Cape Town – While H&M deals with a furore which has erupted following what has been labelled a racist advert, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation on Monday said it was not the first time that H&M has come under scrutiny regarding 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’,” the foundation’s executive director Neeshan Balton said in a statement.
“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.”
The retailer recently caused outrage after it showed a black child in a sweatshirt with the words “Coolest monkey in the jungle” printed on it.
H&M has since apologised and removed the image as well as the sweater from retail, saying it was “investigating internally to ensure this can’t ever happen again”.
The foundation said it had requested a meeting with 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”.
In the letter, which was sent to its global headquarters as well as its South African office, the foundation said it questioned how the advert had been published “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 company had agreed to a meeting with its country manager, the foundation said.
“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,” Balton said.
“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 said a series of peaceful demonstrations had been planned after H&M initially sent it “a bland and automated response”, including their public apology.
“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 though, we cancelled the demonstration.”
On Saturday, EFF supporters trashed stores in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town in response to the online ad, and on Monday, protesters gathered outside the H&M store in the Mall of Africa.
Balton said it was important for racism to be challenged, 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.”