(Mis)representing the voice of SA youth

Read my piece published today in the Daily Maverick here, written mainly in response to the FNB advertising campaign that got everyone talking.

Feel free to leave a comment…

Live Mag SA in Advantage Magazine

South Africa’s advertising trade publication, Advantage, this month featured a focus on how to reach a youth market, with a page dedicated to how Live Mag SA connects brands to a youth audience in a credible way…

New on the site: Wall of Fame

One of the biggest challenges of any social enterprise is proving or showcasing your social impact. But over the years we’ve always felt that the clearest way of showing the difference this work makes is to showcase the stories of the people who’ve come through the doors and go on to do amazing things…

New on the site from today, we’re publishing our Wall of Fame: an ongoing record of the success stories of young South Africans who’ve made amazing steps forwards, with a shove from us – sometimes a big shove, sometimes just a little one. But from the stories we are hearing of Live Graduates, whatever their level of education or ability, the experience being at Live Magazine gives is proving a vital addition to their CVs.

And some of these inspiring young people are going into impressive job roles at magazines, newspapers and agencies…

You can keep track of our ongoing Wall of Fame here - and even as we publish this round, there’s already several more to add…

Wax on, wax off: lessons The Karate Kid can teach us about tackling youth unemployment

Miyagi: Now, ready?
Daniel: Yeah, I guess so.
Miyagi: [sighs] Daniel-san, must talk.
[they both kneel]
Miyagi: Walk on road, hm? Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later
[makes squish gesture]
Miyagi: get squish just like grape. Here, karate, same thing. Either you karate do “yes” or karate do “no.” You karate do “guess so,”
[makes squish gesture]
Miyagi: just like grape. Understand?
Daniel: Yeah, I understand.
Miyagi: Now, ready?
Daniel: Yeah, I’m ready.

I must have watched Karate Kid ten or twelve times before the age of 10. I was besotted by the boy-done-good, underdog-triumphs-over-high-school-bully-hegemony vibe in the 1984 classic starring Ralph Macchio and Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita. For those too young to appreciate the golden age of 80s teen films, it told the story of Daniel Larusso, a troubled latchkey kid from a single parent family who moves to a new neighbourhood. He is harangued by the cackling cool kids at his new high school who are all, it turns out, training in Karate at the same local dojo.

One evening, having battled to escape his pursuers (on BMXs, of course, it being the eighties) he runs into janitor Mr Miyagi, a lugubrious, diminutive, Yoda-like Japanese man who speaks in pidgin-English aphorisms and has a Bonsai tree fetish. To cut a long story short: Mr Miyagi turns out to be a karate badman and puts Daniel through a crash masterclass that sees him slogging his way to the finals of the local karate tournament, kicking his arch nemesis’s ass with an ostentatious swan-kick, and, of course, getting the girl in the process. The end.

I’m not sure the film would stand the test of time. Even as a mere slip of a boy I remember finding Macchio’s character annoying, but fawned at the crying-in-the-rain lost love eighties scenes when things go awry with his beloved (Elizabeth Shue - be still my beating eight-year-old heart!) to a crushing soundtrack of Bananarama’s Cruel Summer: although in summary I imagine it to be mawkish, outdated and over-acted.

But even to my jaded, overenlightened, thirtysomething cynic’s mind, there’s a lot of Zen wisdom in the film, particularly from Miyagi. As well as a sentiment to the film that makes it a stayer. And, in all serious seriousness, one particular scene has real resonance for me, especially in the context of Live Magazine…

Miyagi and the evil sensei

In the film, Miyagi puts Larusso into an informal Karate apprenticeship, having made an audacious pact with the pugnacious lantern-jawed dojomaster (who is training up all of Daniel’s nasty little tormentors as vicious facsimiles of his own troubled Vietnam-vet soul) that they will leave him alone if Daniel wins the forthcoming karate tournament. This apprenticeship involves Daniel volunteering his time to Mr Miyagi during his school holidays, and turning up every day at his Japanese-style paper house to perform a series of tasks. At the beginning of each day, Miyagi sets the task and then buggers off.

First day: paint the house with horizontal brushstrokes - LEFT!/ RIGHT!/ LEFT!/ RIGHT!

Second day: paint the fence - UP!/ DOWN!/ UP!/ DOWN!

Third day: Wax the car with circular motion - WAX ON!/ WAX OFF!

After a good few days of this Daniel loses his rag, thinking he is being taken for a ride by Miyagi: that he’s been been duped into acting as a temporary manservant for his little japanese guru.

Daniel-san looking a wee bit grumpy about the old Wax on/ wax off vibe

As a result, in the most memorable scene in the film, he confronts Miyagi with something of a quasi-testosterone-filled pubescent tantrum. Only to realise that the seemingly onorous tasks he has been labouring away at have in fact formed the basis of self-defense techniques for the esoteric Okinawa-style of karate that Miyagi is schooling him in. It’s then a mere short sprint, a few crane-kicks and windswept beach scenes later that Daniel is raising a monolithic trophy as the junior kung fu king of the universe and stealing off into the moonlight with Elisabeth Shue.

So how does this relate to a youth magazine in Cape Town?

This week we put issue 3 of Live Magazine to bed. Our young design team bear the brunt of this final stage: it ain’t pretty nor fun. It involves late nights, endless changes, losing of temper and much furrowing of brows. And it tests the resolve of a team who are, essentially, volunteers.

LIke Miyagi with Daniel Larusso, we’re trying to blood these young people in the working world so they will be not only strong enough to survive (against the odds) but flourish into the economic battleground that lies ahead of them. They might not realise what they’re learning.

And it’s not only in the final stages, when an issue gets stressful, that difficulties arise. A few months ago we realised there was a general sense of discontent among the team about what they were getting out of the ‘deal’. They were turning up every day, working, and we (the professional team) were getting paid but not them. We had decided not to provide lunch, but buy bread every day so that there are snacks for those who might not otherwise eat much – this became a complaint that our catering wasn’t good enough.

I then announced to them all that our project had been refunded for a second year by the Shuttleworth Foundation. Seen out of context, the view from some of the Live team was that, well, none of the money makes it way through to them. I know that some of the team thought: how is that fair? And when you know that there might not be much money coming into the household, or pressure from parents to put bread on the table, it’s hard not to consider their point.

Why am I here? they think. I’m not getting paid. I’ve worked hard. I’ve given my time. But what am I getting out of it? Like Daniel Larusso, it can lead to a bout of serious discontent.

Miyagi: Your friend, all karate student, eh?
Daniel: Friend? Oh, yeah, those guys.
Miyagi: Problem: attitude.
Daniel: No the problem is, I’m getting my ass kicked every other day, that’s the problem.
Miyagi: Hai, because boys have bad attitude. Karate for defense only.
Daniel: That’s not what these guys are taught.
Miyagi: Hai - can see. No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher. Teacher say, student do.
Daniel: Oh, great, that solves everything for me. I’ll just go down to the school and straighten it out with the teacher, no problem.
Miyagi: Now use head for something other than target.

Not that I’d ever go so far as to compare myself to Mr Miyagi, but I’ve had to have a few chats to discontented young people who are desperate to earn money and questioning their choice of taking up an unpaid internship. As well as trying to point out the benefits of why they’re here, I’ve also had to look a couple of our trainees in the eye and tell them I don’t think it’s my company’s responsibility to put bread on the table. It wasn’t easy and I didn’t love having to say it, but I believe it’s true.

At Live we’re not just dealing with one Daniel Larusso. We’ve got a rolling team of 25, and not all of them will succeed in the way we/they hope. That’s disappointing. And it honestly gives me sleepless nights to think we haven’t delivered for someone because of some fault in our delivery.

But the fact is, in 9 months we have seen (out of approximately 42) 12 of our core team move into full-time work, and a further 9 return or carry on into full-time tertiary education. That’s almost 50% into employment or education. So we know it works. But 50% of making it work needs to come from the individual.

Daniel Larusso about to unleash his victory-clinching crane-kick, and opening the door to finally losing his virginity

In actual fact, to stick my neck out, I believe it’s absolutely the right model: we provide the platform, the expertise, the mentoring, the contacts, the environment (and the travel expenses to get to the office). As a result, it’s not our responsibility, in my view, to be the provider of everything else. The ball is in their court there. We are not a charity, and we don’t want to be a soup kitchen. It’s unsustainable and I fear it ends up in a ‘dead aid’ situation: how can you keep the onus on progression if everything is provided. As long as we are constantly working and committed to make the offering as valuable as we possibly can: and never waver in that commitment by losing sight of our core social purpose, then I think we should all be permitted a decent night’s sleep.

We do still need to do more: more one-on-one employability mentoring, more job skills workshops, more/stronger links with employers and more PR around the fact that we exist and are have a pool of talented young people to employ.

We may not be as mystical and magical as Mr Miyagi – and I’m yet to catch a fly in a pair of chopsticks – but we are committed to making sure all the wax on/wax off makes our young team into future champions.

[Miyagi karate-chops the tops off three beer bottles]
Daniel: How did you do that? How did you do that?
Miyagi: Don’t know. First time.


Live Mag SA: Issue 3 sneak peek

Issue 3 will see a slight update in the design of Live Magazine SA, to bring it into line with the UK edition. Our four design musketeers, Sivu, Ryan, Clint and Thabo are hard at work, and here’s a little preview of how things are looking, with a story about Umuzi Photo Club…

Welcome to Pollsmoor

The typography of the sign at the entrance looks better suited to a theme park than a notorious maximum security jail. Pollsmoor’s prison gates appear innocuously opposite open green space along a leafy boulevard in moneyed Tokai. Most of the landscape around here is dedicated to gated three-storey new build residential complexes and quasi-suburban wine estates with award-winning restaurants recommended South Africa’s top gourmand guides. Once you turn into the parking lot for Pollsmoor and step out of the car, you’re well and truly through the rabbithole.

M. turned up late. He was to be our fixer: a former inmate and close friend the prisoner we were here to see. At 8am on Easter Saturday we began circling Salt River train station, on the fringes of the Cape Town CBD – never looking quite so bleak in a heavily overcast, rainy squall – trying to spot a dude in a leather jacket and white hat. One-eyed with a big scar on his cheek, my colleague Lee and I (both underslept) were already anxious by the time M. appeared. We hastily bundled him into the car and made our way through the fall-out from the morning’s Two Oceans marathon that had threatened to delay this journey at its outset. As we rattled down the M3 in my old Golf, the tail-end of the runners steamed along the other carriageway. The overweight, the walkers, the wheezing. The costumed funrunners.

We knew we were at the early stages of our own small ordeal: to try and navigate our way through the levels of red tape, inefficiency and apathy of the South African Department of Correction’s visiting procedures, starring a cast of seemingly thousands brown-jerseyed guards, desk clerks, marshalls, managers, friskers, watchers and general malingerers: each playing a bit part in making it a bewildering and painstaking process, largely organised by small pieces of handwritten scrap paper.

M was appointed to come along as he was armed with the previous experience (inside and out) of navigating through the steeplechase of waiting areas, chits and frowning bureaucrats. We warmed to him in the car, his tardiness quickly forgiven as he opened up about life inside and his apparent dedication to self-rehab. Only 23 years old, he spent 4 years in juvenile and the rest in Medium B, with a short spell in the notorious Maximum wing where the infamous Numbers gangs run things (as seen on Ross Kemp’s sensationalist documentary). He had been inside with our newly incarcerated friend, but had stayed out of trouble by devoting himself to his books and education. The gang Generals, he told me, left him alone: he respected them and they respected the fact that he was a bookworm with no interest in the thug life – apparently referring to him as ‘Brother’ as if he were a scholarly priest.

Entering the jail, we almost fell at the first hurdle: a pre-entry ‘chat’ where two facetious warders (known by inmates as ‘Members’) almost rumbled that we were a group of three when only two are allowed to visit each inmate. M, thinking quickly on his feet, came up with the name of a second inmate (we never asked if he made it up) and the scowling guards waved us through.

After a passport and Visa check (the guard swore he’d met me before), a frisk inside a floral cloth curtained booth, and a short wait for Lee (delayed since most visitors are women so the queue is longer for their frisking) we found ourselves in the first level of purgatory: a painfully slow snaking seated queue edging along benches waiting to register ourselves with the desk clerks. Here we had our first glance of inmates, unmistakable in garish orange prison tunics and slacks, wafting brooms around and casting sideways glances at the living, breathing, and mainly female, technicolour citizens of this temporary halfway house between their hell and the real world.

Wives, daughters, girlfriends and grandmothers eyed us up with curiosity – us waiting patiently in line, M told us later, was an unusual sight, as this crew of regulars were used to white visitors pushing straight to the front.
After over an hour we reached the desk where a portly female Member noted down our passport numbers and addresses, and gave us a slip of paper with X’s name. Although not his actual name, as it turns out. An administrative error had meant he was registered under a completely different – and unlikely sounding – first name. The Members chuckled as they handed us the slip of paper and wafted us toward the far door.

We then spent another thirty minutes waiting, watching sugared-up toddlers rampaging up and down as the dozy, dwindling group clustered around a pair of benches was summoned in small batches. We went last, into a packed minibus-taxi which whisked us all of 400 yards around the perimeter fence, taking a right at Maximum security, and dropped us at the gateway to the Medium B visiting area. Another unremarkable single story brick monolith, once again everyone except us knew the procedure: the 6-in/ 6-out flow through the metal turnstile, checking in valuables at the counter, purchasing items for our friend (which he could claim in a few days time) from the cupboard-cum-shop, and passing cash through a barred window for him to use on the inside.

As M and I stood outside, and he pointed out the Juvenile section behind us where he spent his time, we watched a new prisoner arrive, backed into the belly of the building through a double-gate. Shortly after, another prisoner exited through the same gate, this time on a stretcher, wheeled by two paramedics, looking pale and half-dead. A burly guard trailed him swinging cuffs and shackles for his arms and legs as the paramedics eased him and his drip into the ambulance.

Three hours after arriving we eventually found ourselves in the final ante-room: a small, bustling corridor with a bewildering stream of Members endlessly bowling back and forth, the female guard on the gate patiently opening and closing, opening and closing, each time turning the lock with an enormous brass key. The atmosphere was unmistakably light-hearted. Perhaps the guards enjoyed having civvies in the building. Some were helpful, some surly, but many clowned and joked like sixth formers in a common room. Meat-headed senior white warders with broken noses and granite jawlines barked commands in Afrikaans: the process was entirely unclear. As far as we could tell, one-by-one the members went through to find each requested inmate to fish them out for visiting time. Prisoners came and went from all directions, some showing little apparent deference to their keepers, chatting casually and joining in the general sense of eerie bonhomie. One or two sniffed and flexed as they walked past us back towards their cells, posturing for the real world.

As I checked in my valuables with the office, one of the female warders took a shine to me, winking and calling me sweetheart as she stapled my wallet and car keys into an envelope. “Do I need a slip?” I asked her. “No, sweetie”, she said with another wink and coy smile, “I know you.”

Feeling hard-done-by as the last few people in the waiting room, our visitee’s name (nom de plume and all) was announced by another portly guard in a woolly hat, and we were led through to a narrow room with tiny glass panels, separated with plywood and with a single stool in front of them.

And then there he was, eyes wide and eagerly smiling into the first friendly faces he’d seen in a week. After all the huffing and teeth-gnashing, the visit went like a shot. Lee and I took turns to press our hands against the glass and wish him love and strength and try and crack jokes. He was staying positive, he told me, knowing that he had been doing well outside had kept him going, and he was determined to get back out soon. M, who had managed to blag his way all the way through to the end, despite being the self-appointed one-too-many, was eventually hauled out by the guards who stood wagging their fingers patronisingly at him (he stood his ground, semi-triumphantly).

As Lee ran through a piece of business with him through the glass, the bobble-hatted Member came and shook my firmly by the hand and stared at me with an unnerving intensity. He wanted to know where I lived (in more detail than I was comfortable admitting), what my ‘programme’ was about and then, when I told him, tried to get my phone number and told me he could come to town to meet me.

He looked me up and down and asked me if clothes were cheaper in the UK. I tried to deflect the intensity of his questioning by asking him, if I had magazines delivered to Pollsmoor, would he distribute them for me. “No”, he said, and wandered off. And next moment they were banging on the walls and we were waving goodbye, back out into the cold Cape Town afternoon where the rain had just about given up.

As we left, the Members were milling about munching crisps, white rolls, drinking bottles of fizzy orange. I remarked to M how they were all quite, well, overweight. “It’s because they’re lazy and they don’t do anything all day”, he told me. All through the course of the day, he had chatted , seemingly cheerfully, to various Members in Xhosa. “They expect respect,” he told me, “but they don’t give it. And they don’t care. Today I’m telling them that they can’t do that anymore because I’m from the outside. I’m free.”

Along with a grandmother with walking stick – who subsequently struggled to step into the vehicle for the final minibus taxi ride back to the front gate – we were the last ones to leave. It was almost 2pm.

While we waited, a guard emerged and started throwing pieces of bread to three white ducks who were waddling towards the entrance to the visiting room. We wandered towards the Medium B gatehouse to try and usher the half-asleep Members to send for our transport. I was still holding the books I’d brought to keep our friend occupied. They weren’t allowed in because they weren’t about God.