The Clicks fiasco and the politics of black hair

When I woke up on the morning of Friday 4 September 2020 to my Twitter timeline abuzz about the Clicks haircare webpage displaying African natural hair with the labels “Frizzy and Dull” and “Dry and Damaged”, while the hair of white women was labelled “Normal hair, fine and flat”, I took a deep and exasperated sigh.

I started my “natural hair journey” while at the University of Cape Town in 2013. On a student budget, it had become increasingly necessary for me to learn how to do my own hair, and I had become weary of always having to wear my hair in styles I felt didn’t represent my identity as a black woman, took too long to get done, or were simply too expensive. 

After devouring so many hours of natural hair tutorials on YouTube that I might as well have been taking an additional course towards my degree – and discovering the emerging natural hair community that had turned into a movement in the US and was only beginning to take root in South Africa – I committed to styling and wearing my Afro daily.

In preparation for that exciting adventure of self-discovery I was to embark upon, it was the Clicks outlet in Cavendish Square, Cape Town, that I frequented to stock up on what few natural hair products I could find at the time.

One might not know this from looking at Clicks stores now, but back then, all you could find for natural hair was a handful of products, designed for natural haircare. The popular products from the US we have come to know and love, such as the Cantu range, Shea Moisture, Design Essentials and Aunt Jackie’s, were not stocked. One had to make do with whatever creams and serums had the least harmful chemicals – and of course natural products such as coconut oil. There were virtually no black-owned or South African-made natural hair products. This, in a majority black country.

In 2014, there were just about two shelves set aside for black haircare, while entire aisles were dedicated to shampoos, conditioners, styling tools, dyes and other products for loose-textured and straight hair. White women had plenty to choose from to take care of their hair.

As the natural hair movement grows more popular in South Africa and black women rediscover the joy and excitement of experimenting with their hair, the convenience and affordability of donning their kinks, and the freedom of displaying their crowning glories in places where they would have never dared in the past, so too is the product space on shelves growing.

As black women began to learn about how harmful chemical relaxers can be to their hair and overall health, and hair stylists began getting fewer requests for “retouches”, the South African beauty industry started to catch up to the realisation that black women wanted to wear their hair natural, and if they were to keep up with the times, they had to distribute and advertise to this new and growing market.

It was then that we started to see stores such as Clicks and Dischem provide a vast range of products for black haircare. The black hair industry has been lucrative since the dawn of wigs, weaves and the infamous “creamy crack”, and the natural hair community has been yet another gold mine for mainstream corporations – usually at the expense of black business success, if not the black consumer’s pocket.

The furore over the advert on Clicks’ website reflects that we still have a long way to go. While the number of shelves dedicated to catering for black women’s hair in South Africa has increased, the understanding of the politics of black hair remains wanting. 

Black women in South Africa not only deserve access to hair products that protect and nurture their black hair (and skin), but also deserve distributors that understand the complex history of black hair – racialised through things like the “pencil test”.

Imagery such as that displayed on Clicks’ website is damaging because it perpetuates the notion that black features are inherently flawed. Such advertising is irresponsible. We have seen how ideas of acceptable standards of beauty and appearance can have very real negative effects for black people in this country. 

We need only recall the stories of black and coloured students whose learning has been disrupted due to racist hair and language policies at some schools. Such policies germinate from the kind of imagery and ideas displayed by Clicks’ advert.

But while the public outrage is very much warranted, and the calls by the EFF for Clicks to account are welcome, one wonders if it is enough? When there are only a handful of black hair product manufacturers and distributors with the kind of financial support to rival the likes of Clicks, it means that black women are afforded a little more choice in terms of the range of natural hair products than in previous years, but they are still limited as to who distributes and markets to them.

Is calling for Clicks to close enough, when we know and understand the monopoly they hold on the beauty industry? When black hair products are sold to a consumer base that the distributor neither knows nor understands, for commercial gain and nothing more, it results in these kinds of careless mistakes happening repeatedly.

And if we envision a future where blackness is equal, and our existence and appearance is valid without question, then these are mistakes we can little afford. 

  • Gloria Paidamoyo Chikaonda is a natural hair advocate who runs her own natural hair YouTube page – Gloria. C. She is a graduate of the University of Cape Town (BA/LLB and LLM) and is currently a doctoral student and researcher with a focus on African legal theory, customary law and legal pluralism at Stanford Law School in the US.

OPINION: Gloria Paidamoyo Chikaonda