A restaurant in Braamfontein linked to the Catzavelos family has shut down amid growing demands to have Adam Catzavelos prosecuted. Picture: Mduduzi Ndzingi/Sowetan
A restaurant in Braamfontein linked to the Catzavelos family has shut down amid growing demands to have Adam Catzavelos prosecuted. Picture: Mduduzi Ndzingi/Sowetan

Johannesburg business person Adam Catzavelos, who recently tweeted a racist video, has shown once again that private actions in public spaces have real-world consequences.

The consequences can be dire for a family-owned business when a significant shareholder and family member "goes rogue".

This is not only an SA problem. Harvey Weinstein’s allegedly predatory behaviour towards women is the most blatant example, destroying a company that had an estimated value of $800m.

St Georges Fine Foods is a family business started by Catzavelos’s father and took more than 50 years to build. Within 24 hours of the tweet going viral, clients including Brazza, Barons and Tasha’s ditched the line of sauces produced by the company.

Small family-owned businesses across the country are particularly at risk of customer ire.

Racism touches a raw nerve, with immediate calls for people to use their buying power to punish the offender.

The black middle class is now about 6-million people and growing, according to Prof John Simpson of the Red and Yellow School, who coined the term "black diamond".

He says they are "keeping the economy alive and marketers have to understand this audience intimately".

Janine Jellars, founder of social media marketing agency True Content, says the black middle class is angry about the lack of transformation in their own lives and are on the lookout for incidents they can use to push for an acceleration of the change in the economy.

"Mainstream media hasn’t done a good enough job at centring the voices of black people, specifically black youth. And that’s where social media has stepped in," she says.

Author and talk-show host JJ Tabane says so-called "black Twitter" is still evolving and finding its voice. The kind of discourse that was once confined to hair salons and bars has become very public.

Businesses, big and small, must be prepared to engage on these platforms and not dismiss them, Tabane says.

With their jobs on the line, employees at St Georges Fine Foods have pleaded with clients not to desert the company.

"Calls for a boycott have been enough to spring the business into action, but we could also see young people using social media to galvanise support offline," says Jellars.

The current mood is forcing some businesses to address prejudice, particularly in their social media policies.

Clay Christensen of Harvard Business School, one of the world’s leading thinkers on business modelling, argues that organisational values are more than mission statements.

Values are expressed in every small decision made by employees throughout an organisation, he adds. All of these decisions are a collective expression of a firm’s values.

While corporates can hire communications professionals and buy ad space to protect their images after a crisis, small family-owned business are particularly at risk from the cost of prejudice in its ranks.

Organisations have to be conscious of what informs their decision-making, if transformation is to be taken seriously. It cannot be a statement of intent or the key performance indicator of a single office bearer, he says.

How does a business repair its image and reputation in the wake of a tsunami of ire that has swept across it? A good first step is to denounce the actions of the individual who has caused all the trouble.

Rams Mabote of King Maker Consulting argues that "atonement needs to take place" following such incidents and a good way of demonstrating this is to give black people shareholding in the business.

Nomathemba Malinga of Zindela Communications is sympathetic to the plight of the Catzavelos family and its employees but also believes that "saying sorry is not enough. The workers at the company should be offered shareholding. This would be an authentic proof point, which will enable the St Georges Fine Foods brand to shape a new narrative for the future."

While corporates can hire communications professionals and buy ad space to protect their images after a crisis, small family-owned business are particularly at risk from the cost of prejudice in its ranks.

However, small businesses can follow the example of bigger businesses when looking to atone.

Starbucks in the US, for example, shut down its entire operations for one day to focus on sensitivity training after a racist incident in one of its stores earlier in 2018.

Businesses are prepared to shut down their operations for fire safety drills and other forms of training, so why not to address issues of race, asks Thabo Shole-Mashao of GauTV.

"Shutting a company down for one day of training could save it five years in the long run," he says.

"What happens when black Twitter starts to ask more layered and sophisticated questions? Or when it starts making demands of businesses that has no relation to transformation charters?"

Warning that social media is evolving fast, Shole-Mashao says business and policy makers have to be agile.

The Black Business Council has been conciliatory to the Catzavelos family, and offered to meet Hellenic community leaders. The council says that this should be a "teachable moment" in genuine discussions about changing SA’s business environment.

"It is very important that this ugly moment serves as a lesson to all South Africans that racism cannot and will not be tolerated and all endeavours need to be put in place to teach other racists that their behaviour will have serious consequences," says council president Sandile Zungu.

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