There is nothing quite like an election to bring issues of race and racism frothing over like a badly poured beer.
It is ironic that some of the most strident anti-racist voices that can be heard in South Africa these days – parliament, the media and big business – are also the loudest when it comes to perpetuating racism in this country.
Even the most superficial understanding of the persuasive power of marketing proves quite conclusively that the more the emphasis is put on race, the longer racism will remain embedded in society, in precisely the same way as frequent advertising entrenches commercial brand values in the minds of consumer.
Every now and then South Africa experiences another upsurge in incidents of racism, spawned by the stupidity of sports administrators, the breathtakingly bad behaviour of some Free State University students, politicians climbing on the race bandwagon trying to score brownie points among the electorate and the mass media seeming to almost encourage or sometimes even provoke, readers, listeners and viewers into playing the race card in the interests of sensationalism.
All one needs to do is listen in to any talk radio programme these days and you’ll hear race being used as the cause of everything from increases in crime to bad performance on the sports fields, inflation, road rage, Eskom’s mismanagement, SAA’s mismanagement and, in fact, just about any form of mismanagement you care to mention.
And big business is no better.
There are still an alarming numbers of marketers in South Africa who not only believe skin colour makes a difference in the way in which one communicates with a market but also that all black people think and act completely differently to white people. And that the aspirations of black people are different to those of whites. Which is, of course, complete and utter nonsense.
Business is so influential when it comes to perpetuating race, for example, that in spite of the South African Audience Research Foundation (Saarf) dropping race from its research database in 1997 because it found race to be irrelevant in marketing terms, a relatively small group of marketers representing some of the country’s biggest brands forced them to retain it.
What is clearly happening is that marketers are confusing race with culture. These are two entirely different things. To suggest that ‘black’ people all behave the same way and aspire to the same things is like suggesting that all Greeks, Jews, Italians, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Belgians, Swiss, Russians and Germans all behave the same way and aspire to the same things just because they all happen to have white skins.
If, in fact, all black people in South Africa think the same way and share identical cultures, why do we have 11 languages, all those different radio stations and why don’t they all support Kaiser Chiefs?
In the apartheid era, marketers used to talk about selling to the ‘black’ market and the ‘white’ market. There are still businesses that stick to this simplistic but flawed view of South African society.
You can see it in far too many TV commercials, when token representatives of certain race groups are put into ads on the understanding that this might impress viewers.
In fact, if there were a World Cup for Assumptions and Stereotyping, South Africa would win it hands down.
There have been some classic examples of just how dangerous a game this is to play.
About eight years ago when a television showcase of the world’s best advertising was being planned, SABC 1 management was adamant the bulk of commercials chosen for the series should appeal to young black South African viewers between the ages of 18 and 25.
These should be ads with black people in them carrying social messages to which they could relate.
Undaunted by the fact that the black SABC chief executive at the time publicly admitted that his favourite television programme was Vetkoekpaleis and not Generations as the Assumptions and Stereotype brigade would have expected, SABC 1 insisted that the ads had “to appeal to young blacks”.
The producers begged to be able to test a few assumptions. About 300 black viewers between the ages of 18 and 25 were polled about two of the ads featured in the first programme.
A chocolate bar commercial featured a middle-aged, overweight and clearly very rich white fellow about to go jogging along a mountain road and doing stretching exercises against the side of his shiny new Porsche. Down the hill in an old delivery truck and eating a chocolate bar, came a young black guy, singing his heart out, his dreadlocks blowing in the wind.
He misinterpreted what the white guy was doing, stopped his truck and helped him push his Porsche over the cliff.
The SABC decided the young black viewers would love that one. They’d find it amusing and would delight at the sight of their role model hitting back at a symbol of an oppressive white society.
The next ad featured a fat, crew cut whitey, tattooed to the hilt and eating a pizza liberally sprinkled with pepper sauce.
He gets bitten by a mosquito that flies away only to explode from all the hot sauce in its bloodstream.
Oh dear, the young black viewers wouldn’t like that. There were no blacks in it and the white guy looked far too much like a racist anyway.
When they were polled, however, every single one of the young black viewers loved the mosquito ad. It was just plain funny. The chocolate bar ad they felt was stupid. And who on earth would want to waste a beautiful Porsche like that?
When questioned about the racist looking character in one ad and the getting back at white oppression angle in the other, they explained that they didn’t watch TV ads for subtle messages or to see other black people. They watched them for the entertainment value and for what they were selling.
As long as 30 years ago, enlightened South African advertisers such as BMW realised that when it came to that most powerful of marketing tools – aspiration – there was absolutely no difference between the desires of black people and those of whites. Equally, aspiration applied equally to male and female as well as rich and poor.
Admittedly it was quite easy for BMW, because it didn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that all sorts of people aspired to owning a BMW – rich, poor, male, female, black and white.
So, they simply kept race and gender out of their marketing completely. So much so that today no one at BMW is able to tell you how many black people own their cars or how many women.
They realised decades ago that it simply did not matter.
But, no matter how ‘equal’ all South Africans might be in marketing terms, from the point of view of transformation Government has very little option but to have to use race in terms of implementing BEE and affirmative action that are both extremely necessary in terms of correcting the gross imbalances if the past.
But, somehow government, the media and big business need to apply their minds to managing the process of race without perpetuating racism. It is not easy, but at least giving some consideration to the issue will a step in the direction of lowering racial tensions in this country.
And perhaps the first step must surely be to draw a very clear distinction between race and culture.