[OPINION] Moving beyond H&M to really tackle racism
The controversy hit when clothing store H&M ran advertisements featuring a black boy wearing a hoodie with the words ‘Coolest monkey in the jungle’.
Last Saturday, as recently elected ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa was delivering his speech at the ANC birthday rally in the Eastern Cape, the opposition ‘fighters’ from the EFF were trashing H&M stores in response to the racist ad.
Floyd Shivambu tweeted the following alongside pictures of the trashed stores, “Well done to Fighters who physically confronted racism”. Mirrors were smashed, clothing pulled from their rails and general mayhem and intimidation ensued. In East Rand Mall rubber bullets were fired in the chaos, leading H&M to temporarily close some of its South African stores. The EFF has continued to defend its stance and protest outside stores.
Apart from this being a successful attention-seeking exercise, one wonders what the EFF has actually achieved in concrete terms?
It has us all talking about the H&M issue, but what we are talking about is a mish-mash of issues regarding the nature of protest, shutdowns and race in post-apartheid South Africa. It is emotive, yet most of it is leading us to a cul-de-sac of thought given the very real possibility that people may lose their jobs if these kind of shutdowns continue. The EFF’s protest is encapsulated in the display of outrage.
But what happens next? In a similar vein to some of the #feesmustfall protests, the EFF has used ‘the politics of shutdown’ as a means of gaining our attention. The only problem with such a strategy is that it becomes tired and unsustainable very quickly.
The irony is also that the majority of people who work in these shops are black and the people who have to clean up the mess in the shops the EFF trashed are black. The careless disregard and disrespect that shows tells us something about the duplicity of the EFF.
We should accept that the ‘monkey’ reference is an unacceptable racist trope.
Yet it would be naïve to believe that actual overt or subtle racism does not happen in other chain stores. H&M is not alone in perpetuating stereotypes or exploitation of some or other kind. This could be manifest in multiple ways and we should be examining those more closely and speaking out against them all if we are to have a real conversation about race and inequality. This entails not only asking serious questions of companies and employers in general, but also understanding that these are emotive issues that go to the heart of what it is to be human - that core value of dignity.
Many black people feel invisible and ‘unseen’ in a society in which being black all too often means having to prove oneself doubly (ask any black South African sportsman or woman or young professional) and still means having to endure racial slurs. So, the way in which we listen to each other’s stories and ‘see’ each other despite our differences is collective work if we are to succeed in creating a shared vision for our country.
But, we should also be asking more tough questions; whether workers (in reality, mostly black) are earning a fair wage, what are their hours and conditions and are they protected against arbitrary dismissal and what are their policies regarding promotion for instance? Yes, there are labour laws, but are they being adhered to in letter and importantly, in spirit? It is lazy thinking to assume that because H&M conjured up a racist ad, it stands alone as an evil of capitalism and global economic forces. So, where does the EFF’s nihilist attitude end? Will the EFF consider it feasible to shut down every shop in every mall? Have they thought that far?
Their tendency towards shutting down debate is not new. Nor is its tendency to exploit a political moment for short-term gain new. It started when its leader Julius Malema said so famously in 2008, “We are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma!”. Let us not forget Malema’s support of the president he now despises. Year after year we have also watched how comfortable the EFF is with violent expression within Parliament. Granted, the Speaker Baleka Mbete has contributed her share to inflaming the situation, but the intolerance of the EFF has been on display all too many times.
Malema himself has played a double game. The EFF has been party to or initiated a series of cases regarding Zuma’s breach of the Constitution. But Malema himself is an opportunistic defender of the Constitution. His position on land and his ready slogan, “If you see a beautiful piece of land, take it” is incendiary and he knows it. The EFF has opposed Zuma and one can argue whether it has done so effectively. In doing so it has become the proverbial ‘one trick pony’ shouting slogans but having very few real plans for actual governance in a post-Zuma world.
Recently, the head of its student command sought to exacerbate an already uncertain situation at universities by urging students to simply show up and register. Would that running a university were as simple as accepting everyone who simply showed up. Of course Malema’s duplicity makes it hard to believe what he says - the Gucci lifestyle with unexplained sources of income was raised as far back as 2010. While lamenting the public education system he has happily announced that he will continue sending his son to private school because the state system is ‘poor and dysfunctional’. He and his colleagues are thus able to buy themselves out of the chaos they cause. Because no one will be disrupting Malema’s mall shopping or occupying the land he owns, presumably?
So, for the EFF, violent disruption or encouraging it has become a pattern. The question has always been ‘to what end?’ Since the trashing of H&M store, are we ‘solving’ racism? Are we having better, more nuanced conversations with each other and are we dealing with the complexity of H&M workers worried about losing their jobs? One would venture to say, ‘no’. Radio talk shows have aired views on the H&M issue and understandably these vary. Some believe that the act of violence is the only way in which ‘white people’ and companies will sit up and listen. It is difficult to know whether this is actually the case. Fighting racism requires more than empty rhetoric, it requires policy shifts, investing in education and using the tools the Constitution provides us with. Protest is one of them, but violent protest as in this instance is opportunistic and becomes unhelpful.
This matter will be resolved somehow, probably messily, but we will still not have made real progress regarding the question of structural inequality within our economy and how that coincides with race. We will still have companies operating which exploit workers and we will not have shifted the debate about equality and social justice one bit.
The EFF is struggling for relevance in a South African political landscape that is shifting fast. The next election is in 2019 and then their strategies will be tested in a campaigning environment in which they will not have Zuma to lambast as president of the ANC. What will their message to voters be then - we trashed a few stores and ended racism?
There are moments when civil disobedience can be justified for the greater good. History is replete with examples. It is easy to become discouraged when 24 years after the end of apartheid racism still rears its head in so many ways. It is real and there is a powerful reminder of the long struggle towards a society in which all are viewed as equal in the life of Rosa Parks. Parks is well known for resisting bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 by refusing to give up her seat in the ‘coloured’ section to a white man. Parks’s act of defiance became iconic for not only the United States but for the global civil rights movement. Yet, her defiance on the bus that day was not a once-off incident, but a part-culmination of her fierce fight against racism over many years. As Parks spoke of a younger, more impatient generation, she reflected in 1973, “The attempt to solve our racial problems nonviolently was discredited in the eyes of many by the hard core segregationists who met peaceful demonstrations with countless acts of violence and bloodshed. Time is running out for a peaceful solution.”
For Parks the struggle was not over and she recognised that a new generation of activists was becoming increasingly impatient at a lack of progress on questions of racism. The instinct towards violence when faced by intransigence is thus real. As still exists in the US, in South Africa there is racism of every kind - overt and often the more toxic, subtle racism that manifests itself in countless conversations or actions daily.
The ‘fight’ against it is a long-haul one. As Amilcar Cabral said, “Tell no lies and claim no easy victories.”
Classic populism often claims easy victories in the face of complexity and encourages or stokes violence. In the H&M shutdown, that is what the EFF is doing.
Sometimes refusing to give up the seat on the bus may be a greater, more effective act of rebellion.
Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february