Some time ago, clothing store Zara marketed an item that looked like an overrun from the now defunct Auschwitz clothing line. Jews around the world were deeply offended that anyone could be so oblivious to their painful history. They were also perplexed because the item was really, really ugly. And so Jews protested and the product was removed. And no mannequins were harmed in the process.
And everyone was happy.
Contrast that to the H&M situation. H&M were wrong. It was as stupid as it was insensitive to market a hoody worn by a Black child with the work “Monkey” on it. The term has been used as a racial slur for decades and many a friend has told me of the incredible amount of hurt that was rekindled by this campaign. H&M is an international brand and greater care needed to be taken to ensure that no one would be offended by any image. It’s not their first day in this business.
Condemnation, as in the case of Zara, was swift. H&M withdrew the brochure, apologized for their decision and everyone should have been happy.
But they weren’t.
South Africa, and particularly the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters), the third largest political party, led by Julius Malema, reacted violently and the mannequins bore the brunt of this tale. H&M stores were ransacked, items were looted — all in the name of the war against racism.
It is easy to explain the difference in reaction towards these two incidents by writing off the EFF as hooligans or even political opportunists. This might even be the case. But that is a simplistic and knee-jerk response. What is more important is to try and understand why it is that people reacted with such anger towards H&M.
I believe that the answer lies in the way in which the past has been dealt with for Jews of Europe in contrast to Blacks in South Africa. The painful wound of the Holocaust is one that will never fully heal. The 1930s and 1940s in Europe will remain part of the Jewish consciousness forever. No matter how far Jews might travel from this horror, it has become part of who we are as a people.
But as Jews, we have been allowed to face our past We have spoken, written, filmed and memorialized. We have made movies and we have been compensated financially. Germany has apologized and still has laws in place today to deal with the embarrassment of their history of their making. One visit to Berlin and a tourist will see how much part of current Germany this remains.
Jews will always be saddened and even devastated by the Holocaust, but the anger has dissipated. And it was not just time that achieved this.
Contrast that to South Africa where many painful and difficult conversations are yet to be had. South African Blacks who suffered under apartheid have not been compensated fully (BEE has not achieved this) and the past has not been fully explored. When change did take place, the people of the country rushed to embrace the “Rainbow Nation”” imagery, which although wonderful in theory, was premature. The country, and particularly those who suffered, needed to go through a process of mourning, something the goodwill and the best intention denied them.
What this means (to me) is that as a people who have suffered and have had to deal with the most terrible past, Jews are equipped and able to assist South Africans in dealing with theirs.
The anger that was unleashed by the H&M advert is an indicator that the matter is far from settled and that much more needs to be done to close the ugly chapter of South African history.
The EFF’s behavior was unacceptable. They are a political party and they need to uphold the law and respect the alternative legal processes that are available. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have a little more understanding of just how painful and unsettled past can be.