Racist image: H&M temporarily closes S. Africa stores

Protesters demonstrating in front of an H&M store in Cape Town, South Africa, on Saturday. They were protesting over an image on H&M's online store showing a black child modelling a hooded sweatshirt that said "coolest monkey in the jungle".
Protesters demonstrating in front of an H&M store in Cape Town, South Africa, on Saturday. They were protesting over an image on H&M's online store showing a black child modelling a hooded sweatshirt that said "coolest monkey in the jungle".PHOTO: REUTERS

JOHANNESBURG • Swedish clothing company H&M temporarily closed several stores in South Africa on Saturday after protests erupted over an image on its online store that critics said was racist.

The image showed a black child modelling a hooded sweatshirt that said "coolest monkey in the jungle". Two other jungle-themed sweatshirts that did not mention monkeys were modelled by white children.

The image sparked an uproar on social media, and demonstrators representing South Africa's second-largest opposition party, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), gathered on Saturday at H&M locations across the country.

Videos and photos of the gatherings showed people demonstrating outside or marching through a store. Other photos showed people toppling mannequins, overturning racks and scattering clothes.

"Out of concern for the safety of our employees and customers, we have temporarily closed all stores in the area," H&M said in an e-mailed statement.

"We strongly believe that racism and bias in any shape or form, deliberate or accidental, are simply unacceptable," said the statement, calling the product "poorly judged".

Demonstrations were reported at shopping centres in Cape Town and Pretoria, and at several areas in and around Johannesburg.

On social media, some supported the protesters while others said the destruction was counterproductive. "EFF's message was loud and effective but went against what should be happening which is discussions," one Twitter user wrote.

EFF leader Julius Malema said his party makes no apologies for its actions, adding that targeting the stores was "just the beginning".

The protests capped a week of rapidly escalating outrage. H&M apologised for the image on Monday, and then again on Tuesday, saying it had removed the image and stopped selling the sweatshirt.

The racism scandal has hit the Swedish company at a time when it is struggling to make the switch to e-commerce, analysts say.

"It's (been) one of the toughest years for H&M," said investment bank Nordnet economist Joakim Bornold, noting that the company's stock price has fallen by 35 per cent since January 2017.

In December, H&M announced a 4 per cent drop in fourth-quarter sales from the previous year, to 50.4 billion kronor (S$8.3 billion).

"They have failed in describing their vision for the e-commerce business," Mr Bornold said.

Rejecting that analysis, H&M chief executive Karl-Johan Persson said: "Our digital strategy is crystal clear. E-commerce, for all our brands, is definitely a part of the company that is going very well and is profitable."

NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2018, with the headline 'Racist image: H&M temporarily closes S. Africa stores'. Print Edition | Subscribe