Racist Advertising Controversy Hits South Africa’s Biggest Pharmacy Chain

(Bloomberg) — Clicks Group Ltd. will close all shops for a day and said a senior executive quit after South Africa’s biggest pharmacy chain became engulfed in an anti-racism protest against a controversial hair-product advertisement.

a group of people standing in front of a store: Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) supporters gesture during a picket outside the Clicks store in Sandton, South Africa, on September 7, 2020.

© Photographer: LUCA SOLA/AFP
Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) supporters gesture during a picket outside the Clicks store in Sandton, South Africa, on September 7, 2020.

The retailer went into damage-control mode over the weekend and apologized unreservedly for the promotion published on its website that portrayed the natural hair of a Black person as “dry, damaged, and frizzy,” while the hair of a White person was depicted as “norma.l.” The incident caused outrage on social media that showed no sign of abating on Tuesday.


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Clicks suspended employees responsible for the ad and accepted the resignation of an unidentified executive, the Cape Town-based retailer said in a statement, while all outlets will be closed on Wednesday to offer support for staff. TRESemme, a shampoo maker owned by Dutch consumer-products giant Unilever NV, also issued an apology, while Clicks removed the range from its shelves.

The matter was seized upon by the Economic Freedom Fighters, South Africa’s third-largest political party, which argues for policies that will support the majority Black population, including the nationalization and redistribution of land. The group called on supporters to barricade Clicks stores on Monday, with more than half of its outlets closing because of the protests, according to the company.

“Clicks is unable to estimate the total damage to stores given the ongoing protest action,” the retailer said. A court ruled Tuesday that EFF members mustn’t intimidate or threaten the company’s employees or customers, nor incite violence.

The shares were little changed by the close on Monday and gained 1.9% as of 12:21 p.m. in Johannesburg Tuesday.

George Floyd

Local news reports and social media posts said that two Clicks outlets were petrol bombed. A store in Johannesburg’s Sandton financial district was closed with police and EFF protesters milling around outside. One wore a T-shirt in honor of George Floyd, an African-American killed by police officers in Minneapolis in May.

Race remains a highly sensitive issue in South Africa more than a quarter century after apartheid. Nike Inc. temporarily closed stores in the country in 2018 after the husband of an employee was caught in a racism row over a video he filmed on vacation, where he praised the absence of Black people at the beach. This came eight months after Hennes & Mauritz AB shuttered outlets following protests against an online ad that featured a Black child modeling a hoodie with the text “coolest monkey in the jungle.”

Race-related protests have escalated since the killing of Floyd. This has led to a renewed push by activists for Africa to do more to confront racism and the legacy of colonial rule. South Africa’s Human Rights Commission has launched its own investigation into the Clicks matter.

South Africa’s government condemned both the “crude racist display by the advertisement in question” and “the acts of lawlessness of vandalizing and burning down Clicks stores.”

Clicks said it provides much-needed health services to South Africans and it plans to keep trading, with contingency plans in place to “ensure the safety of both customers and staff.”

(Updates with further Clicks action starting in first paragraph)

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