How to be ‘masculine’ in South Africa today


The concept of masculinity, long seemingly ‘carved in stone’ in South Africa, is beginning to evolve. While the traditional gender codes remain true and relevant, new individual expressions are emerging. The resultant diversity means marketers should be careful not to paint all men with one brush stroke. Let’s explore the emergence of one such identity which I call “the self-expressed man”.

Traditional masculinity

SA has always been described as a patriarchal society, in which masculinity is defined by physical strength and toughness, a stoical and authoritative presence. Particularly in African culture, the man has traditionally and historically been the more-dominant gender. From birth, African men are respected simply because they’re male. This is where we cue brands such as Carling Black Label and King Kong, both of which for many years owned this traditional expression of masculinity in their advertising and communication to black men.

However, we know that society and culture are changing, sparking the evolution of traditional gender roles.

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In a society where many children are raised by single mothers, women are increasingly the providers and protectors, a role traditionally associated with the man of the house. The result? A generation of fathers who are today more involved in their children’s lives, and more affectionate. Also challenging SA men’s traditional roles is the rise of educated and empowered women in the workplace. Both are forcing men to forge a new identity in society and become more dynamic. Cue the ‘modern man’ who is in touch with his ‘feminine side’ and more aware of his physical appearance, as characterised in campaigns such as the latest advertising from Nivea for Men.

Change has been slow but is picking up the pace; there is a younger generation of black males who are even more expressive, choosing to reflect their masculinity through fashion, music and dance.

Vibrant, dynamic, youth-orientated forms

I recently attended an exhibition at the University of Johannesburg’s FADA Gallery, called HYPERSAMPLING IDENTITIES, JOZI STYLE. The exhibition focused upon the vibrant, dynamic, youth-orientated forms of production and delivered an ever-emergent and ever-changing transnational, transhistorical, transcultural, Afro-urban and Afrofuturist array of black masculine identities. It featured photographs, videos, garments, films, archival materials and installations focusing upon emergent and established performances of fashion(able) and fashion(ed) identities by South African subcultural groups (the Swenkas,Pantsulas, Izikhothane and Sbhujwas), design collectives (DearRibane113, Khumbula, the Sartists, the Smarteez), and cultural practitioners and photographers (Anthony Billa, Tyrone Bradley, Andile Buka, Christian Courrèges, Don Dada, Harness Hamese, TJ Lemon, Mack Magagane, Justin McGee, Macdee, Jamal Nxedlana, Dr Pachanga, Chris Saunders, Jürgen Schadeberg, Alexia Webster, and Simon & Mary).

With beautiful and powerful opening-night performances by the Swenkas, Soulistic Fusion Trio and Intellectuals Pantsula, these young men showed a side to black masculinity that has become more apparent, if not acceptable. Although actors, musicians, Swankas and Mapanstulas have existed for many years, seeing a young group of boys working together to re-interpret these identities and express themselves in a choreographed performance that was immaculately synchronised opened my eyes to a new side to masculinity and breathed new life into the saying ‘boys don’t cry’.

This passion, enthusiasm and candid expression may also be seen in Lebogang Rasethaba’s Pantsula Orchestra music video for the Sons of Kemet’s track, “In the castle of my skin”, that captures the raw but beautifully expressed emotion of these young male performers from the township. The key takeout and message to young boys out there is that you may truly be anything you want to be, so long as you apply the passion, discipline and dedication to your work.

What does this mean for brands?

What this tells us is that masculinity is evolving and that brands, when speaking to men, should look to embrace the various individual archetypes and expressions of masculinity as they become more apparent. Men as a target market in their own right are not a homogenous group who may be painted with broad brushstrokes, and the next generation of black males in particular will become more dynamic; the self-expressed black male is just one of them.

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