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HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: The reckless experiment of #ClicksMustFall and EFF protests

OPINION

This week I reached over 80 days of living with #LongCovid. Yes, yes, I know. You’re tired of these tallies. But here’s why it matters in this moment.

Of those 80 days, there are days at a time where I suffer from debilitating headaches that affect my vision, my neck and my general ability to think, write, speak and spell.

I have tried everything. Earlier this week I received an IV drip with a cocktail of vitamins and was lured into positivity when I felt better the next day. But following that, the headache settled in again and sucked everything out of my life.

Out of pure desperation to feel better because I had a hectic workday and a great deal of screen time ahead of me, I asked my wife to run across to Clicks and please ask them if there was anything else I could take besides paracetamol and Mybulen for my headache.

Clicks was closed because of the whole advertising debacle and the fear of EFF protests outside their doors. They were also removing all TRESemmé hair products from their shelves.

The advertisement, carried on the Clicks website, compared two photos of black women's hair with two photos of white women's hair, labelling the natural black hair "dry and damaged" and "frizzy and dull", while the white women's hair was "fine and flat" and "normal".

Protesters gathered outside several Clicks stores across South Africa in reaction the shampoo brand’s racist advertisement. In response, the EFF called for demonstrations and issued this tweet on their account, among many others:

"We will not permit the unrepentant and perverse racism of Clicks to go on in South Africa. #clicksmustfall"

Our family is privileged enough to live right across the road from all necessary amenities. Grocery stores, Clicks and even cellular repair shops - that sort of thing. The majority of the people employed at these stores are people of colour. Mostly black.

Each checkout person at Clicks is a black person, all aisle staff are black and the majority of the pharmacists are black or other people of colour as well.

Most of these employees are commuters because unlike me, they do not live across the road from places of work. They travel into the city every day at the crack of dawn to reach work on time, taking taxis, buses and trains.

To give you an idea of the number of commuters who use public transport to get to work every day, Golden Arrow bus services in the Cape Town metro area transport 48.5 million passengers annually.

There are over 14,000 minibus taxis which operate in the Western Cape, mostly servicing commuters to and from work as well. (If you need visual evidence of this, all you have to do is find yourself on the N2 early in the morning where the highway is back-to-back with commuters on taxis hoping they make it to work on time).

When stores are shut, these people don’t work. So they don’t get paid. When people don’t work, they don’t commute. When they don’t commute, taxi drivers don’t earn their pay either – which is recorded as a minimum of just over R3,000 per month. The economics have an extremely negative knock-on effect.

There are a variety of motivations behind militant protests, which may lead to intimidation or even vandalism.

In a 1968 study, researchers noted note that these kinds of protests focus on objects and buildings that are “symbolic of other values”.

In the case of the EFF and many other protests in South Africa when it comes to fighting against massive chain stores or other businesses, or even news outlets, the lashing out is against white capitalism, the forces that be and those that continue to perpetuate racism – like the shampoo ad.

It was an ignorant and unacceptable oversight, not only by Clicks who ran the ad, but by the advertising companies employed to conceptualise marketing, pitch to their clients and move forward from there.

But in the case of those who commute to these places of work, they are also the clientele of the services immediately available to them. Lunch hour is filled with employees from different stores running errands; filling out their prescriptions and purchasing the items from Clicks they may not have the chance to do otherwise.

It’s convenient and it saves them time and money to get access to services they may not have access to. When you’re in the area, use the area – for example.

In this way, the EFF’s response and resolve to deal with these important issues in this manner points out a glaring counter productivity. Is the cost of fighting structural inequities in this way productive? Or should they perhaps look into more measured responses that effect real change, because all of this runs much wider and deeper than a corporate running an advertisement. It goes all the way back to implanted ideologies, ignorance and a lack of equality in the advertising industry itself, and I can speak on this from personal experience.

When employed for a short run at an international agency who had the account for Lucozade Africa, which means they were in charge of all accounts of advertising, from billboards to radio to promotion of the products to magazines all over the continent, not a single person featured in the ads was black. Imagine looking at a Lucozade billboard in Kenya on which everyone is white and blonde? I queried this and the response was blatant: We do not have any subscriptions to stock photography websites that feature black people.

It had simply never crossed their mines to correct this – I mention this to illustrate the deeply troublesome bubble within which this industry exists.

There are effective measure that can take place to fix this situation without depriving people of income, jobs, and access to services that they can use during their workday, instead of spending more money to commute on weekends to get chronic medication, for example.

To formalise the EFF’s current behaviour only makes things spin out of control and doesn’t really change systems.

It would serve political parties, activists and so on well to create formal structures in dealing with these issues so that it doesn’t disproportionately affect people of colour whom they’re effectively trying to fight for.

Clicks employs 8,000 people and they are BEEE compliant. Full-time employees benefit from a share ownership scheme pay-out, 84% of the beneficiaries of the scheme are black employees and 66% female, and the Clicks Foundation offers a R100 million donation for educational bursaries.

Their benefits include retirement and medical aid funds, employee discounts across its brands, and group life and disability cover, as well as annual, family responsibility, maternity, paternity, sick and study leave.
To assist and provide work opportunities for families and individuals whose living circumstances are difficult and only allow for part-time employment, Clicks has long introduced flexible working arrangements.

I am not condoning the Clicks advertisement and I’m certainly not trying to be a spokesperson for the chain store - I believe that the ad is racist and perpetuates western norms of beauty and what is acceptable - norms that we have long tried to overcome and fight against. The art of protest has long been a part of South African culture in hindering these occasions and fighting the forces that be.

But I worry that calls like this from the EFF are inconsiderate to the very people they’re trying to represent. Does the means justify the end? And what can be done to create more coordinated forms of fight – for lack of a better word?

We have no shortage of commissions in South Africa that deal with these sorts of issues, perhaps a first step in a case like this would be to “take up arms” against the code of advertising practice to seriously consider stricter monitoring of the type of marketing and messaging firms put out there, what they mean, how they affect people and how they perpetuate harmful stereotypes - so that they can take more responsibility for the challenging needs of the society we live in and that they seem oblivious to.

And perhaps this kind of systemic approach will change reckless experimentation into real revolution.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.