Ebrahim Fakir questions what it means for the future of democracy if debate around the Clicks hair advert was shut down, allowing only one prevailing view.
"I’m going to do my hair" is a phrase that will no longer convey an innocent sense of self care, or the sense of fun and frivolity, that it once did.
The recent advert for TREsemme shampoo by Clicks, one of its retailers, has recentred the "politics of hair" after one of its adverts was considered to be "racist".
Thanks to the valiant struggle by the EFF against the shampoo - not forgetting its bravery in what is now commemorated as the "battle of H&M" waged by the party against mannequins – talk about hair will no longer be innocent and non-political. Hair has a long history of being political, and politicised, anyway. But was the Clicks advert "racist" to begin with?
Acts of demeaning racism, the stripping of blacks of dignity through policing their hair (or other bodily features) are all historical problems and real manifestations of racism. So are modes of racist repression and social control through the use regulatory instruments such as the notorious "pencil test" of the past. Or in contemporary workplace and school rules regulating the length, size and shape of acceptable hair, often see young black girls and professionals demeaned because of the nature of their hair.
The condescending (mis)representation, caricature and mocking of black hair in the art and beauty industry has been equally problematic. As is the corporate culture in South African business.
This is true even in a company like Clicks, despite its seemingly good transformation credentials - on local content on tradeable stock, local procurement, board representation, employee share ownership and other worker benefit schemes.
But these issues are independent of the now notorious advert.
In the panoply of problems that South Africa faces – poverty, inequality, ineffective leadership, underdevelopment, environmental and infrastructure degradation, mass unemployment, corruption, racism, community decimation, criminality, civic immorality and ethical erosion - the Clicks advert is not one of the most important, or even egregious, ones.
It, however, took on the status of the "issue of our time", even creating a moral equivalence to aspects of apartheid.
Those wanting to accord with a view that gained increasing momentum, went along by characterising the advert as "unconscious bias", unintended, but racist and offensive all the same. But it was nothing of the sort.
It was a mere advertisement displaying bad hair, both black and blonde. It was perhaps boring, dull, insipid, mediocre and uninspiring - but not racist. Insistence that the advert is (or was) racist, leaves one wondering whether the advert that was published was the advert that was actually seen, or whether a manipulated, redacted, or photo-shopped image of it, was?
Recognising the heritage, history and politics of hair and hurt, that the (mis)representations of black hair and the misuse of its texture as instruments of repression, exclusion and social control, it remains puzzling how a description and diagnosis of bad hair - both black and blonde - became the denigration of black hair exclusively, and why the Clicks advert continued to be singled out as racist?
It should be obvious now, that the insistence that the advert was offensive, was a political ploy - given to lies, false comparisons and scarcely believable hyperbole.
The advert, patently, is about bad hair in general, which if the product was used, would give you better hair. It is what advertisements do. Sell you a product to fix problems.
The advert did not suggest that black (or blonde) hair, in particular is bad, or problematic. It suggested that all hair could be.
The same advert depicts "fine and flat" blonde hair as limp, lifeless, listless, simply hanging without any body or volume. On the side of that advert is, an obviously admiring depiction of lustrously gorgeous black hair, under the moniker "professional hair". This is clearly identifiable and obvious in the advert. It is not mysterious or metaphysical.
It can only be a failure of basic literacy, the distortion of the ordinary meaning of words and the contortion of its meaning that could lead to the conclusion that the advert could be characterised as racist.
The debate that followed was consequently – dishonest. Its protagonists, mendacious.
A corporate behemoth, a multi-national business, and an entire society – was duped and manipulated – for the rational, but expedient interests of a political party - the EFF.
In this, they were aided by self-absorbed, feint elites - intellectuals and academics to boot. In an effort to prove their supposedly progressive credentials, they sacrificed a fidelity to truth born of facts, all in a capricious and craven mendacity to please politicians and assuage their own insecure political convictions, especially on the issue of race – a constructed reality operating as a social fact.
By typifying the advert as tantamount to a company disrespecting black women in the worst possible way, the advert was construed as a demeaning of "black identity", stripping black women of dignity and, at the fit of its pique, even invoked the notorious apartheid era "pencil test" to create a (false) moral equivalence.
Such hyperbole was given to the manipulation of public sentiment arising from residual frustrations bequeathed by apartheid and retarded post-apartheid societal transformation. This anger is understandable. But its insecurity betrays the brittle and insecure "black consciousness" that the current generation of South Africans claim as their heritage. Worse still, it debases real acts of rife social and corporate racism.
When debate is prosecuted on the basis of manipulated sentiment devoid of facts – truth is debased and becomes immaterial and meaningless. Fictions take on the status of facts and fantasy is mistaken for reality in which those in power continue to evade responsibility and accountability.
Society was easily duped by hucksters into believing that the advert was racist.
Characterisations of the advert as racist started a few days before the EFF latched on to it, but it was clear from the very beginning that the momentum was being built towards a misplaced, culturalist protest about the advert.
Those who joined the chorus of the charge "racist", opportunistically, then also proceeded to condemn the disruptive and destructive behaviour of the EFF, as "violent and destabilising" – which it is. But what else did they expect after their enthusiastic encouragement and deliberate mischaracterisation of the advert?
It is impossible have it both ways.
Especially not if typification of the Tresemme advert by Clicks was regarded as racist, offensive and demeaning of black hair. It is not possible to call the advert racist while simultaneously condemning the EFF's response to it. If there is unanimity, and it appears that there is, that the advert was disabling, debilitating, demeaning - even comparable to the pencil test - then surely such an evil can only be responded to, to use a popular cliché, "by any means necessary". The EFF’s response in such circumstances ought to surely, be considered commensurate and legitimate?
Those who suggest that the EFF should have pursued other avenues, are being hypocritical and contradictory.
The political and governance landscape is consistently characterised as being littered with hollowed out institutions. Legal and accountability processes are inconsistent, manipulated and incapable of imposing remedial action, imposing sanction and extracting punishment.
The repeated refrain is that society does not take racism seriously, that a failing government, a lacklustre NPA, a weak Human Rights Commission, a weaker Public Protector and seemingly non-existent Commission on Gender Equality are wholly ineffectual.
So, where else was there to go and what else was there to do?
It is not possible to both rubbish institutions and then bemoan the lack of confidence in using them?
The reality perhaps, is that the "outrage" was disproportionate to the (un)witting offence, or the reprisal incommensurate with the purported wrong committed?
Clicks and TREsemme apologies
Ordinarily - given that Clicks and TREsemme have now issued an apology, and agreed on terms with the EFF, that this matter ought to now be closed. But it is uncertain that the apology was sincere (or even necessary) - given that something descriptive and diagnostic was typecast as racist, stigmatising and demeaning. That the manufacturer and retailer were forced to apologise for the purportedly racist offence caused by the advert, does not confirm that it was so. Their act of contrition is not so much an admission as calculated concession to curb the disruption to operations and enable continuing commercial activities.
But the debate on the advert, and the offence it supposedly caused is instructive for democracy and the heritage of democracy and development we bequeath.
Debate on the advert was shut down, or "cancelled", to use a popular misnomer, by vitriol and insult, based on sub-rational and emotive appeals to a "social evil", racism, which in this instance did not in fact exist.
Society was robbed of an effective discourse, and distracted from problem solving on major societal issues.
The truths that may have been evident in the dissenting views on the advert, were suppressed.
False views, even if they are in the majority, could not be debated and corrected. And even if the unpopular view was incorrect, the prevailing view would have had an opportunity to correct it. This was foreclosed.
The violent and vitriolic foreclosure of debate through destabilisation, violence and the myopic invocation of the culturalist "cancel culture" of regressive elites, have now left us with a society on bended knee – genuflecting and servile before crude populism and unmediated anti-democracy and anti-development.
This sentimental culturalist over-reaction through disruption, destruction and destabilisation is "rational" for the EFF. That it is rational, does not mean it is right.
The EFF is involved in a campaign to pursue power (and influence) for its own sake and accrue the rewards and spoils that come with it for their leaders and a small coterie of hangers on, and the emerging "culturati" in the media, academy, celebrity and commentariat, that support them.
They are not necessarily interested in solving societal problems, certainly not in ways that disturb or distract from their core purpose – that of power and primitive accumulation, or ascendency into powerful professional positions of influence.
Having been in the political wilderness for the past six months, the EFF and its coterie needed to both, reinsert themselves into the news and media cycle, while also raising resources.
An unwitting and pliant media merrily went along in providing precisely what they wanted. Instead of simply being a noted news story it took on headlines status on an endless loop, unending features and the primary subject of "talk radio" and newspaper columns.
But what are the more direct and pernicious consequences for politics?
Obviously, this was neither the product of deliberated democratic debate, nor the kind of politics produced by stable organisations, where arguments and disagreements are mediated through institutions constraining violence and advancing solutions to real problems. Rather it is the kind of debate and type of politics that trades on fictions, elevates fantasy, undermines truth and renders institutions irrelevant, propagating the mediating of solutions to problems through the fantastic, the spectacular and spectacle of violence and destabilisation.
Without a fidelity to honesty, facts and truth – this is the future we face.
- Ebrahim Fakir is an independent political researcher