Men and women wearing red political shirts chant in front of a department store in South Africa

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'Racist' hair care ad in South Africa sparks demonstrations

An advertisement published online last week by Clicks, a South African pharmacy and beauty supply chain, prompted outrage on social media and accusations of racism.

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Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) protest outside a Clicks store in Soweto, Johannesburg, Sept. 7, 2020, calling for the closure of the stores around the country.

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Shiraaz Mohamed/AP

On Tuesday, demonstrations against a hair care advertisement continued across South Africa, after the campaign was run online last week by Clicks, a major pharmaceutical, beauty and health retail chain. It prompted outrage on social media, with many people calling it racist.

The ad pictured a Black woman with curly hair that was labeled "dry," "damaged," "frizzy" and "dull."

On the other side, was an image of a white woman with blonde, straight hair. Hers was labeled "fine," "flat," and "normal."

Related: How US protests highlight 'anti-Black racism across the globe'

“It’s obviously sending out a message that Caucasian hair that is straight and bouncy is normal, and then the other hair that you’ve said is damaged is abnormal."

Evenes Mafupa, Natural Sisters, natural hair care blog

“It’s obviously sending out a message that Caucasian hair that is straight and bouncy is normal, and then the other hair that you’ve said is damaged is abnormal,” said Evenes Mafupa, who runs a popular natural hair care blog called Natural Sisters from her home in Johannesburg. 

“In a country where the Blacks are the majority ... It’s quite saddening,” said Mafupa, who stopped chemically straightening her hair in 2011.

She remembers how difficult it was to transition to natural hair in the first place. People thought she no longer had the money to straighten her hair or buy weaves and wigs.

“Some people thought I had fallen on hard times,” she said, laughing. “I couldn’t 'afford' a relaxer anymore. A lot of people kept asking me when I was going to do my hair.”

Related: What South Africa can teach the US on racial justice, reconciliation

But sentiments have also been changing, she notes. Her videos instructing women how to make braids, locks, twists and cornrow styles often garner thousands of views on YouTube.

“When you go out with twists or chunky braids, it’s more positive compliments than the negative ones I was getting,” said Mafupa. “Now it’s more, ‘You’ve got beautiful hair. I love your hair.’”

That’s what made the ad so hurtful, she notes.

For the South African political party Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the ad was enough to spark protests. They called it racist and urged Clicks to close its stores this week.

“All of us in the morning are reporting to the nearest Clicks stores, to make sure all Clicks stores in South Africa remain closed,” said Marshall Dlamini, secretary-general of the EFF in a video posted to his social media account. “Members of the public: Please notify us through social media of any Clicks shop that is open.”

Clicks has since formally apologized and removed the advertisement, which it said was created by the company TRESemmé, an American brand whose products are stocked at Clicks stores. In a statement, the company promised to prioritize diversity and inclusion programs.

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“We fully understand the pain and hurt that this has caused South Africa, particularly our Black customers,” said the company’s CEO, Vikesh Ramsunder, to a local Cape Town radio program. “But there’s no way we can condone violence,” he continued, referring to the vandalism of some Clicks stores, including one that was burned. 

The retailer initially said it would keep stores open despite the protests, saying it provides “a much-needed health care service to South Africans,” but later said it would close nationwide on Wednesday in order to support its staff.

But Ntombenhle Khathwane says Clicks needs to do way more than apologize. She’s the founder of Afro Botanics, a natural hair and beauty line whose products are also stocked at Clicks.

While she doesn’t support the damaging of Clicks stores, she was encouraged by the outrage of consumers. “I’m glad someone did something,” said Khathwane, who notes how Black women’s hair has historically been demeaned in South Africa.

“I’m a Black woman first, before I’m an entrepreneur,” she said, calling the advertisement a “slap in the face.”

Clicks has been supportive of her and her company, so the advertisement surprised her. But she says it reveals a structural problem in the company, and in other major companies in South Africa.

“This economy is still very much white-owned. ... It’s very important to have representation. Diversity goes a long way in making sure businesses don’t make these types of mistakes."

Ntombenhle Khathwane, founder of Afro Botanics, a natural hair and beauty line

“This economy is still very much white-owned,” said Khathwane. “It’s very important to have representation. Diversity goes a long way in making sure businesses don’t make these types of mistakes,” she said. 

In a statement on Tuesday, Clicks said it would remove all TRESemmé products from the shelves, to make room for local hair care brands. Other retail stores announced today that they would follow suit.  

The company also said it accepted the resignation of a Clicks senior executive over the controversial ad. 

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