Is Spur Racist? / by Nick Mulgrew


For Native Americans, Spur's steakhouse fantasyland leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

Published under the title "Come Angry, or Bury My Heart in the Salad Valley" in the Sunday Times, 22 February 2015.

Imagine, in Estonia, a 200-strong restaurant chain called Kraal. They say they give homage to Zulu history, but something’s not right: the paintings are more San; the textiles more Ndebele. The staff wear imitation fur loincloths – more Tarzan than imitsha – and Technicolor Basotho blankets, greeting children who run around the dining room in paper headdresses. The logo depicts someone with a spear and shield. Is it supposed to be Shaka? Dingaan?

It doesn’t really matter. The point being: would you find this distasteful? Offensive, even?
Thankfully, Kraal doesn’t exist. But it does have something of a South African analogue – an empire of restaurants built on stereotypical (and sometimes incorrect) depictions of faraway people. Spur Steak Ranches, founded in 1967 as a Western-themed restaurant in Cape Town, now numbers 275 restaurants in South Africa, and is one of the most recognizable brands in the country. Spur Corporation – operators also of Panarotti’s and John Dory’s – reported revenue of R5.5 billion in 2014. And it’s all fronted by a mascot of a Native American chief.
Most South Africans might not think that’s a problem, and perhaps understandably so. But outside of South Africa, the kind of imagery in which Spur traffics is being furiously challenged.

“Spur has a really strange mascot,” says Jacqueline Keeler, a disarmingly chipper Native American activist working out of Portland, Oregon. “And it’s really disturbing to think that this is how we’re represented to South Africans.”

It’s really disturbing to think that this is how we’re represented to South Africans.

Keeler is the founder of Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry, a group that protests misrepresentations of Native Americans in the United States. Most recently, groups like EONM have focused their efforts on offensive mascots attached to American sports teams like the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians. They argue that these teams’ mascots constitute and encourage “redface”: the performance of hokey and racist representations of Native Americans historically inculcated into people by Hollywood Westerns and adventure books. Think: eagle-feather headdresses, war paint, tipis – all, interestingly enough, components of Spur’s branding. 

Mascotry is bad for many reasons, Keeler argues, but mostly because “it gets in the way of actual knowledge about people. We’re unlike how we’re portrayed in the media, to the point that most people don’t know anything about us.” At best, mascotry and redface showcase a kind of culture that has little to do with modern Native American life; at worst, they reference narratives that depict and celebrate the triumph of settlers of Native Americans.

Keeler says mascotry not only “gives cover for all of the atrocious things that happened to Native American people,” but also has immediate practical effects: “they affect how legislators see us when they write laws, how donors give money to programmes that affect us, and the outcome of judicial cases.”

Anti-mascot activists have had their small victories, including the cancellation last year of the trademark of the Washington Redskins football team. That said, the cancellation alone won’t force a change in the team’s name, and the decision is currently under appeal. “People feel entitled to use our images in any way they want,” Keeler says, “and that’s why it’s so dangerous.”

Surely Spur have cottoned onto this – especially seeing as their logo shares many similarities with the Redskins’. When I put the question to the company, however, Spur’s convivial CEO Pierre van Tonder says it’s not a huge worry. “We’ve had one or two guys write to us and ask if we’re not being politically incorrect,” he says, “but overall we really haven’t had any real negative feedback.”

And, he says, they’d notice if they did: “In South Africa, the thing that’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind – from a business perspective – is that you don’t want to offend anybody. It’s like walking on eggshells.”

And understandably so. But it’s somewhat ironic that, in a society that broadly tries to expose racist depictions of people, a brand such as Spur can be seen as patently apolitical. That’s probably because there isn’t a Native American presence in South Africa – but even so there are obvious resonances between the historical treatment of Native Americans and the millions of South Africans who were marginalized and dispossessed during colonialisation and apartheid.

Keyan Tomaselli, Professor Emeritus at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Communication, Media & Society, says that Spur’s branding does a neat job of negotiating such negative evocations. In his words, their advertisements and corporate identity has created and based itself upon an image of “a non-racial, internationalist, unthreatening, fun-loving, mythical, all-inclusive, naturalised indigene”, resulting in a brand in which “race, colour, national-origin, ethnicity, and language are all erased.” In simpler terms: a rainbow-nation friendly brand, which stands in place of knowledge between differently-cultured people.
Van Tonder concurs, in a sense. “We’re in a fortunate position that our consumer base is truly representative of all South Africans,” he says, “and that’s probably because we didn’t get involved in political minefields.”

Perhaps that’s a good way to look at Spur’s branding: something that attempts to draw upon ideas of community in a divided country. Look at old Spur menus and what you find – other than how expensive things have gotten over the decades – is that the restaurant’s Native American turn came only in the late 80s, when it moved from, again in Van Tonder’s words, “Cowboys and Indians” into something more “neutral and apolitical”.

Spur’s greatest strength lies in its construction of what Tomaselli calls “a contrived but welcome fantasyland”. But is that dependent on its mascots? Spur themselves seem cognizant of this: in their overseas restaurants – from the UK to Australia, Dubai to Mauritius – the Native American branding is toned down.

Nevertheless, Keeler says, toning down isn’t enough. “I was shocked when I saw that there are Spurs in the UK,” she says, “and the truth is is that they form people’s ideas about us. This isn’t what we want people to learn about us, as modern, sovereign people.”

“But it’s a funny thing,” she says, “thinking about what your responsibilities are to people who are far away.”