The manager of a South African mall was suspended Thursday for asking a shopper in traditional ethnic dress to leave a store, saying the attire was “not decent”.
A video recording of the incident at the Boulders Shopping Centre in Johannesburg was widely circulated among outraged social media users on Wednesday.
The footage shows the manager confronting Ndebele activist Thando Mahlangu for shopping at local pharmacy chain Clicks in a multi-coloured shawl and porcupine quills.
“We have the right of admission and I don’t condone this in my mall… it is not decent,” he told Mahlangu, who protested his right to remain in the store.
In a country that remains deeply sensitive about insults to culture given its apartheid past, the terse exchange drew ire online, where many South Africans accused the black manager of discrimination.
“This is what happens when a nation doesn’t know it’s history… what kind of black man doesn’t know traditional regalia when he sees it?” one user asked on Twitter.
Another tweeted “so how did we get to a point where the indigenous people are ridiculed like this… What a sad day”.
Mall owner Redefine Properties on Thursday said the events were “most regrettable” and that the manager had been suspended.
The company also distanced itself from “the degrading and undignified manner” in which Mahlangu was treated.
Clicks said Wednesday that it was “extremely embarrassed” and would submit a formal complaint to the mall.
It noted its staff had intervened and allowed Mahlangu to continue shopping.
The Ndebele people are one of South Africa’s many ethnic groups.
Their art was popularised in recent years by 85-year-old Esther Mahlangu, whose colourful geometric patterns have been exhibited in galleries around the world.
In 2016, the artist clinched a deal to paint the body of German automaker BMW’s luxury sedans with her iconic motifs.
It is not the first time Mahlangu has run into trouble for wearing traditional garb.
The activist was barred from boarding a Johannesburg train for similar reasons in 2018.