Since the dawn of our democracy 26 years ago, many articles have been written, and press statements issued, condemning acts of racism. Countless media conferences, workshops, seminars and training events have been held on the issues of racism, race, and race relationships in our country.

The main aim of these efforts is to build a rainbow nation that is non-racial and non-sexist – where all South Africans can live in harmony and peace, where everybody has equal opportunities and shares the wealth of our land while redressing the injustices of the past. Our past is one where black people were not treated with the dignity becoming human beings and were marginalised and robbed of the opportunity to participate in the activities of the economy and share in the wealth of the land. These injustices had profound and extremely negative consequences on black South Africans, the majority still living in these conditions as we speak.

When we talk about poverty we might say that poverty has a face and that that face is black. Likewise, when we talk about inequality, it has a face and that face is black too. Also, when we talk about the high rate of unemployment it has a face and that face is black, and when we talk about gender-based violence it has a face and most often that face is a black woman. The root cause of these challenges we face and are dealing with lies in the dehumanising effects of apartheid and the racist policies that decimated our social fabric.

Consequently, any reminder of these racist policies and attitudes by anyone will be met – and should be met – with strong resistance, outrage, condemnation and anger by all South Africans. We must close down the space of racism and racist attitudes in our society and ensure that those who display them are never again comfortable in our society.
It is in this context that we have been confronted by an advertisement – commissioned by the TRESemme hair company and carried on the Clicks Pharmacies’ website – comparing two photos of black women’s hair with two photos of white women’s hair, labelling the black women’s hair “dry and damaged” and “frizzy and dull”, while the white women’s hair was labelled “fine and flat” and “normal”.

This unfortunate portrayal has brought back horrifying memories for many, opening up old wounds of pain and suffering caused by systemic racism experienced by many black people. Most black people continue to suffer under this ugly systemic racism and South Africans and people around the world are fed up and have come to a point of intolerance – rightfully so. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to this evil amongst us, we have a responsibility to confront and defeat racism whenever it raises its ugly head in our society and our communities, including in our board rooms and commercial spaces.

In this day and age, one would have thought that when it comes to racism, very few people would dispute what is right and wrong. Except for extremists, no one would endorse racism. Just about all of us know nasty racist behaviour when we see it and we need to fight against systemic racism, embodied in many of our societal institutions and corporate spaces. We must continue to oppose it until we have defeated racism in all its forms.

I’m reminded of our late former President Nelson Mandela who said: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of their skin, people must learn to hate and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”

Racism has brought so much human suffering over the years and continues to do so. It is very disappointing and discouraging to see that it persists in our society – particularly in the context of business. In the wake of the Clicks hair advert debacle, the company has decided to remove all TRESemme products from its shelves after an advertisement posted on the retailer’s website was labelled as being racist.

The company also issued an apology to all South Africans for the racist advert saying ‘’We would like to issue an unequivocal apology. We have removed the images which go against everything we believe in. We do not condone racism and we are strong advocates of natural hair. We are deeply sorry and will put stricter measures in place on our website’’.

They also went further to say all Clicks employees responsible for publishing the advertisement have been suspended and it has accepted the resignation of a senior executive.

All reasonable South Africans should accept this apology from Clicks, but the real question that should be asked of Clicks and its Executives is, where was the process that was supposed to safeguard against blunders like this that caused such hurt and continues to divide South Africans?

Clearly, something is missing when an advert dehumanising black women’s hair is missed by everybody and makes it to their public website. It is not good enough for Clicks to just blame the junior staff in the company, where were the decision-makers in the process?

I think it is about time that corporate South Africa realises how much damage blunders like this do to all our efforts to build a united and peaceful South Africa. The rainbow nation can only be achieved by everyone playing their part in whatever space they occupy.

It would be wrong to paint everyone with the same brush when it comes to racism. We know that many companies are doing a great job to promote transformation and equality and are redressing past injustices. To those companies, we want to say to you we need your voices to be louder in condemning all forms of racism.

Those companies who still lag behind on the issue of transformation under which the majority of South Africans are still suffering, we say it is about time that you take stock and reflect on your processes, policies, values, culture and what your company stands for when it comes to these issues. If your employees and staff know what your attitudes, culture and values are, they will surely behave according to those boundaries.

If a company’s processes, policies, culture and values condemn racism and discrimination, it will come naturally to the employees and staff of that company to behave that way. Blunders like this would not have happened because it would have easily been picked up by the system.

If we are going to defeat racism and discrimination in this country, organisations like the Business Unity South Africa and the Black Business Council, as well as civil society, religious organisations and churches, amongst other organisations, must intensify their fight against racism. We cannot afford to let our guard down until racism has been defeated.

It is with great sadness that we learnt this week of the passing of George Bizos, the uncompromising Human Rights Lawyer and Anti-Apartheid Activist, best known for being part of the legal team that represented the Rivonia Trialists which included Mandela, Sisulu, Mlangeni and Mbeki. May his soul rest in peace – he ran his race and finished it well.

Comment by Pastor Ray McCauley


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