Dear Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, and Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, please don’t fail our democracy.
As you know, Clicks this week juxtaposed an image of a black person’s hair labelled as “frizzy & dull” next to a picture of the hair of a white person labelled as “normal hair”. Whoever created the images, and placed them side by side, succeeded in creating a horrid message not explicitly stated but visually portrayed – that Caucasian hair is superior to African hair.
The creator of the image is either ignorant of the deep societal wounds relating to racial stereotypes that have been used to demean and dehumanise black people in our society, or is evidently racist and intentionally portrayed black people’s hair as inferior to that of white people.
We know from communication science that the intended message of the sender in an exchange is rarely matched by the understood meaning of the recipient. Effective communication requires a shared frame of reference or mutual context. In this case, it may very well be that the creator believes the implicit portrayal of their message and unwittingly showed the world what they really think about black people.
That the Clicks advertisement made it through to publication is a shocking example of a business behaving in a tone-deaf manner, given the discursive backdrop of our context. It is completely unacceptable. Clicks has received widespread criticism and has apologised for the harm caused. The incident raises questions about the capacity of business institutions to conscientiously reflect on their engagement with society.
Importantly, this unfortunate incident represents an opportunity for national reflection and education.
How is it possible that a successful consumer retailer can behave with such insensitivity? Where are the checks and balances that prevent such hurtful or harmful messaging from reaching publication? There are lessons here for businesses operating in an age where social norms are shifting, hopefully towards a more equitable and respectful treatment of all social groups.
I am sure the case study about Clicks will be taught in business schools, alongside that of H&M, in months to come, to help future business leaders better manage their businesses.
But that is not the end of the story.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by Julius Malema have successfully seized the day to promote their own solution to racism in our society and in the domain of business.
Their solution is to protest – to occupy the public and private spaces where Clicks stores operate, and to demand that the stores close. Their approach is to declare “war” on the retail chain and force them, with violence if necessary, to close their doors for a period of time.
The EFF, a registered political party in South Africa complete with parliamentarians and city council members, have opted to take the fight to Clicks, and if necessary, to escalate the matter until someone dies. Julius Malema won’t say on Twitter who should die, only that death would be justifiable.
This chosen course of action has implications for our democracy.
The EFF has not opted to lay charges of hate speech against the company or its office bearers. They have not opted to call for a national dialogue about the need for equal dignity and mutual respect for all races. They have not called for the Human Rights Commission, or the Constitutional Court, or the National Assembly, or SA Police Service to investigate, legislate or punish the wrongdoers. Instead, they have taken to the malls to force Clicks to close, through intimidation and force.
In the process they have violated the rights of workers at Clicks to undertake their daily tasks and earn a living. They have violated the rights of the owners of Clicks, including the institutional owners such as pension funds and labour unions, to undertake commercial activities freely. They have violated the freedom of the shoppers who rely on Clicks for medicine, or who simply want to use their constitutional rights to go about their business as they wish.
What the EFF have shown is that they can act with impunity irrespective of South Africa’s national sovereignty. They show that they consider themselves to be above the law of the land, and do not require recourse to the courts, or to due process to measure the crime and meet the punishment. They believe their right to dignity is supreme, even greater than the right to life.
The EFF have done what the apartheid regime had perfected – decided on behalf of all other South Africans what the standard of societal order will be, including, if they so choose, that it must be disorder, the destruction of property and the intimidation of bystanders caught in the crosshairs. Two wrongs do not constitute a right.
We need to decide, dear ministers, if we are going to be a country of laws or of men. The two are not compatible. Africa is today diseased with strongmen who have dictated to their people how they should or should not live, including oppressing women as the EFF did today by refusing an elderly woman entry to medicine dispensaries. In a country with deep unemployment and social inequity, shutting down businesses in this way will only worsen our current and future economic prospects.
So dear ministers, I implore you to do your job.
If South Africa’s public culture requires enhancement in the area of inter-racial respect, come up with a plan of action. If our businesses require higher levels of sensitivity to the lived experience, the historic traumas and inequities that have plagued some in our society, come up with a solution.
Equally importantly, if a segment of our society decides to act with impunity by curtailing our freedoms and thereby threaten the democratic fabric of our society, dispense with your obligation to represent the state.
The political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in delineating the social contract in society, explained that “each of us puts his person… under the supreme direction of the general will… [the Sovereign state]” and “each member of the community gives himself to it, at the moment of its foundation”. Also, that “[government is] an intermediate body set up between the subjects and the Sovereign, to secure their mutual correspondence”. Our willingness as citizens to abide by the law and to engage one another within its processes is the foundation of democracy.
We are not living in a banana republic run by a dictator.
That rule must apply to the racists, to businesspeople, and to the populists such as the EFF.
If they break the law, arrest them. If they destroy property, charge them. If they endanger lives, lock them away in the public interest, as you have recently begun doing with racists.
If you fail to do your job, dear ministers, I assure you there will come a day when the public will no longer believe in the authority of the SAPS, or in the legitimacy of your ministries, or in the central authority under which you expect us to live in harmony.
Failure to uphold the rule of law is a failure to sustain our democratic order. Such a failure will only defer our dreams of an economic recovery and of the social justice we hope will follow. DM
Marius Oosthuizen is a scenario planner and writes in his own capacity.
"We accept the love we think we deserve." ~ Stephen Chbosky
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