It’s like a flashback to some long-forsaken time ago, when Europeans arrived on the shores of South Africa and turned their noses up at black people. Only this time it’s 2015, and the arrival is the Swedish fashion brand H&M.
It began last week, when South Africans on Twitter blasted H&M South Africa’s response to a query from Capetonian Tlalane Letlhaku, about why the brand featured few black models on its posters in its V&A Waterfront store. In a revealing response, H&M tweeted it sought to convey a “positive image”, suggesting black people don’t fit that description.
Marketing campaigns are meant to drive as many people as possible through the door, yet in 140 characters H&M South Africa alienated the country’s 80% black population. What does that say about H&M’s target market? Are black people undesirable to the brand?
Besides being discriminatory, it makes no business sense. One of the key findings of a 2012 PwC report, entitled South African Retail and Consumer Outlook 2012-2016, was that an emerging black middle class would be critical to the success of the retail economy.
“Total retail sales will continue to expand steadily from 2012-2016, driven in particular by the continued emergence of a black middle class,” said the report.
History is fraught with narratives suggesting the darker your skin tone, the more unpalatable you are – it’s the very essence of racism. But in a time when brands are tweeting ads to millions of followers of different races, backgrounds and creeds, you’d expect them to try to be a little more progressive.
Already, public spaces are highly contested in Cape Town, with black residents battling to be treated with equal respect in restaurants, stores or even just walking on the prettier side of the mountain.
We don’t need international brands to swoop into our city to take up more space, only to have it declared “whites only” through their lack of representation. It might seem frivolous, but representation in pop culture is as important as representation in the boardroom; pop culture is everywhere.
It took 10 years for Glamour South Africa, a popular local magazine that began in 1939 in the United States as Glamour of Hollywood, to publish its first cover featuring a black South African woman – in 2014.
Around the world, models have shaken the fashion industry to wake up and do better so that young black girls can see themselves in the billboards they look up to.
“I began modelling because I was that young girl looking into the magazines and wondering why I didn’t see more faces like mine looking back at me. Whatever tiny impact it made, I wanted to empower the young black women around me,” VV?Brown, one of the first black women to model for Marks & Spencer, wrote in the Guardian.
In South Africa, blackness is still only palatable when it is marketed as a hungry child, a helpless woman or a criminal. In a country where the majority of the population is black, it can no longer be acceptable for brands to represent themselves with white models.
H&M South Africa eventually apologised for its blunder, saying: “In no way does H&M state that positivity is linked to an ethnic group.” But the damage was already done. “We want our marketing to show our fashion in an inspiring way, to convey a positive feeling,” H&M tweeted back to Letlhaku.
A response like H&M’s is an exercise in memory erasure. It tries to teach us there are no inspirational or positive black men or women.
But when I read those words, my mind jumps to Bertha Mashaba, one of the leaders of the 1956 march by 20 000 women against the pass laws and who fought for better wages in her time at the South African Clothing Workers’ Union.
I remember factories in Salt River once filled with black and coloured women who laboured at sewing machines in Cape Town’s textile industry just to bring home a few shillings for their families.
There’s no doubt that the story of black women is the story of oppression. But black women have been the sparks of change that have altered our country’s trajectory. Perhaps H&M South Africa should think about that when they’re looking for a positive image.
Ra’eesa Pather is a journalist, photographer and avid Twitter user. Follow her @raediology