Swedish clothing company H&M temporarily closed several stores in South Africa on Saturday after protests erupted over an image in its online store that critics said was racist.
The image showed a black child modeling a hooded sweatshirt that said “coolest monkey in the jungle.” Two other sweatshirts that were also jungle-themed but did not mention monkeys were modeled by white children.
The image touched off an uproar on social media this week, and on Saturday demonstrators representing South Africa’s second-largest opposition party, Economic Freedom Fighters, gathered at H&M locations across the country.
Videos and photos of the gatherings showed people demonstrating outside or marching through a store. Others showed people toppling mannequins, overturning racks and scattering clothes.
“Out of concern for the safety of our employees and customers we have temporarily closed all stores in the area,” H&M said in an emailed statement Saturday.
“None of our staff or customers have been injured,” the statement said. “We continue to monitor the situation closely and will open the stores as soon as the situation is safe again. We strongly believe that racism and bias in any shape or form, deliberate or accidental, are simply unacceptable. We stress that our wonderful store staff had nothing to do with our poorly judged product and image.”
Demonstrations were reported at shopping centers in Cape Town and Pretoria, and at several areas in and around Johannesburg, including Sandton, Midrand and Boksburg. On social media, some supported the protesters while others argued that the destruction was counterproductive.
“EFF’s message was loud and effective but went against what should be happening which is discussions,” one Twitter user wrote. “H&M contribute to the country and money that flows. They provide jobs and give people access to funds — even if only one H&M store closes or closes for a while it affects a family.”
Julius Malema, the party’s charismatic but controversial leader, who was once a member of the governing African National Congress, said in a speech Saturday, “We make no apology about what the fighters did today against that store called H&M” and said targeting the stores was “just the beginning.”
“Every shop that undermines black people must be attended to,” he added. “It must be shut down. It must be closed.”
The protests in South Africa capped a week of rapidly escalating outrage.
H&M apologized for the image Monday, and then again Tuesday, saying it had removed the image and stopped selling the sweatshirt.
“We have got this wrong and we agree that, even if unintentional, passive or casual racism needs to be eradicated wherever it exists,” it said on its website.
Celebrities, including pop artist The Weeknd and rapper G-Eazy, said they would no longer work with the company. The model’s mother, Terry Mango, said in a Facebook post that the backlash was an “unnecessary issue,” adding that “this is one of hundreds of outfits my son has modeled.”
Malema said the image had to be taken seriously. “We cannot allow the humiliation of black people to continue,” he said. “No one should make jokes about the dignity of black people.”