If You can Feed a Dog, Surely, You can Feed a Child


By: Selogadi Ngwanangwato Mampane

The South African charity Feed a Child, recently produced an advertisement juxtaposing the issues of food insecurity many South African children face, with the comfort that many South African dogs have in their domestic life; receiving more meals and having a more humane lifestyle than that of South Africa’s starving children. The said advertisement has sparked much controversy, with critics exclaiming that the advertisement is “racist” and appeals to racial stereotypes about the economic and racial inequality which does indeed exist in South Africa. Why? The position of power, of ‘giver’ and ‘saviour’ is held by a middle/upper-class White woman and the inhumanity of poverty is located in the image of a Black child, the metaphor of their struggles imagining the child as that privileged dog, at the White madams feet.

The justification given by the charity’s Arnau van Achterbergh seems all too simple, “Our main mission is to make people aware of the fact that there are thousands of children out there that we work with on a daily basis that don’t even have access to one meal per day… The commercial is intentionally emotive to trigger the necessary awareness on this issue to generate engagement and contributions. There was no intention to cause offence.”

I think we should not be too quick to shout racism as a knee-jerk response, nor discard this cry, without considering how and in what way racial stereotypes confine and type both Black and White identities. What is disturbing about the advertisement is how it constructs this Black child’s poverty within the context of a White saviour. More-so, the advertisement polarises responsibility and ownership of the issue of poverty – it seems to be aimed at White middle/upper-class audiences. ‘Defenders’ of the advertisement shout that we are all obsessed with race and cannot see the advertisements true intentions. This defense seems cloaked in ignorance, this is post-Apartheid South Africa after all, and we have a long way to go in terms of racial inequality and public discourse around race.

It would be ignorant and naive to presume that poverty in South Africa can be analysed without an understanding and critique of the still prevailing racial inequalities which often define the extent of poverty, as well as the contours of how one experiences poverty. But I’m curious as to what specifically makes us uncomfortable: the fact of the Black child as the most marginalised, in terms of racial and economic inequality; or how the advertisement still places White identities as that which have the most economic power and how White middle and upper-class lifestyles become isolated from South African realities, specifically, poverty.

In this way, White privilege exists and prevails to the extent that, within this social milieu, ‘their’ animals occupy a higher social status and source of concern than South Africa’s starving children – and most of these children are Black. White privilege is so rife that White people’s personal trivialities supersedes what is available, especially in terms food for the average South African child, who again, is mostly Black.

However, this presents us with a problem, as the advertisement then implies that if White citizens get involved all will be resolved. If the advertisement is about the poverty of South African children as a whole, and not the intersections of poverty and race, then why draw from a cultural narrative which hits directly on those nerves. It is irresponsible as South Africans concerned with issues of human security, to plead ‘I did not know’ race is an issue, that race has been a defining factor in how poverty spans across particular social groups. It is not about being ignorant to race. Rather, it is about understanding how racial identities have been constructed against differences of autonomy, humanity and power; by confronting that through openly accepting that we are all different but that this should not impact how we are treated as humans and citizens. If the charity wanted to focus on White (economic) privilege, the charity should state and defend that issue and position.

This advertisement does not seem to be about poverty, it seems to be an appeal to middle and upper-class Whites to invest as citizens. So they should not believe us to be fools and say it is about poverty only. Yes, all children regardless of race and ethnicity can and do experience gross poverty. However, why we as South Africans may be so complacent in the high levels of poverty and food insecurity is directly related to our past and our ideologies regarding race, racial privilege and its construction of the right to life. After all, our problems are intersectional. The advertisement rather speaks of how racial inequality has defined some lives as more valuable than others. If the charity wanted to focus on poverty only, they would and should have strategically avoided or reversed stereotypical racial typing or found another way to focus on the lifestyles of bourgeois pets in relation to the situation of South Africa’s starving children.

In utilising a Black child the advertisement unnecessarily plays on issues of racial inequality, and irresponsibly so. Why did they not frame the advertisement so that we know they are also pointing to racial inequality, instead of haphazardly and irresponsibly ‘popping race in for emphases’? Why is the Feed a Child charity fearful to speak to and confront racial inequality, play on our possible colour-blindness and plead ignorance to the ugly monster of White privilege and archetypes of predominantly lily-White suburbs and their well cared for pets?

I think critics are tired of stereotypical and offensive White saviour ideals, which draw on White privilege but dare not actively speak out against it. It is offensive to White and Black citizens – White people have not and will not save people ‘of colour’ from anything. After all, Black families have pets too, we do not all carry an ‘Apartheid fear’ of dogs. In fact, I think it would have done better to the message to reverse the race of the characters in the advertisement, playing on South African consciousness and showing that all of our collective middle and upper-class lifestyles cannot exist in isolation from the social ills plaguing our country. The advertisement seems to be doing more harm and pushing more stereotypes about South Africa and social responsibility than doing much good.

They don’t seem to be calling on me as a Black citizen to take part. This advertisement presents a prevailing cultural narrative so my immediate inclination is that as a Black woman, I do not and cannot make any economic contributions. These are the images we should be fighting against in calling all citizens to contribute. If you are a charity focusing on human security, you should know and be aware of all the issues, especially race and confront them upright. This is 20 years of democracy after all, if we cannot speak of the intersections of race and privilege in our acceptance of poverty, we will continue our celebrations under the ignorance that we are in fact all free and equal.

Read about Selogadi here.


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