Zama Ndlovu

Being part of the newly privileged

2012-06-06 10:24

Zama Ndlovu

The first direct black economic empowerment benefit I received caught me off guard. 

I had always been a supporter of the act, although I was quite aware of the challenges in its implementation. Yet, when I received an email stating that simply because I was black, I was going to receive a cash payment which was not at all related to the quality of my service, I felt oddly uncomfortable.

On the one hand, it was the first true confirmation that there was an acknowledgement, at least in that moment, of the cumulative effects of Apartheid on me personally. But on the other hand, it was a privilege on another purely on the basis of something as inconsequential as race. Privilege isn’t as fun when the benefactor is conscious of it.

In our society, and in fact, globally, there are many superficial criteria that allow some segments of a particular population to enjoy privileges of others. This is not news. Neither is the fact that people are more likely to notice the privileges that others have over them, rather than the privileges that they themselves enjoy. Because of the subconscious nature of privilege, it is often left to a few to point it out, when the majority accept it without a second thought.

Playing with privilege

On Monday, the editor of Seventeen Magazine, Janine Jellars commented about the Play Energy Heroes campaign and its lack of female representation. The campaign is meant to showcase extraordinary people who are doing amazing things in the “urban/street culture scene”. Yet, the “people” turn out to be men - all of them.  Jellars rightly pointed out that Play Energy drink is marketed as a gender-neutral product, and in addition, there was no suggestion on the Heroes campaign website, that this campaign was geared towards men.
Upon raising this issue, the Play Energy Drink Twitter account replied as follows “We chose #PlayHeroes because they represent our brand, we are always on the constant lookout for anyone new, both male and female”.

Men will generally admit that women are disadvantaged, but they are often unwilling to accept that they have a privileged status in our society.  Black men, in particular, will notice the absence of black men in the room while not giving a second thought to the absence of women, especially black women. Put candidly, black men see race as a shallow tool for discrimination, but do believe that gender “differentiation” is valid. Just yesterday I tweeted that there should be 50/50 representation in the ANC Top 6 and was promptly put in my place with “50/50 in the NEC is good enough”. And a female President? Never!

Many of the responses to Jellars, some from well respected men in marketing, ranged between the predictable accusations of jealousy to the “If you don’t like it, start your own” response, made famous by proponents of white privilege. Those who benefit from privilege respond defensively when it’s pointed out, citing the inadequacies of the marginalised groups as the reason for their omission rather than honestly admitting that they were simply not considered.

The most telling responses, however, were from women, many of whom admitting that until Jellars pointed it out, they had not noticed the absence of women in the campaign.

Default setting

Although our country had taken enormous leaps in moving towards a non-racial, non-sexist and inclusive country (we can argue on whether those leaps are always in a right direction later), sexism is going largely unchallenged and is helped by the reluctance of many women to stand up against it. Some women genuinely fear the retribution based on their own circumstances, a large number do benefit from conforming to the rules of patriarchy, and many more would rather avoid the risk of being branded a feminist.

It’s important to point out that the Play Energy Drink Heroes campaign is probably just an example of the default setting of our society and should not necessarily be seen as an active act of discrimination. Just because this particular campaign is sexist, does not mean that Play Energy Drink’s brand is sexist. However, companies must ensure that there are conscious interventions to ensure adequate representation or the unconscious prejudices of ordinary people will taint their brands. Furthermore, should they find themselves in the middle of such a politically incorrect oversight, honest apologies trump defensiveness.

Price to pay


Despite my initial discomfort with the BEE payout I soon realised that an important part of eradicating the effects of privilege is for those who are negatively affected to fully and openly accept all forms of compensation. Questioning our worthiness for reparation only reinforces the privilege through our own self-doubt. The large sum of money received because I am black, is actually a very small price to pay for the cumulative effects of racial discrimination suffered by myself and my family over many decades.

Play Energy Drink will probably have to save face by finding women for the next round of the campaign, and the women chosen may feel undeserving. I hope they realise that turning down the offer will not be a win for women’s rights.

- Zama Ndlovu is a management consultant, managing director of Youth Lab, writer, activist, and anything else you'd like her to be. Follow her on Twitter: @JoziGoddess

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent  the views of News24.

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