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A look at the rebel political group who trashed H&M’s South Africa stores

The Economic Freedom Fighters protested against the brand’s ad featuring a black child in a widely criticised sweatshirt

The Economic Freedom Fighters, an opposition party in South Africa, stormed and ransacked several H&M stores across South Africa this past Saturday (January 13). The protest was organised by the EFF in response to the H&M ad featuring a black child wearing a sweatshirt with the inscription, “coolest monkey in the jungle”, which has been widely criticised as racially offensive.

The protesters marched in song into the stores – in Sandton, Menlyn Park, and East Rand – creating enough of a scene to force H&M to close their doors; they upended clothing racks, dismantled mannequins, and pulled down any advertising on display. Mall security attempted to intervene before the South African Police Service were called, and rubber bullets were fired to disperse the crowds in one instance. The REZA Crime Network has reported shots being fired at the East Rand H&M.

Social media backlash to the group’s physical demonstration has been divided – much of the criticism has centred on the protest being violent, causing mass damage and making labour for retail workers more difficult, rather than the actual people in power. Support has otherwise been passionate, focusing on how the movement succeeded in making a loud, clear statement against a reflection of systemic racism. However, less has been made about EFF as a political party that has navigated South African social, political, and economic issues in which these ‘violent’ tactics are rooted in.

The EFF has exploded the dripping tap of the ‘angry youth vote’ and flooded both party politics and parliament, creating a space in South African discourse where the people’s frustrations with political stagnancy can be held up.  A space where student movements like #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall can be dreamt up, organised, and have a seat at the table. The language and actions of the EFF moved away from the politeness of parliamentary rhetoric and encouraged majority black youth, angry around being trapped in a generational poverty cycle, to adopt more creative, attention-demanding and explicit political theatre.

The conception of the EFF came as a response to the African National Congress (the ruling party of South Africa and Nelson Mandela’s party) and its failure to pull the country out of a racially divisive system. The system continued to marginalise the majority of the population two decades after the first democratic election in 1994. The ANC has enjoyed a majority vote for being the party that liberated the country from the oppressive regime of Apartheid, but are increasingly up against the ever-increasing rate of poverty and corruption.

On this, the EFF emerged as a radical splinter group of the ANC. A number of EFF’s central leadership were ANC Youth League leaders who were sidelined and formally disciplined for being too ‘troublesome’.

A mere 10 months before the 2014 National General election, the EFF launched their candidacy. Clad in working class, Marxist-esque finesse; red berets, red overalls, red domestic workers’ aprons and gumboots, they gained 6.9 per cent of the national vote, a major feat, considering the time-frame and the nature of opposition politics.

To put this in perspective, out of 29 contesting political parties, only 13 managed to gain parliamentary representation. In addition to this the official main opposition of the country, the Democratic Alliance, has slowly built up their seat share to 89 seats over 20 years, whereas the EFF gained 25 in a matter of 10 months.

The arrival of the sea of red berets has changed the political landscape as we know it by adopting techniques of disruption; taking to the streets of overlooked and ignored communities to share and publicise their political agenda with protest songs and well branded party regalia, blatantly ignoring parliamentary decorum to the point of being forcibly removed from the National Assembly, and storming institutions symbolic of white imperial supremacy  – in this case H&M – stores.

These techniques of disruption have definitely pushed South Africans into a level of discomfort after years of the Truth and Reconciliation amnesty, silent, forgive-and-forget nature of the socio-political discourse until the EFF. This discomfort manifests itself in social media outrage but, at the same time, never before has such a large constituency of the country been politically interested and engaged.

This is the second time H&M has made an ‘unintended’ marketing error in South Africa. When the South African flagship store opened in Cape Town in 2015, it was queried by the public (over 70 per cent of the South African population is people of colour) questioned why there was a gaping absence of black models in its displays. H&M’s response was that the marketing plan was formulated with the intention to ‘convey a positive image.’ They basically implied that  black models did not fall into messaging around ‘positive images.’

More criticism of the protest points out that the demonstration came days after an official apology issued by H&M. EFF national spokesperson, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, tweeted in response: “H&M is not the last one… the time for apologies for racism is over; there must be consequences to anti-black racism, period.”

H&M spokesperson, Amelia-May Woudtra, in a statement issued shortly after the protests, said the company was aware of the South Africa store property damage and would only reopen stores once the safety of their employees and customers could be guaranteed. Police and riot procedures are in place to monitor the situation, however there were no injuries and no arrests across the several locations.

The attention given to the H&M protest on an international scale reflects EFF’s political theatre agenda of disruption, a bold and urgent movement that’s working to shake silent complacency.