The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation on January 11 wrote to H&M stores requesting a meeting following the publishing of the company’s racist advert.
Several days ago, outrage ensued across various media platforms when H&M published photos of an African child wearing a hoodie with the phrase ‘Coolest Monkey in the Jungle’, contrary to the one worn by a white child with the words ‘Survival Expert’.
The Foundation requested a meeting to get an understanding from H&M about how such a racist advert could have passed by the company’s marketing team, and its management, without the racial undertones being picked up.
The letter, which was sent to both its global headquarters and to its local offices, stated, “It is of serious concern that your company published the advert without considering the historical context of how the word and image of a “monkey” has been used to racially demean black people for generations.”
The Foundation also raised that this was not the first time that H&M had come under scrutiny with regards to its response to racial insensitivity. In 2015, the company came under criticism from a social media user for not featuring black models following the opening of their stores in South Africa. The company’s response via Twitter implied that white models were featured to create a ‘positive image’.
“These two incidents are perhaps indicative of the type of ignorance that continues to prevail around issues related to race, perhaps not only at H&M, but in the broader advertising sector and in society in general,” said the Foundation’s Executive Director, Neeshan Balton.
H&M has subsequently agreed to a meeting with its country manager, which the Foundation is considering. “The Foundation would use the opportunity to urge H&M to see the incident as a platform to effect change within the company. We want to get an understanding from the South African offices of how they have understood the incident and to get an overview of how they intend to remedy the situation. We would also like to communicate to them why they have a responsibility to do more to ensure that the company understands the anger that the racist advert has generated. We intend expressing why it is imperative that H&M’s directors, management and its marketing division, both globally and locally, undergo compulsory anti-racism and diversity training, so that there can be a change of attitude within the company around issues related to race.”
Balton added that prior to the company’s agreeing to a meeting, it had merely sent to through “a bland and automated response” to the Foundation, which included its public apology. “The Foundation had intended organising a series of peaceful demonstrations, the first of which was suppose to take place outside the Sandton store today. We had engaged with several South African celebrities, including Motlatsi Mafatshe, who had indicated an interest in being part of today’s picket. After this weekend’s protest by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) though, we cancelled the demonstration.”
Balton said that “while it was important for racism to be challenged, and to be challenged visibly, the Foundation would have preferred that protest action around the issue be undertaken without vandalising stores. Over and above the fact that it is workers who would now have to clean up the mess, action as we had seen over the weekend lays the basis for change to be instituted out of fear, and not because of a genuine willingness to do so. Eradicating institutional racism requires working with organisations and companies to ensure that they not only understand the issues at hand, but know how, and remain committed to changing policies, structures and procedures to comply with anti-racist values,” he said.
“We would however, like to commend South Africans for ensuring that the issue remains a talking point and we hope that the strong condemnation of the advert is translated into meaningful action against racism within the retail and advertising sector as a whole. This year, Anti-Racism Week will again be held from March 14-21 and the proposed theme is ‘Rooting Out Racism’. We hope that we can garner the efforts of all South Africans during this period, not only in raising awareness about racism, but in generating ideas on how to root out deep-seated racism within various sectors,” Balton said.