A clip recently surfaced on social media in which infamous shock jock Gareth Cliff sought to facilitate a debate between DA leader John Steenhuisen and One South Africa (OSA) national spokesperson Mudzuli Rakhivhane as part of Cliff’s podcast, The Burning Platform.
In the clip, Rakhivhane seemed to make a point about institutional racism and how it affects every aspect of the typical black South African experience. She was quickly shut down by Cliff, who claimed that the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has proven that racism is not important to most South Africans.
When Rakhivhane attempted to show the ridiculousness of this remark, she was told that her lived experiences were “anecdotal and unimportant”. All of this occurred while Steenhuisen simply smirked, apparently in agreement with Cliff.
As Burning Platform is a sponsorship between Cliff Central (Cliff’s company) and fast-food chain Nando’s, it was the latter that attracted a lot of social media ire for not taking action against Cliff. Nando’s would eventually release two tweets claiming that it is a brand that “takes the right to freedom of speech very seriously”. The brand also said it would be reviewing the content of the podcast episode in question.
The result of this review was a statement by Nando’s that began with the sentence: “Nando’s supports healthy debate and the right to free speech.” The brand named this as the main reason behind its sponsorship of Cliff’s platform for more than five years. However, it would be terminating this sponsorship, not because Cliff was expressing white supremacist attitudes, but because Cliff spoke over Rakhivhane “and dismiss[ed] her view whilst not allowing her to adequately express it”.
This is a highly disappointing statement from Nando’s, especially for a brand that has received constant national acclaim for its advertisements that use satire and parody to capture public sentiment regarding important social and political issues.
In his book It’s not inside, it’s on top: Memorable moments in South African advertising, Khanya Mtshali writes about how Nando’s has “ripped into our best and worst qualities as a people, lampooned the greed and apathy of our public officials and entertained us in times of grave uncertainty”. Mtshali even goes as far as naming Nando’s South Africa’s “satirist-in-chief”. That description makes the current stance by Nando’s all the more disappointing.
On this particular occasion, the Nando’s brand failed to understand the actual problem with the exchange between Cliff, Steenhuisen and Rakhivhane: it is the idea that a white man can deem black people’s legitimate articulations of systemic racism and their effects “anecdotal and unimportant”. To make matters worse, the fact that two white men spoke over a black woman (Steenhuisen shouted “service delivery!” a few times during the clip, implying that there is no relation between racism and the upcoming local government elections) is a prime example of sexist paternalism. Cliff shouting over Rakhivhane, as rude as it was, should be the least of the Nando’s brand’s concerns.
Gareth Cliff is not a prominent public commentator because of any intellectual value he brings to any conversation he is a part of. Gareth Cliff is a prominent public commentator because he is a “shock jock” who has been enabled by brands like Nando’s to shout over and intimidate his way through every exchange that does not confirm his pre-existing beliefs. How can such an individual be placed with the responsibility of facilitating public debate in any meaningful way?
What would have been more consistent for the Nando’s brand would be to recognise the rudeness of Cliff during the exchange not merely as a violation of Rakhivhane’s ability to speak freely, but as an affront to Rakhivhane’s existence as a black woman, and as an affront to every black South African’s experience. The Nando’s brand had an opportunity to speak plainly and directly to the public about its acknowledgement of structural power, and the ways that it often plays out in interpersonal interactions. Nando’s had an opportunity to terminate its sponsorship of Cliff’s platform while expressing its values as a brand that has never shied away from discourse of this nature. Instead, Nando’s chose to completely ignore the racist and sexist undertones of the exchange, and focus squarely on “freedom of speech”.
Nando’s has shown the ability to display far more nuance and complexity than this in its advertising campaigns. It is unfortunate that it could not do the same when it mattered the most. DM
Wiseman Zondi is a postgraduate student in philosophy at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a 2022 Rhodes Scholar-elect.