve known about this for years and even months, yet there was no action. The H&M advert was placed two weeks ago. An outcry ensued a week later and the EFF “action” followed yet a week later. Why not when the issue broke?
Why a fit of inconsequential pique seven days after the furore of the H&M advert? Or the ignoring of years and months of other racist exploitative practices? This is not to suggest a hierarchy of causes or a “whataboutery” relativism in dealing with racism, sexism, exploitation or other social malpractices. It is to suggest that there is an ethical vacuity and a moral blindness at play in service of a narrow political agenda of destabilisation and instability being pursued by the EFF.
After all, the timing also matters. And it matters a great deal. This action by the EFF, and defences of it, justifies a crude retributive vigilantism. Worse, any criticism of it is met by victimisation and vilification. This is not how a democratic free society operates. More importantly, it makes manifest the narrow political agenda which now becomes clearer. That is, to coincide and detract from the ANC’s 106th birthday celebrations and draw attention away from the ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa’s first January 8 statement on behalf of the ANC.
With Ramaphosa at the helm of the ANC, and the ANC conference concluding with resolutions that destabilise the EFF’s putative policy and political agenda, the EFF fears being rendered irrelevant. Jacob Zuma, a lynchpin of the EFF politics, no longer serves as a source of campaign material for them. All of its policy positions have in part been re-appropriated and recaptured by the ANC, so the EFF is in search of a new agenda.
As Ramaphosa slowly aids the ANC to incrementally clawing back some of its lost credibility, and early signs of a restoration of trust and confidence with the private sector and investors is returning, albeit slowly, this “action” by the EFF appears as a desperate attempt to remain relevant. This after a full seven days of H&M- issuing an apology and a retraction of the merchandise saying in a statement:
“We have got this wrong and we agree that, even if unintentional, passive or casual racism needs to be eradicated wherever it exists”.
We can’t always take H&M at their word. A sign to which mistrust of corporates has festered. After a series of debacles centred on having only white models, the most recent H&M advert comes at the tail end of the notoriety of several retailers and international fashion houses being exposed for their casual bigotry. The South African private sector and retail space has often been obstinate in its racist attitudes. We have countless examples of estate estates dealing differently with blacks, restaurants, resorts and other places of leisure are frequently exposed for their overt racism and the invisible glass ceiling facing blacks and women in corporate South Africa is all too visible, not to mention the violence visited upon black farm workers or the generally antagonistic social relations amongst different races. Consequently, the demon of overt racism & casual bigotry needed to be dealt with. But was the EFF’s weekend vigilantism justified?
What other ways could have been pursued and what other engagements were possible? For one, a consumer boycott. Its powerful effects have been underestimated, especially where it hurts racist corporates most – at the bottom line. In a progressive constitutional and legal dispensation, in which racism is a crime, the thuggish vigilantism of the EFF is inexcusable where the options for heavy fines are available. But there are even more powerful instruments that act in concert with consumer boycotts. Two further punitive measures are available, through the levying of fines and extracting commitments & prescribing to H&M to creating at least 200 additional jobs guaranteed for two years, or in prescribing minimum reinvestments in the South African economy.
That would be more radical for ALL South Africans. Now, the only conclusion that one is left to draw once all the series of facts, sequence of events are synthesised and assembled, is that this was a desperate search for relevance and profile by the EFF, in which the EFF unleashed its most backward tendencies – wreaking havoc, anarchy, destruction, instability and conflict showing, that this has in fact nothing to do with fighting racism and everything to do with a search for relevance through manipulating sentiments on an otherwise justifiable grievance. It also demonstrates that when genuinely radical solutions are available – demanding furthering investment, forcing job creation for mandatory minimum periods or facing sanctions, or extracting punitive taxes and donations to societal causes – the EFF was nowhere to be found. Instead they were at the forefront of a damaging lawlessness and anarchy, for chasing away rather than attracting investment. This is why such vigilante and destructive tendencies must be condemned. In a time when H&M have conceded their error, greater punitive sanction could have been extracted from them. That is why this was a selfish and destructive act of anarchic & ill-disciplined waste.
In the end, the EFF will be remembered not for defending dignity, but for eroding it, not for enhancing black advancement but for retarding it, for impeding economy and society – not advancing it.
Ebrahim Fakir is Director of Programs at ASRI, the Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute. He serves on the board of directors of Afesis-Corplan and is on the Advisory Council of the Council for the Advancement of South Africa’s Constitution (CASAC).
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The Daily Vox.