On Thursday, 21 October 2021, Gareth Cliff hosted a conversation with the leader of the Democratic Alliance, John Steenhuisen, and One South Africa Movement’s national spokesperson, Mudzuli Rakhivhane, on The Burning Platform, a Cliff Central show sponsored by Nando’s.
The name of the show encapsulates what listeners have come to expect from Cliff — heated conversations. That Nando’s was brave enough to sponsor a Cliff show was always surprising since the perils of such a partnership were foreseeable. It was a credit to the brand, and evidence of a commitment to free speech, that they would sponsor a platform that was bound to lead to controversy.
But last week Nando’s terminated this five-year collaboration for the worst possible reason — it succumbed to the will of a mob.
In the episode on Thursday, Cliff spoke with Steenhuisen and Rakhivhane about what their organisations could offer voters in the upcoming local government election. When Rakhivhane raised the DA’s Phoenix posters, the discussion turned to the link between race issues and service delivery. Cliff responded by citing the Institute of Race Relations’ research showing that racism is at the bottom of the priority list for most South Africans.
This is where the now viral clip of the interview comes from, with Cliff telling Rakhivhane that nobody is interested in her daily experiences of racism, and that these are “unimportant and irrelevant”.
If the backlash against Cliff was centred on his disrespectful, dismissive tone, it would be justified. But instead, the focus was on the racial dynamics between Cliff, Steenhuisen and Rakhivhane. The controversy revolved around the white men and the black woman, not the interviewer and interviewees. Yet if the Tweeters had been focused on the people rather than the archetypes of victim and oppressor, they would have realised two obvious points.
First, it was not Steenhuisen’s job to defend Rakhivhane. She made a point to which Cliff responded the way one would expect him to respond — not because he’s a white man, but because he’s Gareth Cliff. And most people, if they are honest, would enjoy seeing their rival get roasted. I imagine Rakhivhane did not mind too much when Steenhuisen got a grilling of his own later on. The outrage at Steenhuisen’s smirk, then, was rather overblown.
Second, Cliff is abrasive. His tone with Rakhivhane was par for the course on that show. Talking over guests is a particularly annoying habit of his. It’s rude and not conducive to dialogue, but it was not exclusively reserved for Rakhivhane. Cliff is entitled to his contempt for identity politics. It was on Rakhivhane to defend herself and, the thing is, she did.
In the last six minutes of the conversation, she called Cliff out for allowing Steenhuisen to refer to his personal experiences while dismissing her own. Cliff was forced to concede the point. On a roll, she went on to administer some zingers: “If everyone was satisfied with what the DA was offering, then they would have the votes to back that up.” She clearly took the “burn” in “Burning Platform” seriously, because the lady came prepared.
There was simply no need to fall back on tired, race-based defences of Rakhivhane since she had the situation firmly under control. I suspect the Tweeters did not know this because few listened to the full interview — sadly, quick reactions are more valuable than well-informed ones these days.
The show aired on Thursday. Nando’s announced its capitulation on Saturday, terminating its sponsorship of the show.
Admittedly, there are rarely good responses to these situations. Not too long ago, a video of a white man in an altercation with a black woman at a Spur branch went viral. In response to the outrage, Spur banned the man. But while those who had agitated for action simply moved on, the banning sparked a boycott by customers who thought the ban unfair. It turns out that acting impulsively to appease a mob rarely gets you any credit and, in this case, it proved costly too.
Nando’s is a popular brand and probably won’t face the same backlash as Spur. Nevertheless, terminating its sponsorship of The Burning Platform was an unworthy act of corporate cowardice from a normally bold brand.
A controversy of this nature was always going to happen with Cliff. Nando’s should have been better prepared with a reactive statement about why they sponsor the show and the importance of creating such platforms even if they occasionally include views and conduct that Nando’s does not approve of.
Exacerbating this communications failure was the fact that the company tried to pay lip service to the right to freedom of speech even as it ditched one of the few platforms where people can voice unpopular views. One does not need to like Cliff to recognise that his platform adds a unique flavour to our national discourse. If Nando’s really was committed to free speech, it would not have ended this sponsorship on the thinnest of pretexts disguised as concern for Rakhivhane’s treatment.
No one is served by Nando’s retreat. Rakhivhane did not need Nando’s — or Twitter — to defend her from Cliff and Steenhuisen; to suggest that she did is patronising and sexist. In fact, she held her own in sharp and classy fashion. But now, new politicians like her have one less platform through which to reach voters, and listeners will be deprived of the fiery debates The Burning Platform served up weekly (if the show does not continue under some other guise).
And though the mob Nando’s sought to appease has quickly moved on, its brand will not soon shake off this shameful chickening out. DM