The voice of SA’s youth


Close on 60% of South Africa’s population is under the age of 34. We’re a young nation, and mainstream media portrays this majority as beloved of bling. But just how much do we know about SA’s youth market, who they are, and where they are going? Andrew Miller weighs in.

TFBD: How big is the voice of SA’s youth? What numbers?
Andrew Miller: According to the 2012 census document, “Almost one in three, or 29.6% of the population of South Africa, is aged between zero and four years, and a further 28.9% is aged between 15 and 34 years.”

So we’re looking at about 60% of the population being under 34. Then you need to consider the 34 to 44 year olds, many of whom are—in their own heads at least—part of the YFM generation and think with a ‘young’ mind set.

We are a young country. In theory, therefore, the voice of the youth should be large and multi-dimensional.

TFBD: Is the voice of SA’s youth being heard?
AM: In mainstream media the youth voice is one of social and commercial aspiration and conspicuous consumption. It’s the hip-hop idea of making it from a ghetto life to one of wealth and success. Across mass market youth culture at the moment there’s an awful lot of bling, ass-shaking, champagne-pouring and the like.

This voice gets a lot of air on radio, at events like the Metro Music Award, on TV and so forth. It’s a pretty different voice to the one of the YFM generation, where aspiration for social and economic progress was infused with a sense of so-called consciousness and social awareness and responsibility. The more subtle artistic voice that characterises the arts scenes in cities like Jo’burg, Durban and Cape Town is very interesting to watch. The music being put out by bands like Brother Moves On and DJs like Spoek Mathambo is dynamic and creative, and the fine arts scene is booming. This ‘voice’ remains bound to its areas of operation though – it doesn’t get much mass media coverage.

There is another voice, however. The voice of heightened racial awareness and anger, of social protest. This is the voice of young people who aren’t going to break through, who perceive themselves to be living in a state of zero social mobility and who also perceive themselves to be racially and economically oppressed. This voice also doesn’t get much oxygen in the mass media space.

Between these two binary poles there is a huge amount of collective creative activity in our young communities. Spoken word collectives, hip hop groups, youngsters who make craft and fashion and who look to hold events of various kinds, sports groups, theatre and dance groups, charitable groups. This activity, in my experience, takes place within its own bubble of daily life, and the majority of it is not supported in any way by government organisations or the private sector.

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TFBD: Where and how do you tune in to this voice?
AM: I was lucky enough to be involved in the Jozi arts scene when I was somewhere near being a youth myself. As a result I have personal relationships with young creatives in the city, whom I stay in touch with. I also work a lot with young people to develop their business plans and marketing profiles.

Within this context:

1. Facebook can be a very diverse place. I try to train the FB algorithm to give me youth content by making sure the vast majority of what I share and like comes from young black african creatives: poets, hip-hop heads, artists and the like. I’ve been doing this for a few years now and Facebook for me has become a very rich listening/watching post.

2. I watch a fair bit of Soweto TV and SABC1, both of which are very interesting spaces in terms of youth.

3. I listen to as much different music and poetry as possible. I also jump across radio stations as much as possible.

4. Most important of all, I still work a lot with young South Africans on their careers. There is no better way to stay in touch with youth when you yourself are getting old.

TFBD: What are the youth of SA saying?
AM: In terms of the mass market voice, there has been a clear evolution from the socially conscious atmosphere of the YFM days to bling, party, and demonstrations of wealth and material success. In the hood, in the burbs, in the clubs — and everywhere, really.

However, out of the spotlight: in the last few years I have noticed a steady uptick in militant social thought, with a strong orientation towards racial issues. This seems to align to me with Marikana and the emergence of the EFF as a political force/voice.

One of the strong themes that continues to get air when young people talk is the idea of how alien white people are in South Africa. Frequently cited is the notion of never bothering to learn the language of the country.

Mak Manaka is a popular and well-respected poet from a strong family line of South African creatives. On the 6th of March this year he posted the following on Facebook:

I do not understand how or why could white “South Africans” comment on Freedom in Palestine, when the majority of white South Africa proclaims them self as “South Africans”, and yet can not even speak nor put together an unbroken sentence in, just one, of the South African, “official” languages. I guess the question is, what is common in the English language? Hypocrisy. How long should the Leopard compromise its spots?

I am intrigued by this narrative. It’s mirrored by the likes of Ntsiki Mazwai (sister of the famous Thandiswa Mazwai) and her open letters, which can be perceived as a quite visceral series of racial attacks.

What intrigues me is how many positive comments such blogs get. There are clearly major social issues bubbling under in our youth – they get very little play in mass media, but the self-referential, self-reinforcing nature of social media is fertile ground for such ideas to grow.

Equally interestingly, when rebuttals etc. are created to such content they are frequently posted on other blogs or newspaper sites and so forth – not on the source blog itself. What results is a head-on clash rather than any kind of debate. Each side reinforces its ideological strength using the vehemence of the other. This dynamic is by no means restricted to South African youth, of course.

TFBD: Do brands ‘get’ SA’s youth?
AM: In the mass market sense there are a lot of brands pumping budget into springboarding off the big hip-hop idea of wealth and success and funky beats. The strategy here is to find a popular trend and get your logo all over it through sponsorships, endorsements, adverts that use ‘youth’ music and the like.

  1. There’s Blue Ribbon bread advert out at the moment featuring a prepubescent dance crew in school uniforms doing a hip-hop dance, and singing a chorus that goes something along the lines of ‘get that mm hum taste’. This typifies a simplistic approach to using the devices of youth culture – music, fashion etc. – to sell product.
  2. Axe has a whole youth content web site  and the brand creates hip-hop events and the like.
  3. Castle Light has, which again attempts to build the brand by getting involved in youth culture.

To my mind there is a huge difference between this, the standard South African approach, and Red Bull’s approach. Red Bull, led by its global strategy, takes a subtly but crucially different angle. The energy drink brand hardly ever ‘says’ anything. Instead, it places itself at the centre of communities and enables them to do what they want to do. This allows Red Bull to be at centre of hip-hop culture, urban culture, extreme sports and aerobatics all at the same time. Because the brand doesn’t seek to leverage but rather to enable, it can pop up on the banks of the Dusi Canoe Marathon in 2015 playing deep house, offering Red Bull to the paddlers and it all makes sense.

Puma got this right as well in Jozi around 2012/2013 with the Puma Social club. They created a venue that offered shit-hot entertainment to the city scene and, crucially, they didn’t promote themselves at all. They just enabled, and everyone loved them for it.

In summary – most local brands, in my view, achieve the minimum possible from enormous spend trying to stamp their logo all over what they perceive to be the voice and identity of youth.

Smart brands do the opposite. They seek to enable youth culture and they keep their mouths shut. They maximise the value of their spend over the long term and create long lasting brand loyalty by helping young people live their lives in the best way possible.

TFBD: Why do we need to listen to the voice of SA’s youth?
AM: Well, speaking strictly commercially, there’s a lot to be achieved by gaining youth loyalty. Youth spend cash on their lifestyles, of course, but they eventually become parents and primary consumers, as we see now with the YFM generation of yesteryear. Brands that achieve meaningful loyalty in the young adult segment can enjoy the fruits of what they have achieved for decades.

But in South Africa, the socio-political dimension is very interesting as well. There is a huge amount of uncertainty and worry from corporations and brands and ordinary people about South Africa’s socio-political future. Increasing levels of militancy across the general populace are not only perceived as a key strategic risk by the likes of mining companies – this risk is perceived by all companies.

My view is that the increasingly racial and militant voice of local youth urgently needs oxygen. It needs platforms for genuine expression and debate. Social media has the tendency to do the opposite – to bottle this voice and keep it within the zone of self referential ‘us and them’ faux debate.

Based on the above, I believe brands that adopt the Red Bull model and seek to take a position as a powerful enabler of youth culture — whatever form that culture may take in a specific area — could achieve a great deal in in terms of long term brand loyalty. There’s a huge amount of spontaneous creative activity that takes place in our country: spoken word, fashion, house music, hip-hop, skateboarding, sport etc. Brands that look to enable and support this culture, rather than stamp their logo all over it, could really win.

I believe if we had more brands looking to operate as youth enablers, South Africa as a whole could breathe vital oxygen into the hugely important debates that are already taking place around ethnicity, race, culture and commerce. I would love to see these ideas debated and discussed at spoken word sessions (humbly sponsored by brand X or Y) and the like, rather than circulating angrily within the self referential and increasingly powerful realm of social media.

TFBD: What does this voice tell us about the future?

  1. The gap between rich and poor continues to grow. The current mass market youth voice tells us that getting rich and ostentatiously successful — getting onto the elite side of the fence, in other words — is philosophical Goal Number One for many young people.
  2. When viewed within the context of the increasingly militant and racially focused mirror voice of the youth who are never going to make it over the fence, the conclusion is pretty stark: our past has not yet been effectively dealt with. Apartheid is likely to haunt South African society for some time, economically and socially.
  3. Consequently, in the next ten to fifteen years, socio-political issues are likely to be the domain of business as much as of government – whether business likes it or not. Brands brave enough to acknowledge and work with the political complexities of South African society can gain enormously in the youth segment. The rest will carry on as normal, and will achieve predictably nominal returns.


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