I am writing this from Cape Town, South Africa, where it took a while to load the 53 second Youtube video of the latest Nando’s ad (embedded at the end of this paragraph), so I am not sure how “it is going viral” as the local press would suggest. Though viral here also means about 300,000 people viewed it on online. In any case, Nando’s is the South African fast food chain that makes “Portuguese-style” chicken (it’s really Mozambican).  They have  “global” ambitions, initially in places with large South Africans diasporas–in the UK, US (in Washington D.C)., Australia–but increasingly also elsewhere: for example, Dubai and a few African countries (I once ate at a Nando’s in Dakar). Here’s the ad:

Nando’s claims the ad is a comment on xenophobia.

For those who have not seen it yet or can’t watch it online, it opens with scenes of black undocumented migrants crossing the country’s border while a voice-over says: “You know what’s wrong with South Africa? It’s all you foreigners.” The ad then cuts in quick succession to a series of stereotypes and references: Chinese (yes, offloading goods), Indians (trading), Kenyans (in running gear), Afrikaners (yes, a farmer with dog in front seat and black workers in the back), Zulus, Tswanas, and Sothos, etcetera. It is unclear what reinforcing these stereotypes is supposed to do. All these people, once we’re introduced to them, disappear in puffs of smoke. The only person who survives the puff-of-smoke effect is “a traditional Khoisan man” who, using expletives, says he’s not going anywhere because “you found us here.”

South Africa’s public broadcaster, SABC, then announced it would not show the ad on any of its three channels. Interestingly satellite operator DStv and the country’s only private terrestrial channel ETV also announced they would do the same thing. But the SABC got the most flak.

It does not help that South Africans  are now obsessed with saying everything is banned. So of course when the SABC–synonymous in the media and the suburbs with “ANC dictatorship”–clumsily announced its decision to not show the ad (its spokesman said the SABC was concerned “that the public might interpret [the ad] differently”). The papers predictably insinuated that it was a “political” decision and that the ad was “banned.” Curiously, DStv and ETV weren’t subject to the same judgment–in their cases, it’s just good business to censor the ad).

This being the country where the media acts like they’re writing/reporting from Somalia and North Korea as political researcher Steven Friedman puts it so well, the usual social media hysteria followed.

Nando’s CEO went on about “freedom of expression” and “censorship,” though he failed to tell reporters that Nando’s withdraws its own ads when it is not good for business.  Nevertheless, you can still watch the ad online (that is if you can wait for it to download while in South Africa).

But what about the ad itself? The reporting here on the content of the ad has been very poor–to put it mildly.

I actually find the ad unfunny and problematic. It basically endorses, on the one hand, the white right-wing parliamentarian Pieter Mulder’s willful denial of South Africa’s violent history especially on land dispossession  and on the other hand it bolsters the similarly ahistorical and ethnocentric claims of coloured nationalists who are all “Khoisan” now (that category in itself is a 20th century construction since the two–Khoi and San–that make up “Khoisan” are separate, distinct peoples and a majority of coloured people actually trace much of their ancestry to slavery or “mixed” relationships).

In the final analysis this is about Nando’s wanting attention for its brand and getting that attention; the brand thrives on “political controversy.”  The only result that matters: Nando’s will sell more peri peri chicken.

Of course, I asked those in the AIAC “office” for comments. Here’s an edited version of the conversation.

Melissa Levin: I totally agree with you. That’s how I read it too. That we are all ‘colonizers’ and the fight was one between groups of land invaders. In addition, it persists in buoying the nonsense about cultural identity, diversity, multiple groups making up the South African fabric–no majorities and minorities, blacks and whites, but Xhosas, Afrikaners, etcetera. “We are all minorities now.” The contest over the meaning and content of public life is quite brutal it seems.

Daniel Magaziner: Unfunny and problematic is putting it kindly. The ad traffics in the long disproved ’empty-land’ thesis on the early 20th century, which held that South Africa’s current residents–whether white or black–were conquerors, who had displaced the subcontinent’s legitimate inhabitants. If both whites and blacks were conquerors, than what right could Africans possibly have to cry foul at land dispossession and segregation? Bantu-speakers (the ad’s fast disappearing array of Zulus, Tswanas, Sothos, etcetera) had simply lost the great game of imperial conquest to the whites. Boo hoo. Let’s not even dwell on how the ad’s comparison between Kenya and Lesotho, Cameroon and ‘Zululand’ traffics in apartheid era claims that Bantu-speakers’ legitimate homes were in the Bantustans (including those supposedly pure ethnic enclaves beyond South Africa’s ‘white’ borders), just as whites were legitimate in their white republic. And the stereotypes, oh, the stereotypes. Although I enjoyed the running Kenyans, I found the the Boer in the bakkie with the dog in front and the workers in the back a little too real. Nando’s chicken is delicious; its historiography and social criticism less so.

Basia Lewandowska Cummings (@mishearance): It’s strange that they portray the ‘Khoisan’ guy at the end in some with a kind of hip hop style aggressive cool. Why make him swear? I suppose the only interesting thing the advert throws up, other than a brilliant array of stereotypes, some dubious looking chicken and a poke at xenophobia, is: whose place is it now to question social realities like xenophobia?

It’s interesting why Nando’s feel they can/should comment on it, and think that it’s a lucrative means of advertising their product. And if advertising will increasingly become a place to address these concerns, can we predict that it will continue to fall into such crude, stereotypical, de-contextualised ‘advert-myths’ like this one? Also, with a range of only 2 apparently ‘diverse’ styles of chicken their product isn’t even very diverse. 2 types of chicken is still only–using their own analogy–just black and white.

Herman Wasserman (@hwasser): I think there are various issues here that have become conflated in the somewhat predictable public outcry against ‘censorship’.

For one, there is the feeble attempt at humour that falls flat. I also find the ad unfunny–as a joke, the ad does not quite gel, perhaps because it takes itself too seriously. Then there is the ideology–problematic to say the least. The ad flattens out history, denies any possibility of asymmetrical distribution of visibility among competing cultural identities, and ignores the relationship between ethnicity and political and economic power. “We are all just foreigners here,” it tries to say, “so don’t come and make any claims to restitution or redress. If those people in Alexandra could just learn to laugh at themselves, they wouldn’t have gone and burnt immigrants alive.” But the lack of humour and problematic ideology aside, I do think the refusal to screen it was misguided. The SABC’s claim that it had ‘xenophobic undertones’ missed the point. It was meant to look like xenophobia, not hidden away underneath, but so exaggerated that the very possibility of xenophobia becomes impossible. By refusing to screen it, the TV channels bought into the current discourse about ‘media freedom under attack’ and lent gravitas to an ad that wouldn’t have attracted half the attention it has if it were allowed to disappear among the many other mediocre ads on television.

Mikko Kapanen (@mikmikko): Nando’s has always presented a moral conundrum to me: I like their vegetarian burger, but find their advertising very off-putting and this advert is perfectly in line with their TV advertising strategy. It has got practically no connection to the product they are selling, millions of Rands [the local currency] have been thrown into its production and it’s offensive. I am not even one of those people who are looking around for things to be offended by, but this just is. Just like probably every advert by Nando’s I have ever seen. I think textually these visuals have been analysed spot on here by others (empty-land etc.), but purely from a production point of view, I’d say that even in general this is a very typical South African TV advert. The advertising industry–having observed it in action especially in Cape Town–is very detached from the majority of South Africans, but they are too proud, stubborn or just unaware to admit it. I remember a friend who is an industry insider telling me how his white supervisor had told him with no irony or regret that in advertising “white is aspirational” and as a logical consequence of that they didn’t have to understand the Black cultures of South Africa while coming up with adverts to them. Many industry people also focus so hard on trying to win the TV Laurie (advertising award) meanwhile most radio adverts are pretty terrible regardless of the relative efficiency of that medium. No other country I have ever lived in has had such abundance of locally produced expensive looking TV adverts that effortfully try to connect the product and its potential consumers–and Nando’s is just one of the companies that have climbed on this ox-wagon.

Brett Davidson (@brettdav): Of course I’m sure that as long as people are discussing the ad, whether positively or negatively, Nando’s is happy.

Herman Wasserman: Yes, Brett, Nando’s might even be happier with the ad being ‘censored’ and gaining credibility online than having it screened on TV. But does this whole saga not also point to a certain failure of mainstream media, commercial or public, to engage their audiences in an informative, creative and entertaining manner in debates about race, culture and power? When these issues enter media debates, it is often done in such heavy-handed manner that audiences become fatigued and then the repressed racial tensions in those dreadful comments at the bottom of online news stories that we see everyday on South African based websites.

Lily Saint (@lollipopsantos): The manner by which people are eliminated (by a puff of smoke) is pure euphemism. Meant, I suppose, to recall various moments in South African history when different groups featured in the ad were targets and victims of brute violence, would the ad still have any claim to humor if people were shot dead by bullets instead of lamely evaporated into clouds of smoke? While there is certainly offense to be taken in the stereotypes and exclusions in this ad, the real problem as others have pointed out, is the erasure of actual histories of violence that continue to plague the present. By making light of these the ad wants to make consumerism the only identity that can unify people–the pun on “real South Africans love diversity” of course evokes national, ethnic and racial diversity, but more ominously speaks to the rhetoric of “choice” allowing us all to think we are free agents while keeping us spoon-fed capitalism.

Melissa Levin: On Brett’s earlier point. He is spot on. There is something important to be said about the multiple ways in which public space is increasingly privatized. Whether it is football teams that are owned by big business rather than supporters, or public parks that are sponsored by private companies, whether it is the roll-back of basic state services that are doled out to the well-connected or whatever. In this case it is a business that sells its product by both defining and giving meaning to the issues of the day. So public space is increasingly occupied by corporate soundbites. At the apparent end of history, social issues are addressed through buying a bag to end hunger, for instance, or eating ‘anti-xenophobic’ chicken. I cannot help myself but to carry on yelling about this and giving the chicken people more air-time, because I am all for the post-Nazi adage that suggests that the imperative of humanity is to be at home nowhere. That way, we make no claims above another. I am against the trite evocation of this theme that reinforces the politics of difference and the political imperative of being nice. The dominant exposition of the idea of culture transfers an idea of a categorical, immutable, static identity from the notion of race which we must no longer have an appetite for. But the claims are similar. Someone else has spoken of this process of trading race for culture as being neo-racist.

Kathryn Mathers: This discussion keeps making me think back to those SAB (the now multinational South African Breweries) adverts from the 1980s [and through the 1990s], you know, the perfect embodiments of South African cosmopolitan masculinity both black and white getting together in a bar for beer? I am pretty sure it was the 80s because I remember discussions about how they were filmed when black and white couldn’t drink in the same bar and how technology was used to paste together two separate but equal (sic) scenes. (There are also the post-apartheid versions like the Klippies “eish/met ys” romance.) I have always found those advertisements confusing since they were certainly utopic if you believed in a nonracial South Africa but they could not have been simply aspirational since it seemed pretty clear that the majority of potential SAB drinkers did not aspire to a nonracial South Africa. This discussion is making me wonder how these two advertisements are part of a long tradition in South African media that has less to do with erasure of violence past and present than with its displacement. By shifting the terms of racism/xenophobia rather than trying to erase them, which would be near to impossible, it makes it much easier to live with, making viewers/participants doubly implicated ultimately not just for the violence but for trying to hide it in plain site. I argue that this is a gesture typical of romanticized images of Africa in the US where the white savior is made possible not by the erasure of Africans but by their relegation to a backdrop or by the kind of move that Disney’s Animal Kingdom makes, which is not to ignore the social/political challenges of the continent but to bring one of the less disturbing ones forward, big game poaching, even in the context of an amusement park. Nando’s does not try to suggest that South Africans are not xenophobic–rather they show how everybody is xenophobic but we can still laugh about it so it doesn’t really matter, thereby displacing the problem without denying it, and making it  even more invisible than erasure would or could.

Tom Devriendt (@telamigo): The male voice-over is the “Voice of Reason,” holding the moral high ground: “This is your history. History is not how you live it.” Reason trumps experience. The advertising genius trumps the consumer. But a stereotypical hypocrite is hard to visualize in a one-second shot. So the soutpiel, not for the first time, is let off the hook. There’s no time for self-criticism in the ad world.

Herman Wasserman: Good point, Tom. Perhaps this points to the invisibility of white South African English normativity and supposed ideological neutrality.

Melissa Levin: To Tom and Herman, I thought the white couple in the fancy car that were referred to as Europeans are the souties? And ‘even the Afrikaner’ who disappears is clearly another category of identity.

Herman Wasserman: Melissa is right. Appropriately, the English white stereotypes in the ad are not in some ‘tribal’ gear but can fit in anywhere looking thoroughly modern as we know.

Tom Devriendt: That, or–how I read it–it is a generic reference to the tens of thousands Belgian, Dutch, German or English immigrants that have made South Africa their home over the last decade — “Bought this house in Clifton for a steal!”