An open letter to South African brands and people: caring during civil unrest

by Melanie Chisnall

Where’s the love?

Right now South Africa is facing civil unrest in parts of the country, including Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

And yet, there are so many brands and people in our country who carry on sharing regular content, as if nothing’s happening. I’ll admit, it bothers me some.

Where’s the compassion? 

I know it can feel overwhelming. But, ignoring the fact doesn’t help anyone. Do you know what does? A genuine acknowledgment of the situation, suggestions for helping, words of encouragement – those all go a LONG way.

Let’s talk about this a bit more…

But first, a bit of background for context

South Africa sits at the bottom edge of Africa. We’ve avoided natural disasters, like hurricanes and major earthquakes. Lucky us. We watch the news of war-torn countries like Syria or Iraq and think, ‘That’s awful. Thank goodness nothing like that happens here.’

We’ve felt immune to a lot over the years as other parts of the world suffer.

And then July 2021 happened.

Civil unrest wrecked havoc in our country, once fondly known as the Rainbow Nation.

Looking at the bigger picture: rising unemployment and poverty

It was only a matter of time.

A country with a rising unemployment rate of around 33% with approximately 30.3 million people living in poverty. Now factor in even more job losses and food shortages due to lockdowns in a pandemic with no end in sight.

The struggle has been real for many, for a long time.

When I saw the news of riots earlier this week, my first thought was, ‘People have had enough.’ Anger. Frustration. Hopelessness. And yes, even hatred. For our government, for people who aren’t as affected by hardships.

Now to be clear, I don’t condone violence, looting, or rioting.

But I do understand a possible root for one of the big reasons behind these orchestrated events. Oppression is real. Desperation is real. Yes, the imprisonment of former president, Jacob Zuma, may have sparked this civil unrest.

But, it’s not the only thing driving it.

Many people follow these instigators and opportunists because they’re hungry and desperate. They’re tired of endless empty promises and a lack of positive action.

So yes, they joined in the looting.

But not everyone wants to simply put food on their family’s table (even if that means carting big appliances to sell for cash). There are others who want to destroy because they can. Because they’ve been given the opportunity to do so. Malls left vandalised. Trucks set ablaze. Delivery services distributing food and fuel abruptly halted.

Mass destruction and chaos.

So, where do brands and ordinary South Africans fit in then?

Creating light and kindness in times of crisis

It’s hard to be positive about this situation right now, I’ll admit.

For long-term change, our country needs better, improved policies. Things can’t carry on as they have been with such a gigantic gap in economic inequality.

So we’re here: in the storm we never thought we’d witness in our lifetime.

And yet, as destructive as this crisis is, I see people stepping forward and raising their hand, wanting to help. I also see people and brands turning a blind eye and posting on social media as if nothing’s happening around them.

Why?

As if ignoring something bad will somehow make it seem less real. I get it. Everyone is going through their own struggles right now. Personally and professionally. These are tough times — we’re all just trying to stay sane and get through every day as best we can.

But I genuinely want to know, what’s happened to our humanity and compassion?

Have we become so hard and heartless that we can’t even empathise with someone else’s struggles? If not for the unemployed or poverty-stricken, how about the people suddenly left without work because their small businesses have been destroyed by riots and looting?

Imagine that was your business — vandalised, all your stock gone. No insurance (new business, couldn’t afford it). Your employees suddenly jobless.

Imagine that was your home — caught alight, burned to the ground. Now you need to find shelter, start from scratch. With what money?

Wouldn’t you want help?

You can be a light, right where you are

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling pretty helpless the last few days. Sitting here in the Western Cape, I’m not able to sweep streets left scattered with debris in the aftermath of looting.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing I can do to help.

Thanks to the internet, we can show we care with just a few clicks. We can contribute financially and provide a little relief that goes a long way.

I came across this incredible blog post with a list of online resources and ways to help donate foods or funds to local NGOs, charities, and organisations.

It’s not a lot, but it’s a start.

It’s a small way to offer help from anywhere.

Choosing to be more human in a time of crisis

I know that many of us feel like we’re in survival mode these days. Pushing on, trying to get through every day as best we can.

We’re tired: emotionally and mentally.

So, yes.

Let’s not create unnecessary anxiety by watching the news all day. But can we please not be totally oblivious about it? It’s easy to carry on posting to social media as we normally would, or according to content marketing plans. Maybe we think that’s showing our audiences how consistent we are, or providing them with a positive escape.

I’m sorry, but it’s not.

What it’s really showing is a lack of compassion. It’s tough to hear, but someone needs to say it. As a business or brand, you have an obligation to connect with your audience.

Connection starts with being genuine.

You don’t need to talk about civil unrest non-stop or scratch your marketing strategy completely. But you do need to be human.

And even if you’re not running a business or a brand, what you share online still has tremendous reach and impacts friends and family in your social media circles.

You can inspire some good amidst all this chaos.

Sticking our heads in the sand isn’t the answer. We’re not here to sit back while our nation burns around us. We’re here to love our neighbors and show up with kindness and help where and when it’s needed most.

It’s needed now.

The timing isn’t great, but catastrophe, like COVID, waits for no one.

So I ask you, what will you do to help?

When you look back at this moment in history or tell your children about it one day, what will you remember or share? 

Do you think you can be a tiny glimmer of light in a very dark tunnel right now? Even if that’s a simple act of kindness, sharing a genuine post of support, donating to a charity that you connect with (without feeling the need to brag about it, because that’s not the point), or where possible (and where safe to do so), stepping in and lending a hand to rebuild what was destroyed.

It’s time to show compassion and humanity.

Your audience, your friends, your family – they need to see you show up online with compassion, sharing ways we can all come together as a country and help those who need help.

Because even if it doesn’t feel like it, there’s a lot of good we can do right now.

It starts with us — everyday South Africans, business owners, brand ambassadors, content creators.

It starts with caring and then sharing that.

#HelpSouthAfrica

2 comments

Cynthia July 16, 2021 - 4:15 am

Poignant read. Shew. I feel like parts of the US aren’t too far off from this kind of frustration. I feel for you. Holding you and SA in the light. May these rough pandemic times pass by sooner rather than later.

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Melanie Chisnall July 16, 2021 - 10:25 am

Thanks, my friend. I know SA isn’t the only country struggling right now – the US went through a LOT earlier this year and last year, too. It seems to be happening in different parts of the world. So much unrest. So much chaos. Hopefully, some light and change come out of all this.

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