Opinionista Gavin Weale 1 February 2013

(Mis)representing the voice of SA youth

Don’t believe this article. You shouldn’t be paying any attention to what I write. In this piece I’m trying to take the perspective of the entire youth of South Africa, when not only am I white and British (and therefore ancestrally linked to bringing both colonialism and, by extension, TB, to this country) but have also recently breached the upper limit of the extended youth age bracket. Like my man Prufrock, I grow old, and wear the bottom of my trouser rolled (along with all the other ageing hipster-wannabes). So, why should anyone read this or take it seriously?

And just to warn you: I’m risking being patronising and making assumptions, based on two years living in this country. I’m going to summarise opinions I’ve heard, make conclusions coloured with my own experiences and paraphrase conversations I’ve heard.

But from much of what I’ve read in the press here, from my middle-class Wasp perspective, all of this qualifies me perfectly to be contributing to the debate about the youth of South Africa, and is much safer all round. Because when the youth are heard speaking for themselves, as with First National Bank’s recent advertising campaign, everyone gets a little flustered. 

As a piece of marketing, the FNB campaign is fantastic at grabbing your attention, and maybe plucking the odd heartstring, but ultimately sends you off on a wild goose chase (while making the more cynically minded cringe a little along the way). It tells you “you can help!” but, having raised your hackles with the stirring words of the children, it then doesn’t actually give you much of an opportunity to follow up and actually, well, “help”. You’re led to a website with more videos, along with a concise report on youth opinions that, for me, doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know or suspect (although I may be biased, since my company published a similar piece of research 18 months ago).

What it did show, and for this FNB should be praised, is that brands potentially have more power and clout than most to help empower young people. If only through their marketing and advertising budgets, their influence arguably outstrips what the government is willing to support, or the NGO sector is capable of providing.

So why do I care? I came to South Africa to create a social enterprise, Livity Africa, that publishes youth culture magazine Live SA, which is entirely created by young people to entertain and educate other young people. Beyond our initial funding, persuading big nasty brands to give us money to do this is central to our plans for world (or at least SA) domination. If we succeed, we hope the result will eventually help thousands of young people into work, and through the content our young team produces give millions more access to the kind of youth opinion, culture, insight, advice and inspiration that the FNB adverts tried to capture.

In a short space of time (and believe me, we’ve had plenty of doors slammed in our eager little faces) we’ve managed to persuade a healthy handful of South African brands that not only is partnering with us good for the young people in this country, and therefore good for mankind in general, but it’s also great for business, and a massive win for them. The idea is to create a perfect circle where they can positively and genuinely influence the youth audience and in return gain credibility, advertising eyeballs and PR brownie points. Page through Live SA and you’ll see this slightly Faustian pact played out in print advertising and advertorial. It might not please the anarchists out there, but our theory is based around taking brand money and doing awesome things with it.

And why shouldn’t brands take advantage of this if it genuinely works for (young) people, planet and profit? For those of us with an interest in promoting the youth agenda, using advertising or marketing budgets may be as good a way as any, especially if the routes into mainstream media channels are few and far between.

This challenge isn’t necessarily specific to South Africa. In the UK the mainstream media aren’t too hot at representing the diversity of voices they might claim to. Even liberal newspapers like the Guardian talk a good game, but you rarely see a teenager, say, trusted to write a regular column. Why? I’ve rarely seen a publication move beyond token representations, meaning adult readers must judge the “yoof” by either their own offspring or the headlines written by middle-aged sub-editors. Fortunately for young people in the UK, they have more access and wherewithal to exploit open media channels for their own ends. And one thing I’ve noticed working with many 18-25 year-olds in this country (and here comes one of those big assumptions) is that they very often don’t feel inherently empowered or entitled to speak out in public, whether in person, in print or online.

Our magazine is notable mainly for the fact that the content is 100% produced by the young people themselves. We concentrate on trying to recruit and cultivate raw talent, supporting them to produce excellent content in print and online through the careful but “hands-off” oversight of professional media mentors. Across five (soon to be six) issues of the magazine, our rolling cohort of aspiring writers, designers and photographers have produced an avalanche of content tackling pretty much everything you ever wanted to know about youth, but were afraid to ask the young people themselves. There’s plenty of sex, drugs and kwaito, but also an almost irrepressible dedication to tackling real-life social issues head on, however uncomfortable they might be. And this needs no facilitation from professionals.

The team, all aged 18-25, and from a range of backgrounds (or “LSMs”, as our friends in the advertising world would have us label them), decide what’s going into the magazine, and then 52,000 copies of the magazine are distributed in schools, colleges, shops, malls, and at events and busy high traffic areas around South Africa, every three months.

Some of the most edifying and exciting content comes from writers who are still finding their feet, especially those who haven’t had their voices over-cleansed by the ravages of tertiary education.

If you’re not 18-25 you probably haven’t seen Live Magazine. That’s because it’s not aimed at you. But I guarantee if you read it you would learn a thing or two, even if you have children of your own.

Of course we’re not alone in doing what we do: NGOs like the Children’s Radio Foundation, to take one example, help kids to produce their own radio shows which are broadcast around South Africa (and the rest of Africa) on a weekly basis. They even produce a show that’s on SAFM every Saturday. Meanwhile, occasionally some media companies here have made efforts to include the youth into their output.

Plus there are those go-getting young writers and broadcasters who make the national grade at an early age, but I would assume (once again) that the majority of these do so through a privileged education, nepotism or lucky break. This may be the way the world works, but shouldn’t there also be ways to proactively ensure more mainstream and marginalised voices find a way through the noise?

With an estimated 19 million young people between the ages of 15-35 (about 37.5%, if the latest census is to be believed) the mainstream youth audience should and could wield a significant influence in this country, even if they don’t yet have the spending power to be seen as commercially important. If they were all politically engaged enough to vote, for example, they could make the next elections a very interesting race.

In the meantime, what if every editor in the country made it their business to make sure young voices from every walk of life were amply and regularly represented in the mainstream media every day? What if brands got behind the idea of investing heavily in a mutually beneficial relationship with this audience who are their emerging and future customer base? And what if government, as a result, got used to a healthy culture of youth debate, and therefore didn’t freak out on the rare occasion those voices (whether mediated or not) hit the headlines?

Maybe then we wouldn’t have to read articles like this, or start wringing our hands when a bank reminds us all that the young people of South Africa do actually give a damn. Because they really do give a damn: this I will continue to argue, however old, grey, white, bald or unfashionable I become. And given half a chance, I’m sure they would dearly love to have the opportunity to tell you why themselves. DM

Read more:

www.livemag.co.za / www.livityafrica.com


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