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Women wear traditional attire in Ndebele Village in Mpumalanga, South Africa.
Flickr/South African Tourism
NewsDemand Equity

This Viral Video Has Sparked a Row About Cultural Discrimination in South Africa


Why Global Citizens Should Care
Discrimination against cultures in South Africa pushes the country further away from achieving equality and bringing an end to poverty overall. The United Nations’ Global Goals work to achieve equality for everyone, everywhere, and this cannot happen if African cultures are undermined and criticised. Join the movement and take action to help achieve global equality here.

South African social media has been up in arms this week after a man in traditional Ndebele attire was asked to leave a shopping mall. The incident was captured in a video that has since gone viral.

The video shows the man, Ndebele activist Thando Mahlangu, in a dispute with the manager of the shopping mall over whether his clothing was appropriate enough for him to be there in the first place. 

“I don’t condone this in my mall so please leave,” the manager can be heard saying in the video. “We have a right of admission. It is a public place, you are dressing indecently.”

Mahlangu then responds: “You are wearing Western. This is Africa, are you telling me I am not allowed to wear African in Africa?” 

Speaking to Sowetan Live, Mahlangu explained that he and his partner headed to the mall to shop for toiletries and grab lunch when the incident occurred. After stepping into Clicks Pharmacy to purchase what they needed, they were immediately stopped by security. 

“As soon as we walked into a Clicks store, the guard came to us and told me that I was not welcome at the mall because I was harassing customers with my attire,” Mahlangu said.

The manager of the mall then confronted him and after Mahlangu refused to leave, he called for three more security guards to escort him out. When the additional guards arrived, Mahlangu retreated. 

“My partner and I hurriedly bought half of the items we were looking for. I am grateful that Clicks store did allow us to buy the items. However, I am disappointed that my girlfriend and I didn't have lunch at the mall, especially because we were hungry, due to the harassment,” Mahlangu said.

“I left the mall heartbroken and even now as we speak, I'm still not fine emotionally,” he added. 

This is just one of many in a slew of incidents over the last few years where the practice of African cultures and the donning of traditional clothing has been questioned and criticised. Even though South Africa is known as the “rainbow nation” — a nation where all cultures and races are accepted — there have been several experiences of African cultures being considered incorrect and inappropriate in mostly white spaces. 

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Just last year South African retail giant Woolworths came under fire after an employee was reportedly suspended from one of its Johannesburg stores for wearing a traditional Zulu bracelet. The bracelet, called isiphandla, is made of animal skin and worn after a traditional ceremony. It has to be kept on until it deteriorates and falls off over time. 

Woolworths disputed the claim saying: “We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind in our stores.”

According to The Star, the employee initially had to change departments and write a statement explaining why she had to wear isiphandla and whether she had permission to do so before she allegedly was suspended.

Another incident occurred in 2016 that eventually initiated an online protest. ENCA reporter Nontobeko Sibisi’s news segment was removed from television because she was wearing a doek (head scarf). The doek is worn in several African cultures as a symbol of respect and Sibisi had worn it in the news segment to celebrate Africa Day. 

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The removal of Sibisi’s segment from national news motivated South African women to take to social media and post pictures of themselves wearing a doek in solidarity using the hashtag, #RespekTheDoek. 

More recently, the discussion of the erasure of African cultures came alongside allegations of racism in a number of South Africa’s private schools. Last year social media was ablaze with former (and current) students of several private schools across the country calling out their  institutions for incidents of racism. A commonly shared experience that came from this is that of being unable to speak languages that are not English or Afrikaans while at school, even though South Africa boasts 11 official languages. 

It was also recently highlighted in a review that several institutions prioritise the study of English and Afrikaans above other African languages.

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Practicing Africa’s traditions and celebrating cultures should not come with terms and conditions in a country that celebrates being the “rainbow nation.” These incidents show an exclusion of people from their own country and plays into the idea that Western culture is superior to any other culture, an idea that has already formed deep inequalities in South Africa. 

While the manager has been suspended following the incident, the frequency of moments like this highlight the need for discrimination to be dealt with at its roots.