A man using his mobile phone walks past a shop window with signs advertising the upcoming Valentine's Day, at a luxury store in Tokyo, Japan, last month. Picture: REUTERS
A man using his mobile phone walks past a shop window with signs advertising the upcoming Valentine's Day, at a luxury store in Tokyo, Japan, last month. Picture: REUTERS

For a body regulating the advertising industry, it is extraordinary that the Advertising Regulatory Board has given its seal of approval to the practice of racially and sexually objectifying black men.

A Netflorist radio advert referred to a woman whose male partner was half-English and half-Zulu, that the Zulu half was "below the belt" and that he might have a thing for Top Deck — a chocolate bar that is white at the top and dark at the bottom.

The ad played on the age-old racist trope that black men are brutish, rampant sexual beings, which in different manifestations suggests they are at best overly (animal rather than human) well-endowed dynamos between the sheets and at worst are unable to control their sexual urges, are sexually violent and are rapists.

In response to a listener’s complaint that the ad "fetishised" black male genitalia, a majority of the regulatory board ruled that the use of a humorous SA stereotype did not amount to an unacceptable "fetishising" and that as such, the ad was acceptable.

The roots of this trope go back to at least the 12th century and often have a simian element in which black men are conflated with monkeys, apes and demons. In 1570 the Spanish humanist Antonio de Torquemada wrote of a Portuguese woman exiled to Africa who was raped by an ape and bore his babies. King Kong was a thinly disguised portrayal of black men as brutish morons who lusted after pure, white gentlewomen.

As early as the 17th century, a slave of Asian origin at the Cape was sentenced to a torturous death because he and a young, white woman engaged in sex. He was charged with rape, but he testified that it was consensual.

In apartheid SA interracial unions were criminalised but opprobrium was particularly harsh against black males and white females.

In 2004 former president Thabo Mbeki strongly condemned the view that African culture, religion and social norms conditioned black men to be “rampant sexual beasts, unable to control our urges, unable to keep our legs crossed, unable to keep it in our pants”.

Twenty-five years after the legal end of apartheid, SA remains deeply racist, sexist, patriarchal, misogynistic and xenophobic. Othering and bigotry are dinner conversation staples.

Women, particularly black women, are the predominant targets of these behaviours. It is not their brains, their business acumen, their professional success, or even their beauty that is first noticed and commented on.  Rather they have "big backsides, thick lips, large noses and large breasts".

This month an anti-Valentine’s Day social media campaign to resist buying women gifts for the occasion in which men said they would be attending a fake men’s conference, gained traction largely because it is seen as normative that men can exclude women from events.

Unsurprising therefore that there are many programmes and events that seek to highlight discrimination and/or objectification of women.

But the SA constitution sets us a higher standard. The Bill of Rights holds all equal, outlaws discrimination on any grounds and protects the right to dignity for all. We are not free to say these protections belong only to this or that section of the population.

One of advertising’s golden rules is to be relevant. How relevant is it to rehash an age-old trope known for being offensive and nonsensical, all to sell a bunch of flowers or a box of chocolates? Over and above everything else that is massively problematic with this kind of marketing, it shows a lack of skill among the industry professionals who suggested and approved this tired notion. It also illustrates a lack of cognisance of SA’s fragile yet brutal psyche.

Just as we insist on the rights of women, and protest their objectification, so should we resist tossing aside the racist sexual objectification of black men as a humorous SA stereotype.