Paddy Harper: Anti-racism is the mane thing


Day 168 of the national lockdown.

Like most of my compatriots, I’m waiting eagerly but nervously for the next “Fellow South Africans” from the head of state, and some indication as to whether or not we are really over the hump of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The apparent drop in the daily infection rate and the improvement in the number of recoveries are pointing towards some kind of an announcement from President Cyril Ramaphosa, at least over the weekend. 

Some kind of a movement from #Ratherstaypozi to crack on, albeit in a level one fashion, wouldn’t hurt, after five and a bit months of lockdown. A swim in the ocean wouldn’t hurt either. Durban’s beaches still aren’t open for swimming, but the city’s lifeguards are busy with fitness training and the Sharks Board is getting ready to start relaying the shark nets, so it won’t be that long.

The Clicks/Tresemmé/Unilever hair products boycott has been under way in the Harper household for several days already. Not that a bald head and twice monthly chiskop requires much in the way of shampoo. Or conditioner for that matter. 

Sadi, the local barber, was fervent in his reassurance that the razor blades and hair-shaving cream he uses weren’t from any of the three when I went for a shave this week.

I believed him: the packaging had Arabic script on them, so it’s pretty unlikely that he will be paying some casually racist advertising agency ponytail’s cocaine bill at the end of the month.

My better half is — or should I say was — a Tresemmé user. All manner of variants. Shampoos. Conditioners. Conditioning shampoos. Right up until they showed their real colours.

One frizzled and damaged bad hair what-what on Facebook and a tornado hit the bathroom. In seconds, the shampoo and conditioner bottles were emptied and flushed and hurled into the bin. 

The hurricane moved to the bedroom, in search of further racist products to purge. She appeared to be almost disappointed when the hunt came up empty, as if her desire to cleanse the premises wasn’t yet satiated.

Money is tight. We’re still waiting for our July payment from the temporary employer/employee relief scheme, following the mayhem that led to the Unemployment Insurance Fund being suspended and the payments audited from scratch. 

Despite this, I coughed up for a small lorry load of (hopefully) anti-racist products to replace those that went down the toilet with a smile.  Solidarity. It’s not only about not giving my cash to racists, casual or otherwise. All the replacement products came from small manufacturers, rather than a multinational corporation and from small pharmacies or hair salons. 

It’s not gonna break Unilever’s bank, but it’s the right thing to do.

So was the call for a boycott by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), even if, personally, I would have chilled a little with the petrol bombs and store trashing and focused more on ensuring that Clicks management continues to pay their workers for the days the chain’s stores are closed. 

Then again, I’m a bald, white, male non-user of hair products, with neither the right — nor the inclination — to police the anger of the EFF’s membership or anybody else who joined the picket line outside Clicks stores this week. 

Consumer boycotts were a powerful political weapon in the 1980s that often turned violent, with tragic consequences. They still are. Thankfully, nobody got hurt in this week’s protests by the time Clicks management got the memo and closed their doors instead of trying to force the issue and stay open.

The truth is it’s highly unlikely Clicks would have closed its doors, or would have fired anybody, or that they and Shoprite would have pulled Tresemmé products off their shelves, even for 10 days, if the EFF hadn’t taken to the shopping malls and the streets the way they did.

Clicks opened its stores, business as usual, on Monday, happy that an SMS to club members and a couple of half-hearted apologies on social media were enough to satisfy the people they insulted while keeping the till turning over.  

That’s stupid. And arrogant.

Then again, they had every reason to be. 

Until Monday, there had been no pressure from the Public Investment Corporation, the major shareholder in Clicks. Not a whisper from the trade and industry ministry, organised business, organised labour. Dololo from the governing party.

Nothing, keyboard warriors only, until the picketing and the store trashing started on Monday.

Perhaps the talks between the EFF and Clicks and Unilever management will deliver a result, address the systemic racism that allowed the adverts to be published in the first place, ensure that somebody is held to account, that the workers who lost hours this week are paid for the time. 

Perhaps they won’t.

Either way, the Clicks/Tresemmé/Unilever hair products boycott in the Harper household remains in place — even though my bald pate doesn’t need any of it.

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Paddy Harper
Paddy Harper

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