‘Racist’ ad by South African drug retailer triggers protests as stores are damaged

Francis Akhalbey September 08, 2020
The company has since pulled down its ad that compared a Black woman's hair unfavorably with the hair of a White woman. -- Screenshot via @pelomasebe on Twitter

A shampoo advertisement shared on the website of South African drug retail giant Clicks Group on Friday drew the ire of locals who deemed it “racist”, triggering protests in the country.

The protests forced the pharmaceutical company to close over 400 of its stores nationwide after seven were damaged by protesters who gathered there on Monday, Reuters reported.

The ad in question – which has since been taken down – drew comparisons between a Black woman’s hair and that of a White woman. In two separate photos, the Black woman’s hair was labeled “dry and damaged” and “frizzy and dull” while the White woman’s hair was described as “fine and flat” and “normal.” The advert was for a campaign by Unilever subsidiary, TRESemmé.

Though the company issued an apology after the backlash saying they “do not condone racism” and are “strong advocates of natural hair”, protesters, led by Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), demanded they shut down for at least a week, according to Reuters.

“White people insult us and then they apologise, they think that’s the end. We are no longer going to accept any apology which is not accompanied by justice,” Malema addressed protesters who gathered outside one of the company’s stores in Polokwane. “Who is punished for projecting black people as ugly people?”

The South African government also released a statement on Monday appealing to demonstrators to stop damaging the company’s stores though it is also “equally disturbed by the crude racist display by the advertisement in question.”

“The acts of lawlessness of vandalizing and burning down Clicks stores that have been reported today are concerning and go against the spirit of peace and respect for human rights that has shaped this country since the dawn of democracy. Engaging in lawless behavior is not a responsible way to resolve conflict,” the statement added.


In the wake of the protests and as pressure mounted, the CEO of Clicks, Vikesh Ramsyunder, released a statement saying the employees who oversaw the publishing of the ad on their site have been suspended.

“Already, the negligent employees have been suspended, and we have engaged the supplier, who has now also issued an apology,” Ramsyunder said. “This incident has highlighted the need to audit all of our 3rd party (and our own) promotional material for any implicit or explicit bias as well as the need for diversity and inclusivity training for all of our head office employees. This will be urgently implemented.”

TRESemmé South Africa and Unilever also released separate statement apologizing.

“We are very sorry that images used in a TRESemmé South Africa marketing campaign on the Clicks website promote racist stereotypes about hair,” the statement said. “The campaign set out to celebrate the beauty of all hair types and the range of solutions that TRESemmé offers, but we got it wrong.”

It added: “We are looking into how this happened and why it wasn’t picked up, and we will take all necessary steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Apology not enough

Meanwhile, the country’s Minister for Small Business Development, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, has rejected Clicks’ apology and called on the retail giant to remove all TRESemme products from its shelves, Eyewitness News reports.

“The continuous undermining of black people, of women and black young people is because economically not strong enough. So if Clicks are serious about being a good corporate [company] in South Africa, they must contribute to that inclusive economy and say how many of their products are made by black women and how many of their products are suitable for black hair,” Ntshavheni said.

Members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have reportedly started convening outside Clicks stores nationwide on Tuesday for another day of protests.

Last Edited by:Nii Ntreh Updated: September 8, 2020


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