That Woolworths’ Tribute to Nelson Mandela

As a heritage studies scholar, I have been absorbed observing the unfolding of commemorations around Nelson Mandela’s passing. The kinds of tributes paid by corporate entities and companies have especially caught my attention. This phenomenon is a feature of public commemoration globally, with corporate entities sponsoring messages of tribute following sudden national tragedies, the death of celebrities or public figures of esteem.

In South Africa, big brands such as Coca-Cola, Boeing and Sasol have, for example, claimed large tracts of advertising real estate as they have staked out their tributes to Madiba. These kinds of tributes are fascinating because they pose difficult questions about the lines between commemorations and marketing activity; between sentiment and self-interest. Are corporate entities really well intentioned in celebrating Mandela the freedom fighter or are they merely using these tributes to position their brands on the right side of history?’

Nelson Mandela presents a complex, complicated, even contradictory set of public images that have been cycled and recycled in ways that allow many stakeholders to appropriate and mobilise his legacy. Of course corporate entities do not have a responsibility to uphold civic values; but that does not mean we cannot engage in a case-by-case scrutiny of how – and in what ways – these mediated projects seek to pay heed to the core values and ideals Nelson Mandela stood for, when they pay tribute to him. As an example, I want to look at one popular, well-intentioned and well-received South African corporate sponsored tribute dedicated by the South African retail chain, Woolworths. This tribute is framed as a flash-mob of singers from the Soweto Gospel Choir singing the struggle anthem  cross-over hit Asimbonanga inside a Woolworths store.

It opens with a series of candid camera style shots depicting the store and a series of predominantly white customers. This choice of cinematic style immediately situates the video in the visual tradition established by the master of South African candid camera, Leon Schuster, who is known for black-face parody of subalterns in his films and movies that continue to attract large audiences in South Africa.

The singing then ensues having been initiated by one worker who appears to be working a counter area. He wearily wipes the counter top and slowly but resonantly starts singing the lines of the anthem…

Woolies and Soweto Gospel Choir 6

…which is then echoed by other ‘workers’ in the store. Indeed, the singers are all black, and are portrayed predominantly as Woolworths employees: as shelf-packers, cashiers and staff who manage the day-to-day operations that uphold the trade in high-end goods to a predominantly white South African public. And so, we enter into the image of the happy, singing, black South African labourer who toils away at soul destroying work with a sense of self-denial but who also find sustenance in a “vernacular tradition” of singing that sooths the struggle of hard labour. This is the image of the backbreaking black labour that built up apartheid, which is poetically captured by Gerard Sekoto in his vivid, evocative painting, The Song of the Pick.

Shots then feature customers first looking concerned and a little anxious as black workers start gathering together in song. 34 seconds into the video we cut to a shot from a surveillance camera.

Woolies and Soweto Gospel Choir 10

This serves as a form of reassurance against the background of disturbance in so far as it asserts the primacy of a dominant, authoritarian white gaze. This is the Benthamite, Panoptic gaze. It is the gaze of the prison and the prison warder, which can be paralleled with the uniformed workers, like uniformed prisoners, labouring in this tribute. The entire video is shot in the confines of a Woolworths store, suggesting that the retail store can be construed as a kind of post-apartheid total institution. Nevertheless, the image of the uniformed workers strikes an immediate contrast with the iconic uniformed prisoner who is Mandela. It also enables an image of workers as dangerous, workers who harbour criminal intentions and who need to be closely monitored. This is the image of contained, domesticated worker unrest, which forms a striking contrast to Marikana.

Woolies and Soweto Gospel Choir 8

As the singing continues, the audience anxiety transforms into curiosity and excitement. The workers gather together in formation in the fruit and veg section singing before what is now a mixed crowd of customers holding their cellular phones aloft trying to capture the scene. We see one black worker shuffling in between shots smilingly serving snacks to the audience. Another ‘singing black customer’ hands out roses.

Woolies and Soweto Gospel Choir 9

The middle sequence features a number of shots of black customers ogling the singers, eagerly capturing their compatriots rousing performance. This reinforces an image of the apparent diversity of the chain’s customers.

Woolies and Soweto Gospel Choir 4

Watery-eyed smiles accumulate rapidly towards the end of the video when the singing is most resonant. The audience observes silently, or captures the performance on their phones but refrain from singing along. This suggests a kind of class divide between the cultural life of the working classes and the middle and upper classes who are entertained by such public theatrics.

Woolies and Soweto Gospel Choir 3

The singing concludes with the choir members throwing up their fists signalling the struggle heritage of the anthem.

Woolies and Soweto Gospel Choir 5

This is met with voluble applause from the crowd of customers, some of whom are shown to be wiping away tears. There are many surveillance camera shots packed into the concluding scenes.

The singers disperse quietly and an image is created that, very quickly, business returns to normal, suggesting a return to normality, a return to Woolworths operations, the stasis of order, of black labour and white and wealthy consumption, that Mandela may have died but Woolworths is still there. A message of tribute then flashes onto the screen in Woolworths branded typeface concluding the 3 minute long video.

Woolies and Soweto Gospel Choir 11

What to make of this? Judging by the comments on YouTube, many South Africans would not have read the tribute in this way. Who can judge public mourning? But that does not detract from the reality that this well-intended, well-meaning tribute presents itself as a basket of unintended narratives that are hard to associate with what Nelson Mandela struggled for. Indeed, it is a supreme irony that this video reproduces some of the very injustices Nelson Mandela struggled against and re-presents them as a tribute to him.

How can we judge the ways in which such commemorations are framed and the ways in which South Africans go about consuming tributes? There are many such hypocritical, contradictory commemorations circulating in the South African media space at the moment. Such mediations offer a stark representation of the contradictions that structure post-apartheid South African society. But they also present a serious indictment on how far we’ve come in relation to the apartheid past, the transition, and the kinds of post-apartheid futures mediated commemorations like this enable. It appears we still have a long struggle going forward after we’ve wept and laid the past to rest.



Duane Jethro

South African Duane Jethro, is a PhD student in social and cultural anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

  1. Dear Duane, dear aaiac,

    I respect your work, especially in recent months you have been a helpful and important source for reflections on Mandela that refuse simplistic hagiography and instead point to context, complications and communal struggles then and now.
    On this video however I beg to differ. I have cracked my head and heart about the complicated fact that Woolworth as a company sponsored this, about the fact that unlike in other musical flashmops, the singers were not disguised as passers-by or shoppers, but as workers. I ve struggled with the issue of gaze in the video that re-inscribes hierarchies between white shoppers and African servants. These issues can’t be wished away – but neither do they take away the profound message in the performance and the music itself. I find it telling that the analysis remains at the level of the visual. Including the obvious emotional impact or even just the lyrics would have made this less of an easy exercise in reactive deconstruction. Again: The criticism is valid, and deconstruction is important in a context where literally everything is being used to marked brands. But that is not all that is happening there. The song has a meaning, and not taking this into account also repeats an unwholesome patttern of not confronting African speech, contents, agency and intentions. The lyrics are:

    Asimbonanga [we have not seen him]
    Asimbonang’ uMandela thina [we have not seen Mandela]
    Laph’ekhona [in the place where he is]
    Laph’ehleli khona [in the place where he is kept]

    Asimbonang ‘umfowethu thina [we have not seen our brother]
    Laph’ekhona [in the place where he is]
    Laph’wafela khona [in the place where he died]
    Sithi: Hey, wena [We say: hey, you]
    Hey, wena nawe [Hey, you and you]
    Siyofika nini la’ siyakhona [when will we arrive at our destination]

    (native speakers: please correct and enhance this copy and paste knowledge taken from but corroborated with other sources)

    Please note that the latter part of the lyrics is accompanied by gestures in which the singers point at each other but also at the shoppers. here, some of the palpable consternation of the white shoppers who get very alert especially in be beginning, when the singing starts comes full circle: Yes, it is about them, and their role in answering these questions. But its not only about them – the singers point at everyone, including each other. What are we all doing to arrive at our destination? Are we even on the right path?

    1. TOO deep an interpretation but what the video shows is just reality. I loved it and it made me cry. That´s the South Africa I love. That kind of spontaneous movement that arises anywhere and slowly Involves everyone, including tourists, is what makes South Africa so magical!

      1. Patricia, I find this advert sad exactly because you embrace it as “reality”. We could ask, 20 years ago, was this the kind of “reality” we imagined for post-apartheid South Africa, where workers perform for customers/consumers? If not, why is that the case? What other “realities” could corporate entities fashion for us in the kinds of media we consume?

  2. I can’t help but feel that if the singers had been dressed not as workers but as shoppers, that the tribute would have felt more appropriative. There is a subtle reminder within this, not just of the stereotyped happy singing labourer, but of the class and race dynamics of the anti-apartheid struggle. The choice of cross-over music rather than a struggle song, however, is also surely pertinent. As both a corporate and a communal commemoration, this music is recognizable across race lines, and encourages communal rather than insider/outsider identifications. Similarly, an acapella choral piece, whether it in fact produced communal participation or not, sonically indexes participation and community, while this particular piece which incorporates a non-verbal cry, and then dissolves into a communal, wordless cry, enacts public mourning. As an interlude that allows us at least a momentary imagined sense of the working world pausing to mourn, it’s a comforting gesture.

  3. I liked hearing your perspective on this. The only thing I want to say is that the nature of a flash mob is to surprise, but they could probably not storm into Woolies without permission… and Woolies would have wanted to get something out of it, hence the members of the performance dressed as employees. I’m not trying to smooth over the very valid points you make, but in my idealism I assumed that they did it that way because of the logistics of the flashmob. Then again, I’m not a performer.

  4. If Woolworths workers did this prior to 1994 they would be fired and arrested. If Woolworths workers did this today to protest economic inequality they would lose their jobs. Everything about the flash mob is fake. the concept of a flash mob is fake, a little bit of street theatre at its best.

    1. I think you captured some of the sentiment I was getting at well. A crude way of putting it would be to ask, what do you call a group of black workers singing and gesturing in a retail store? A protest.

  5. What a bunch of political rubbish. All one has to do is observe the passerby’s to realize the sincerity of the moment. I wish I had been one of them; clearly it was a moving tribute.

  6. That this video – commercially cynical or simply inspired – or otherwise is a tribute worthy of Mandela..let’s not descend into pseudo-intellectual sideshows.. This video could not have happened 23 years ago under any scenario…that’s the real truth to be embraced.

  7. I feel you are looking too deeply into this, but then as a white person who has worked in that kind of job, while it is not amazing, I would hardly describe it in the derogatory words you use either. It is a good job to have. I know that in the South African context that work is usually colour-coded, but an interesting aside is that a white person would probably not be able to get a job in Woolworths like that if he or she wanted to. This is a complex society we live in. What really bothered me in this video was the simple fact of Woolworths cashing in on the Madiba brand. Also what interests me is that Asimbonanga is very popular amongst white people but Johnny Clegg never had much of a following amongst black people in South Africa – so it does feel as if this tribute was targeted to white people for that simple reason.. That song has become more popular amongst all South Africans recently though. It also reminded me that white people are more in the position of audience in South Africa, where the active participants are more and more the black people. Which makes sense to me.

  8. Thank you so much for writing about what I recognised INSTANTLY as the most deplorable and ill-timed Guerilla marketing ploy I have ever seen. I was starting to feel like I was crazy for thinking it when so many others seem to be carried away by so much sentimental shmaltz. Sis Woolworths! Manipulating a time of powerful public grief to enhance your public image. If it was truly a tribute or even truly a flashmob, there would not have been a Woolworths logo in sight. It was staged, planned, filmed to perfection. An advert! Nothing more than an advert!

  9. Reads like something written by a BA student trying too hard to be clever, or a mean-spirited attempt to besmirch something that thousands of people OF ALL RACES appreciated as a genuinely beautiful and meaningful tribute to Nelson Mandela. Your analysis goes too far to find negative qualities that were obviously never intended – you see only what your prejudice allows you to see! My understanding is that it was a collaboration with the Soweto Gospel Choir who was responsible for choosing the song “Asimbonanga” as a fitting tribute to Madiba. I’m pretty sure that they did not perceive their performance as being an allegory for the perpetuation of some of the most vile aspects of Apartheid. The fact is that the Soweto Gospel Choir had been working with Woolworths for some time on an advertising campaign using the song “I feel good”, and on the Thursday evening when the news of Mandela’s death broke they had been practising that song for a performance to promote the Woolworth’s “Reach for a Smile’ charity initiative. Under the circumstances it would have been entirely inappropriate to have gone ahead with that performance on the Friday, therefore they decided to do the tribute to Madiba instead (I believe with no motive other than to honour Madiba). To equate that performance with what Leo Schuster does is sick. Perhaps you should ask the Soweto Gospel Choir how they feel about this, or find something constructive to do with your education, rather than as someone else put it: “descend into psuedo-intellectual sideshows”.

  10. Warum wird diese Performance auseinander geredet? Ich konsumiere die Kunst, den Song, die Performance. Ich unterstütze die Contribution to Nelson Mandela. Deswegen gehe ich nicht (häufiger) in diesem Shop einkaufen. Liebe Leute, also warum immer gleich Böses dahinter vermuten?

Mailing List

Sign up for email updates!


Not the continent with 54 countries

©Africa is a Country, 2016