UKZN Webinar on Why Black Identity has Remained in the Margins of Corporate Companies in SA
Following the social media outrage sparked by a Clicks online post that featured a TRESemmé advert, UKZN’s Corporate Relations Division hosted a webinar titled: Why does Black Identity Remain in the Margins of Corporate Companies in SA?
The webinar was facilitated by a lecturer in the School of Education Dr Mlamuli Hlatshwayo, while the panel consisted of former Public Protector and current Social Justice Chair and Law Professor at the University of Stellenbosch, Professor Thuli Madonsela; consumer journalist, Ms Wendy Knowler; a senior lecturer in Economics, History and Development, Dr Maserole Kgari-Masondo; Professor Rozena Maart of the School of Social Sciences; and a PhD candidate in the Centre for Communication, Media and Society, Ms Shannon-Leigh Landers.
The advert showed pictures of White women with glossy hair referring to it as normal, alongside images of Black women with hair described as “frizzy and dull”.
Noting examples of how the “corporate normal” had incorporated a narrow view of what normal was in South Africa where less than 10% of the population was White, Knowler questioned the issue of flesh coloured plasters - available in white skin tones- and highlighted how this was countenanced by manufacturers in South Africa and Africa at large. ‘If you are White or working in areas of “whiteness” you don’t pick up that your normal, isn’t everyone else’s version of normal - you don’t see the problem the same way many men don’t see sexism.’
Acknowledging the divides that still exist in South Africa years after liberation and “the legacy of White being normal”, Knowler encouraged corporates to watch Muhammad Ali’s Why is Everything White interview with the BBC that was still relevant today, almost 50 years later.
Examining the “condemnation of blackness”, Madonsela mentioned the book by a main architect of apartheid Dr Hendrick Verwoerd, who was the Prime Minister of South Africa when he was assassinated in 1966.
The book titled, Verwoerd: Architect of Apartheid, shares his culture and the narrative he was fed of the “other”.
Referring to the different types of racism that exist and the spectrum in which they operate, Madonsela focused on ‘unconscious bias as an internalised form of racism that is not verbalised and only seen when people act, known as unarticulated premises.’
Turning to the Clicks advert she said the only way unconscious bias could be resolved was if people stopped being indifferent to difference and if South African corporates started examining their fear of “blackness”. Madonsela said unconscious bias was ‘the most toxic form of racism and the most difficult to fight as it does not express itself clearly.’
‘The greatest challenge we have in corporate South Africa is that we haven’t reimagined the world. We’ve been raised in an environment where difference is dichotomised - Black and White, men and women, national and foreigner, are seen as better or worse.’
Challenging the ideals of beauty for cosmetics companies around the world, Maart described how the TRESemmé advert had relied on the internalised racism of Black people to draw on their buying power.
Discussing the decolonisation of corporations, Maart asked whether ‘we can live in a capitalist society, under which conditions, and who will be exploited?’ She highlighted how capitalism relies on the exploitation of the colonised and how corporate management has always been White while those, in their eyes, that needed to be managed were Black. She discussed ways in which capital had been accumulated through the use of Black people’s human capital and intellectual property.
Addressing the difficulties faced in making flesh coloured plasters for a wide range of skin tones, Maart said: ‘When we say making the word flesh, we are saying making our word truth, making the word speak to our existence as human beings. If we have not been regarded as human beings how can we think about our flesh as being testament to what is even acknowledged as human,’ she said.
Kgari-Masondo read a though provoking poem about the lack of Black identity in organisations and institutions, calling on the nation to question what it meant to be human in the 21st century she focused on issues of identity and race as social constructs. Kgari-Masondo said the only way “blackness” could be embraced was through the concept of change.
Highlighting how important it is to understand that change occurs in episodic waves and that relapses were to be expected. She called for identity to be based on the principle of Ubuntu and to encompass key values that defined human beings such as love, care, respect, hospitality and participation. Observing the importance of decolonising laws and policies to align with Black consciousness, she urged White people to immerse themselves in “blackness”.
Landers discussed the semiotic meaning behind the Clicks advert, delving into the role of afro-textured hair and how it had always been politicised to measure privilege and access. This kind of politicisation had caused ‘Black people to have internal trauma and a complex relationship with their hair.’
Raising the issue of representation in terms of values, she said the problem with corporate South Africa could be found in their core values and how they chose to represent the society they lived in. Promoting transformation as an important way forward, Landers suggested that basic education, codes of conduct, the teaching of history, and access to main stream media needed to change.
Words: Hlengiwe Khwela