Two South African stories, one stupid, one more serious

“The Pan South African Language Board says that parents should be concerned if children often speak in the adopted British accent from the popular animated TV series Peppa Pig.”

So says Sibusiso Nkosi, of the aforementioned Pan South African Language Board, because they worry that some accents are perceived to signal positive traits like intelligence more than others do, and they want to encourage South African kids to keep speaking in their “African accent”, so as to not reinforce this perception.

You can hear him defend this point of view on the Eusebius McKaiser show if you like, and it’s difficult to deny that in South Africa (and, everywhere on the planet), certain accents are viewed more favourably than others. Here in South Africa, academic research has confirmed that those who have the “Model C accent” (the accent that some black South Africans who attend formerly whites-only schools develop) are perceived as more trustworthy.

But this can be true at the same time as it being true that Peppa Pig isn’t a problem. First, we don’t have any good reason to believe that childhood mimicking of an accent on a TV results in long-term change of accent – that would surely instead be the result of more sustained influences, such as how your friends and family speak.

Second, we’ve always mimicked the sounds and accents of things we enjoyed as kids. Well, I certainly did, and so did many of my friends. There seems no principled reason to think that Peppa Pig is a bigger problem than any other potential influence, such as the most popular television show before Peppa Pig, whatever that was.

It seems we’d have to warn parents about anything popular, at least if it doesn’t sound like a “[black] South African accent”, which, given the low volume of local TV production, is really a blanket warning about avoiding TV in general.

Which raises the fourth point, and ends this discussion of something that should perhaps never been entertained, namely that there is no such thing as a “South African accent”, so it’s unclear what normative point this Language Board could be making.

None of the above is meant to imply that accent-discrimination isn’t a thing, nor that it isn’t a bad thing – my claim is simply that Peppa Pig doesn’t deserve to be cast as a villain here, and that this seems to be more a case of a previously-dissolved, vastly wasteful, and mostly ineffectual government agency striving for relevance.

The second, and more serious, topic is a recent Netflorist radio advertisement that, to quote a Business Day editorial (paywalled), “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 editorial opens by saying that it is “extraordinary that the Advertising Regulatory Board has given its seal of approval to the practice of racially and sexually objectifying black men”, by playing into the stereotype that “black men are brutish, rampant sexual beings”.

It’s certainly to our discredit that this (and other) stereotype exists. However, one can still ask questions about what the job of the Advertising Regulatory Board is, or should be.

Their choice to approve an advertisement should not be read as approving of its sentiments, but rather that it does not violate any clauses of the Code of Advertising Practice. In my view, this ad – which you can hear at the start of another Eusebius McKaiser podcast – quite possibly does violate the discrimination clauses, in reinforcing a negative stereotype in a context of ongoing racial tension.

The same could possibly be said of other advertisements I’ve heard from Netflorist over the years, like one which uses a mock “gay” voice for a purpose I struggle to remember. They are stupid, lazy ads, that cater to the basest angels of our natures.

Despite that, and back to the question of what the board’s job should be, this isn’t hate speech, and if the code means they should not have been approved, the code is wrong. We don’t want the Advertising Regulatory Board to be the arbiters of morality, because a) we’ve got no reason to believe that they are remotely competent to do so; and b) that shouldn’t be the job of a regulator or government, except (arguably) in exceptional cases such as hate speech.

Instead, just stop supporting Netflorist, and send them emails telling them that their ads are stupid, lazy, and offensive.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.