HUCK takes a journey across the creative plains of new South Africa, eighteen years after the first free elections, and finds out how the next generation see their future.
Let’s start this off with a confession: I’ve just finished writing a book on youth advertising, The Stuff You Can’t Bottle, which bridges the gap between my passion (street culture) and my past (advertising). Sometimes this lands me in a strange position – stuck in no-man’s land between the brands and the youth. But it also brings me into contact with some of the most inspiring young talents. It’s how I found myself living in South Africa, on and off, for fifteen years.
Right now, South Africa is a gold mine for commercial-free culture (though that may well change when the big boys cotton on). But it was during the making of this book that I realised there was another story brewing here I wanted to explore.
In a lot of so-called ‘developed’ countries the old outnumber the young, but in my beloved SA the opposite applies – almost half the population is under twenty-one, and the majority of kids carry the hope and expectations of being the first generation born into a true democracy. This can be a great thing – provided they have somewhere to channel their creative energy. So do they?
It’s with this question in mind that I set out across SA to get a better idea of how the next generation sees their future. Does the abundance of youth mean a liberal, open-minded society? Do young creatives have the freedom to dictate their own path? What impact does the culture produced elsewhere have over here?
First stop: Umlazi, the second largest township in the country, just south of Durban, where a couple of friends share a small, informal house. Mthi Msomi, twenty-four, and Sanele Cele Patrick, twenty-five, are skint but educated, talented entrepreneurs who aspire to make a name for themselves in the streetwear industry with Sanele’s fashion label, Tempracha. They’re super-smart and always make the most of any opportunity that arises. Most recently, Sanele styled a retro-themed video for rising music star Spoek Mathambo. Although his killer work commands attention, Sanele is quietly spoken, respectful and religious – a refreshing combination in this world of loud, over-hyped, 24/7 self-promoters. We talk about the local landscape that all this energy is coming out of.
“The advantages of coming out of South Africa is our rich colourful heritage and the fact that most of what we are doing now is still in its infancy,” explains Sanele. “Most of our creative fields aren’t refined yet and are still raw art, which I hope won’t change. Personally, I’m not really up for all this ‘cosmopolitan’ art and way of doing things; I still believe in hands-on art with no rules. Artists have taken their work into their own hands. They wanna build their own brands and become their own entity. There has been a sudden influx of that and I think the social network boom has been the cause, which is pretty awesome.”
With youth unemployment at a killer forty per cent, I can’t help but wonder how South Africa’s socio-economic trajectory rolls over into the mindset of the nation’s youth. Some say creativity is born of hardship, but a figure like that just takes the piss.
“We have the poorest of the poor here, [from] people who are willing to go to jail just so they can have supper and breakfast, to rich politicians who buy the latest Mercs for their sixteen-year-old kids,” says Mthi, who’s job description at Tempracha is ‘serious street hustler’. “It varies for everyone drastically, unlike other places in the world. But [my life has been] one orgasmic freaking adventure that J.K. Rowling herself couldn’t have thought of writing. I was born in the late-eighties when the war against apartheid had reached its peak and something had to give.”
In contradiction to the image of South Africa rammed down our throats – of car-jackings, corruption and sky-rocketing crime – the word bouncing back from these guys is a positive one. According to them, being a young black South African brings its own opportunities. You no longer need to come from a rich, white family to make it; just look at talented folk like Spoek Mathambo and Yannick ‘Petite Noir’ Iluga. The only problem is that a lot of kids don’t know that.
“It’s one thing having the gun. It’s another thing trying to shoot when you have no bullets,” says Mthi. “Basically, we have the resources to make it, it’s just that sometimes life throws so many rotten tomatoes at us that we lose it and end up trying to get through life making easy money. Nobody is teaching the kids to be their own kings; we are being taught to finish school and work for someone else. No one is saying finish school and be someone. So that’s my biggest issue, we basically don’t have proper role models or assistance to help us along the way. What’s the use of having a map if you don’t know where you’re going.”
When I was a teen growing up in the outer-suburbs of London, my connection with South African culture was a mediated experience. I had heard the sounds of the Boyoyo Boys and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, channelled to me via Paul Simon. I knew the haunting loop from The Lion Sleeps Tonight – composed by Zulu-migrant Soloman Linda. Later, I became a fan of director Nick Broomfield, whose docs about white supremacist Eugène Terre’Blanche and black singer/wide-boy Chicco Twala provided an introduction to the sounds of the townships. But my hands-on, foot-on-the-stoop introduction to the real sounds of South Africa was discovering Kwaito in 1996, after having moved my family to the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town. Kwaito is a South African mélange of chopped-and-screwed house music laced with hip hop lyrics. It emerged during the struggle for democracy, and became a soundtrack to the madness – a crucial post-Apartheid, South African-born sound.
Warrick Sony, veteran South African musician and producer, explains the genesis: “Kwaito kicked off in the early ‘90s with two significant hits, one by Senyaka called ‘MaGents’ and the other by Arthur called Kaffir. These firmly slammed the door on ‘80s bubblegum music and paved the way for the most important electronic music revolution in Africa.”
But that was then and this is now; the music and youth of South Africa waits for no man, especially this one. “It was a form of music created by the youths to speak about the injustice done by the old government,” Mthi explains. “Times have changed and Apartheid long gone. The music for us now has to be house music and hip hop – they both connect with each of us differently. You can be who you want to be and say what the fuck you wanna say. You don’t need a super studio, just a computer and software and you can let the world know your thoughts.”
Time for me to bounce. Thanks to the plethora of decent budget airlines, I’m soon transported to Port Elizabeth, the city infamous as the place where political activist Steve Biko was brutally killed in police custody in 1977. There, I meet Jono, a twenty-something photographer re-shaping the country’s audio-visual landscape. I ask him what it was like growing up in a post-Apartheid world.
“It’s a wild ride,” he says, as we sit in the Aztec Deli drinking theirlekker homemade lemonade. ”The youth are still so stricken by a past that has only very recently been laid to rest and it’s clearly evident – there’s a residual resentment that’s almost tangible. That’s not to say that it’s a bad place or it’s a shifty environment – it’s virile and the creativity is emerging in the avenues that it should have been a while ago. Art, music – all of the content generators are beginning to be recognised by the channels that should be paying attention to them. Being a youth here is no different from anywhere else. Sure, we’re a little technologically challenged but that doesn’t mean there aren’t creative personalities everywhere.”
Back in Cape Town I sit down with my eighteen-year-old surrogate daughter Thandi Mamacos and tune her about being young and free in a democracy that’s as young as she is. Is race still an issue in her life? “I remember one very specific political discussion me and my friends had and the general agreement was that, yes, our parents lived through Apartheid but our generation needs to change things,” she says. “A few of my peers are still racist, but most don’t notice colour at all. The way my mum has brought me up to see the world is that I don’t notice colour – and I’m very glad about that.”
There is still a fear that pervades the suburbs; few people cross the barricades that surround township life. I’m typing this in a Cape Town bar chock-full of middle-aged rich guys dressed in the costume of the young and drinking lank expensive beers, totally oblivious to what’s happening elsewhere in their country. But the bright young South Africans who make up the body and soul of this great nation have a broader view. They know what they want their future to look like, and the things that need to change before they get there.
Something Sanele said to me in Durban suddenly springs to mind. “The only disadvantages are not enough manpower from the government and local municipalities for our local artists. I don’t know if there are funds allocated for the less disadvantaged artists, but it really saddens me that all this talent I see every day of my life will just go unnoticed and not everybody will have the same ambition and fight as I do. But with every challenge it lies within those who are affected to change that.”
The Stuff You Can’t Bottle is out in March 2013.