The Devil in the Detail

Posted on September 8 2020
Howard Feldman

The photo of Julius Malema outside a Click’s store, Monday went viral for all the wrong reasons. Sporting a magnificent pair of Prada loafers, Malema joined the protest that had been called for by his party. It would unlikely have been the image that he would have chosen to represent the Eff’s image, given that it will set you back no less than R6000, for both the left and right shoes.

It was a listener on my morning show who sent me the message, “You see. The Devil does wear Prada!”

Defenders of the fashionista were quick to label the criticism racist; suggesting that anyone who dared comment on the choice of footwear was implying that black people should not be allowed to wear such finery. A weak attempt indeed, given that for so many, the cost of both left and right shoes is more than their household income. As a result, the choice of Prada was more of a Marie Antoinette moment than the EFF would have liked. 

And that is not to say that they weren’t magnificent.

The problem with setting off a chain of events is that you have limited control of what happens following the trigger. This is true of Clicks, where the advert of a black woman with “dry and brittle” hair was compared to a white woman with “normal” locks. Clicks have been struggling to contain the fall out ever since the unfortunate campaign was aired on social media. Although most likely unintended, sensitivity around race and hair is well known. It was very simply tone deaf in the extreme.  

The EFF have not helped. Desperate to find relevance in a political landscape that seems to have rendered them invisible, it is not surprising that the leapt at the opportunity to rally the forces and seek recognition. In no time at all party Twitter feeds came alive with the language of war, and protestors being commanded by party leader Julius Malema to “ATTACK!!!”  And then, when damage was done, the EFF were quick to blame a “Third Force,” a technique that has been used before by others, generally without success. Very simply if you scream “Fire” in a crowded theatre, when there is none, you cannot blame people when they get hurt. Actions have consequences.

Two events. Both problematic. Both with consequences.

The EFF have been accused further of taking on the easy and popular fights. Instead of dealing with the scourge of gender-based violence or poverty, the claim is that the fight against a racist advert allows for a quick and effortless win. In many ways this is not a fair argument. To call out someone who is active in one area because they are not active in another, is a technique that is often used to discredit the activist. It removes the focus from the issue itself and shifts it to the personal. It is a popular strategy employed by social media warriors, as in “You are quick to condemn this, but I can’t see your condemnation of that!” It is very patently impossible for any person or any organization to take up every cause, which means that there needs to be a close link of relevance before claiming hypocrisy. If we have a beef with the EFF it should not be about the cause, but rather about the manner that in which they chose to address it.

It will be interesting to see how the EFF fares from this endeavor. The call to “ATTACK!!”, the allegations of intimidation, the damage to the stores and the suggestions of  a so called third force, along with the fact that Clicks employs more than 90% black South Africans of which 60% are women could well result in the alienation of their support base. The risk to the EFF is that base will become more and more narrow and appeal to less and less voters. The risk to the country is that the party will become entrenched in this style of behavior which will make the country even less governable than it already it.

Clicks made a mistake. They have since apologized, removed the brand and dealt severely with those who were involved. They did not close their stores and they appealed to the courts for assistance. Within weeks this will have passed, and they will unlikely be poorer for it.

The EFF’s position is less clear. Whereas no one will remember the Prada loafers (aside from me because I thought they were magnificent) South Africans are unlikely to forget the intimidation and the fear that the party instilled. All in the name of justice.