First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
As the first of several TV commercials that would fall under Vodacom’s long-running “Yebo Gogo” campaigns, “Windmills” begins with a shot of a relatively older black man sitting in a chair, reading a book, in the middle of a remote area near a main road. Clusters of decorative wire windmills spin around him, organised in what looks like a roadside store, of which, presumably, he is the vendor. The intro for Canned Heat’s bluesy rock song On the Road Again murmurs in the background, enhancing the old Western movie tone and feel of these visuals.
His choice of clothing – a wide-brimmed felt hat, white band-collar dress shirt and a waistcoat – brings to mind the famous lone rangers of the genre, who tended to say very little but got a lot done. These tropes of Americana are interrupted by the appearance of a red BMW transporting a flamboyantly dressed, city-slick white couple (or “yuppies”, as they were derisively called by journalists in the newspapers). The couple get out of the car and the woman, played as a textbook airhead or “poppie” in a suede jacket with frills, hot pink top, shorts and sunglasses, fawns over the windmills. Her man struts towards the vendor. His balding hair is tied in a low ponytail and he sports cowboy boots, a leather jacket, a tasteless shirt and some gold chains nestled between tufts of chest hair.
“Yebo gogo,” he says, in an effort to appear in the know. The vendor stares at him blankly. He asks how much the windmills are, to which the vendor replies, “One hundred.” The yuppie kicks up a fuss, claiming he’s being ripped off and telling his girlfriend, whom he refers to as “doll”, to leave. The vendor dismisses the accusation with a hand flick. But there’s a problem.
The yuppie soon discovers his keys are locked inside the car, prompting him to panic, much to the amusement of our vendor. “Hello? Vodacom!” he says, waving a bulky cellphone while chuckling. “Isn’t it nice to know that Vodacom has expanded its cellular network to include all major roads?” the voiceover asks. A locksmith arrives on the scene to help out the couple.
At this point, James Brown’s I Feel Good plays, serving as the vendor’s victory anthem, as well as another nod to the ad’s retro American theme. The vendor shuffles a handful of notes in his hand and the couple drive off with a heap of windmills in the back of their car.
“Windmills” was released in the second half of 1994, when South Africa was in the throes of adjusting to democracy. This process was characterised by a nervous excitement about the possibilities of the unknown, and an understanding that the work necessary to build a country anew would be difficult, administrative and frighteningly insecure. While several brands responded to the temperature of the times by showing black and white South Africans interacting with each other with the intimacy of a stock photo, Vodacom took a slightly different approach. Instead of kumbaya and rainbows, Vodacom chose to play around with racial prejudice and assumptions to introduce the country to an exciting new technology: the cellphone. This device would not only eliminate some of the challenges of getting a landline for those who couldn’t afford the extraneous costs, but it would also have as profound of an effect on our lives as the invention of the printing press or motion picture did in days gone by. And it couldn’t have come at a more crucial time for telecommunications in South Africa.
In 1991, Telkom emerged as one of the three entities from the separation of the South African Posts and Telecommunications. But the parastatal only serviced 10% of the population, leaving the majority of South Africans, especially those who lived in more rural areas, without any access to telecommunications.
In Competitive Rivalry in Telecoms: A Strategic Management Case Study Between Vodacom and MTN, a research report submitted to Nelson Mandela University in 2009, CEO at Gqizwayo Holdings Vusi Silonda argues that the push to establish Vodacom and MTN as the main mobile network providers came out of this widespread lack. As cellphones became more widely available in other parts of the world, they were seen as the more convenient, futuristic and hassle-free alternative to landlines, allowing people to connect with others effectively.
With Telkom as a 50% stakeholder, Vodafone as 35% stakeholder and the investment firm VenFin having 15%, Vodacom was handed a licence in June 1993, nine months ahead of MTN.
The two mobile network providers embarked on a quest to win over the loyalty and trust of potential subscribers by adopting distinct brand identities, each believing that it would speak to the small market they were attempting to reach.
There are few fictional characters from films who have captured the zeitgeist as effectively as Gordon Gekko from Wall Street. Played by Michael Douglas, Gekko was the poster boy for “young upwardly mobile professionals” in corporate America (in short, yuppies), who considered greed a virtue, spent money with a religious frequency, and carried around bricklike mobile phones as both a tool for business and a status symbol. The rivalry between Vodacom and MTN would be organised around this hyper-American archetype.
In an interview conducted with artist and lecturer at Durban University of Technology Richard Andrew, for his dissertation in 1999, Francois de Villiers, former art director for Lindsay Smithers FCB (now FCB Johannesburg), said that while MTN had taken the mickey out of yuppies, he felt they hadn’t necessarily “distanced themselves from [them]”. Vodacom was intent on distinguishing themselves from MTN, which had decided to emphasise their intelligence and tech savviness. “MTN had done the most fantastic radio campaign – one of the greatest radio campaigns this country’s ever seen,” he said. “[B]ut … it was like a British type of humour – head type of humour – rather than a true South African belly laugh or heart type of humour.”
Vodacom was also targeting yuppies, except Lindsay Smithers FCB’s strategy was to present itself as the “people’s network”, making the owner of this pioneering technology a black man, while skewering the very white yuppies who would ostensibly be some of their initial subscribers. And it was a strategy that went down well, especially among the people at whom it was supposedly targeted. The mobile network was able to grow their subscriber base exponentially, reaching a quarter of a million subscribers a year after being fully operational, then over a million in 1999.
In an article published in the Saturday Star in 2016, which reflected on the impact of “Windmills”, journalist Brendan Seery argued that while the first reactions to the commercial included “voices of white outrage”, they immediately “dissipated as [white South Africans] realised they could laugh at themselves”. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.
- Headline changed to better reflect the content.