Blackface: Fresh as the sea and funny, or tired, racist bull?

Imagine our feigned surprise at AIAC when blackface reared its head again, this time in a South African advertisement for the Cape Town Fish Market. The ad (below), posted on Youtube earlier this week, uses air quotes as a device to set up a series of scenes that are supposed to sell us on the idea that unlike other people, when the management of the Cape Town Fish Market says their fish is fresh, they mean fresh, not “fresh”, nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

In the offending scene, a white actor is painted black (screen grab above) and puts on an Afro wig and a stereotypical “black accent” to portray a corrupt African dictator dipping into his “expense account”, if you catch their drift. Yes, you read correctly. The ad uses blackface to play on the tired trope of a corrupt dictator from a nebulous, nondescript African state. It’s a double blacking up of stereotypes, because corruption and dictatorial tendencies are not uniquely African. That the two have such a strong association when corrupt, authoritarian politicians have been a global phenomenon throughout history has a lot to do with the enduring appeal of the idea that Africa was better off under its white colonial masters.

Watch for yourselves:

What did genuinely surprise us was that the agency behind the ad, Lowe Cape Town, part of the Lowe and Partners SA group, said it received overwhelmingly positive responses from its “diverse” pool of test viewers of staff and clients prior to flighting the ad and that it continues to receive positive responses after it hit the airwaves. A quick search through social media suggests their staff and clients might not be as diverse (or as ready with a forthright view) as the agency thinks.

The agency also said: “We do feel that it’s unfair to compare the scene to ‘blackface’ as we are obviously parodying the scene and using a familiar cliché (as we do it all of the other scenes). If the advert was being flighted in Europe, we would most likely have chosen an Irish Banker as the character as it’s important that the viewer closely relates to the cliché.”

This, folks, makes the scene classic blackface. The performance would fail without playing up for a receptive audience (whoever that may be) a prejudicial racial and national stereotype; that black African leaders are corrupt dictators in this case. Drawing on a racist art form used historically to reinforce stereotypes about free and enslaved black people in pre-civil war America (and eventually about black people elsewhere) makes it even worse. Irish bankers, frankly, have not been subjected to anywhere near the kinds of misrepresentation, subjugation and dehumanization. Only those adept at making the gross and unpalatable “fresh” would draw an equivalence between the two to defend their actions.

* One of the arguments Lowe and Partners SA used to justify the blackface was that they wanted the actor to portray “an African dictator.” We think a potentially funnier and fresher take would have been to parody a white African dictator. And there are plenty of candidates to choose from, including real historical figures. Watch out later today as we give Lowe and Partners SA a chance to redeem themselves to reshoot the ad by picking from our recommended list of white African dictators.

UPDATE: Here’s the list of white African dictators



T.O. Molefe

T.O.Molefe is an essayist based in Cape Town, South Africa. His book 'For Blacks Only and Other Ways Of Being Black' will soon come.

  1. Sounds like you’re a young guy that resents the fact you were born too late to fight anything important. This whole post almost seems like one long personal attack. At who?

  2. This piece falls some way short of your usual high standard.
    It’s also horribly – dangerously – one-sided. Your cherry-picking of tweets and your use Lowe as the sole representatives of the other side of the argument is disingenuous and rather disappointing.

  3. South African advertisers need to catch a wake up. Ads are tired and use utterly boring old cliches (only women feed their children or change their nappies; black dictators, etc). Imagine that: SA advertisers that are actually creative.

      1. Yes, it is easy. And it’s also necessary. I’m a consumer and member of the audience that these ads are aimed at.

  4. When I read your article, I completely agreed with you and felt horrified that people would do something like this – sounded completely racist. But then I watched the advert and I think you’ve blown it a little out of context. Because the point of this advert, I think, is that it’s one actor portraying a whole lot of stereotypical caricatured roles. Which places it in a completely different sphere. So unless you’re also going to argue about the stereotypical depictions of women, German people and all the other characters he portrays, I think you’re argument is flawed.

  5. Maybe I am very naïve, but this ad is very good, due to the fact that they could take something like corruption that, not only in South Africa, but all over the world, is a fact! Unfortunately for RSA, when people hear our country’s name, the first thing they think of is corruption. Can’t say it’s racist when it is an actual fact that we have loads of corruption.

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