Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the under-secretary-general of the United Nations, executive director of UN Women and chair of the UNstereotype Alliance, believes it is the role of brands and media to "sustain" movements like Black Lives Matter to ensure issues are adequately addressed.
Speaking on day two of Lions Live, Mlambo-Ngcuka said past movements have "lost energy" before real change can occur.
"The role of the brand and media is to sustain these campaigns," she said. "Before issues are adequately addressed, the energy begins to disappear. My call to brands is that this issue isn't going to go away until we track it. It is important to stay with it, highlight it and be ambassadors. Being on the sidelines is almost as bad as participating in perpetuating the stereotypes."
Mlambo-Ngcuka was being interviewed by World Federation of Advertisers CEO Stephan Loerke, who asked her whether she sees any parallels with the current Black Lives Matter movement, caused by the killing of George Floyd in the US, with movements in South Africa where she grew up.
She responded: "The world is awakening to racial inequality and discrimination. Yes, it does remind me of South Africa. It was brutal in South Africa too. Black people went to particular schools for education of a certain type. As I grew older I began to resist the Apartheid movement and then I saw my partner being arrested. On my wedding, tear gas was brought because they thought it was a gathering of protestors because many people who came to my wedding were anti-Apartheid. They didn't make it easy for us to love the country. You had to take a stand to fight."
She added that brands in South Africa remained largely silent during the time but then after the international private sector started speaking up, they felt the pressure and had to take a stand. She urged more brands to do that now.
Brands showed their power and agility with their response to COVID-19 by producing PPEs and other necessities, Mlambo-Ngcuka pointed out. They can do the same for the BLM movement.
"This is an industry that knows how to influence people's thinking and choices. It specialises in getting results. That skill is actually needed right now. There is no one else that is as qualified when it comes to behaviour change on a large scale. Brands repurposed themselves to produce PPEs because this was the need. This is another pandemic and brands need to bring their A-game for this," she remarked.
Mlambo-Ngcuka also urged white people and men to "not waste their privileges" in society and use it for the collective good of the world, and called for brands and agencies to ensure they are reflecting the diverse composition of the public within their advertising.
"To brands I would say make sure that when you project yourselves in the media, project this inclusion and diversity. Let people and women come to work; your customers want that. There are more people who want to see positive change. You're leaving money on the table if you don't do that," she explained.