Live: The Voice of SA Youth

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The voices of less privileged South African youth are rarely heard in the mainstream media. Live Magazine, which recently celebrated its first birthday, aims to change that. The magazine is written, produced, laid out and edited entirely by a team younger than 25. In addition to the slick final product, the project also aims to get young people into work by giving them media experience they’d be unlikely to find elsewhere.

It’s Tuesday afternoon in the Live Magazine office in Cape Town’s Waterkant, and the place is pumping. Young people are gathered around laptops, typing, discussing, watching video clips online. On a whiteboard, a rough plan of the content for the next issue has been stuck up. The cover story, it appears, will be: “Are SA Youth oversexed?” Editor Ashleigh Davids, 21, approaches me as I study some of the cover mock-ups. “We think that one might be a bit raunchy,” she says, pointing to a photo of a topless woman in silhouette standing over a man. “We have to choose with care, because even though people get the magazine for free, they’re picky about what they pick up.”

Live Magazine is now just over a year old, and boasts a circulation of about 50,000 in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and Port Elizabeth. In addition to bringing out a print edition every three months, the team produces dedicated content for a YouTube channel and a mobile-enabled website. It’s a far cry from the situation when founder Gavin Weale, originally from the UK, arrived in South Africa last year May armed only with “a laptop, a suitcase, a three-year visa and the big idea,” as Weale wrote for the Guardian.  “I had one friend and a handful of contacts, no car, no home and some serious challenges on my hands.”

But what Weale did have was a conviction that he could transplant the model of Live Magazine, a success in the UK, to South Africa. The UK incarnation got its start when a youth marketing agency, Livity, decided it wanted to launch a publication which would both engage the youth of south London and help them find work. Live Magazine UK was born in 2001, with Weale as a mentor, and under his guidance the magazine has established itself as London’s best-known youth-run publication. In 2011, with a grant from the Shuttleworth Foundation, Weale decided to see if he could make the format work in South Africa as well.

Five editions later, Live Magazine seems to have found its feet rather securely. Its content is produced entirely – from writing to pictures to sub-editing to layout – by a team of young people under 25 years old, who are mentored by some established freelance journalists. In general, staff members are there for the period of a three-month internship – the gestation period for one issue – but some stay longer, including up to a year. To apply for positions, they must submit a CV – even if handwritten – and one piece of some kind of work. 

“We focus on people who might not otherwise get a chance,” Weale explains. “Some are studying, others can’t afford to study, and others have been referred by NGOs we work with, like Young in Prison.”

They are unpaid, though transport costs are covered, but the idea is that their hands-on experience producing a national magazine puts them into a far more positive position when job-hunting afterwards than they would otherwise be in. “We had a debate about the payment issue from the beginning, but we do feel that it’s the right model. We have a very clear contract with them, explained upfront,” says Weale. “It’s proven that the process can be a springboard into paid employment. The ball is in the court of these guys to take the opportunity.”

Editorial mentor Lee Middleton, who has a wealth of experience writing for international publications like Time magazine, agrees. “This opportunity is a more feasible way to get them media experience than expecting them to be able to afford to go to university, or get out of a township to work in a magazine. If you can make the most of three months’ practical experience, and work the contacts, you really have a step up.”

Weale cites the example of a young man who worked on the magazine’s digital content for four months before being taken on by ad agency 140BDDO. Brought on as a creative intern, he has just won his first gold Loerie for a radio ad. The eNCA channel is also taking on two Live Magazine alumni as broadcast interns in the new year. “Around 40% of them go into employment, and 30 to 40% of them go back to their studies,” Weale explains.

Josh Klein, a former Live Magazine intern who also now works at 140BBDO, pops into the office for a visit. He was recruited by the agency after six months at Live. “I enjoyed it a lot here,” he says. “They gave me the design skills I needed to do my current job in DTP [desktop publishing].” He explained that the agency likes to keep an eye on the talent coming out of Live Magazine. Klein doubts that he would have found himself in his current job without his stint at Live. “I would never have even heard about the opportunities available,” he said.

This is a point also made by current editor Ashleigh Davids. On the back of her work at Live she was offered a paid internship at the Loeries. “There’s just so many opportunities you’re not aware of from the outside,” she said.

Because some of Live Magazine’s staff comes from seriously disadvantaged backgrounds, or prison, Weale says that the mentors’ job is not limited to overseeing the magazine production. “We also have a thread of pastoral care and personal development in our work. The mentors do regular one-on-ones with everyone, so it does cross into social work a little bit.” He says there have been occasional challenges in this regard. “We’ve had some young people out of Pollsmoor who were quite hard to work with. You’ve got to balance the need to produce something of good enough quality while fulfilling your social mandate.”

Weale says the team is given a free hand in terms of what it wants to cover for the magazine, without trying to push it towards “hard-hitting” issues. If anything, he says, the magazine tends to want to steer the team towards slightly “lighter” content. “It’s a lot of serious stuff,” agrees Middleton. “But it reflects the world they live in. Then, of course, there’s also the fact that it’s harder in some ways to write light-hearted stuff well.”

Their five issues so far actually have a good balance of serious and light content. They look great – the design is slick enough to compete with any more commercial publication on the shelves. The magazines also make for a rather fascinating glimpse into South African youth culture (at least if you consider yourself a bit divorced from it normally). “When a chick is seen skateboarding she is associated as being a lesbian,” I learn from one issue. Another issue informs me that if model Carmen Solomons, 20, was made president for a day, she would “give away cars and bursaries to the deserving”, make abortion illegal and bring back the death penalty.

The roundup of “what’s good” and “what’s whack” in another issue reveals that blogging and afternoon naps are a hit. But they loathe delayed trains, airtime woes, and when you go home to your rural family for Christmas and you have to “borrow one of granny’s pegs whenever you have to go a level above number one when using the bathroom”.       

There’s a great regular feature called “Live Challenge”, where youngsters from the office are sent to do something which jolts them out of their comfort zone. Three young whities from the suburbs go to Nyanga to eat sheep’s head (verdict: “not that bad”.) One contributor gets a tattoo (“I would never do it again”). A straight team member is sent to a gay club (“This thing about thinking every gay guy wants you is nonsense”).

Almost every issue features financial tips: enjoyable things to do which are free; how to make your own presents; how to save up. There is also a lot of career advice, and tips on beating frustration after a lengthy period of unemployment. Fashion spreads abound, and there’s usually an interview with someone passably famous.

One of the most interesting features of the magazines is their vox pops: quizzing youngsters on the street about various issues. Ipsos, eat your heart out – this stuff is a pollster’s dream. Do you feel free, one set of youngsters is asked. “I have no freedom,” replies a 17 year-old. “I have no family and I live under a bridge.” Others are more upbeat: “Freedom has accommodated interracial couples and I’m happy with it,” responds an 18 year-old.

Do you blame Apartheid for your problems? Sipheshile, 19, answers with a qualified no: “We are still stuck to that old mentality of being dependent, especially on whites, whereas we do have skills and ideas, but we are not able to use them without being dependent.” Sasha, 20, answers in the affirmative: “All the depression and oppression caused people to be stuck in the mindset that they don’t need to work because they believe that the past should give them what they want, whereas they need to work for it.”

In the final vox pop of the year, a group is asked who they want as president. The results? One vote each for Jacob Zuma, Helen Zille, Julius Malema and Tokyo Sexwale. And the winner, with two votes, Kgalema Motlanthe.

But the magazine also carries some serious in-depth features, on notably under-explored topics: an examination of whether “white culture” exists, for instance, is something few editors might think to commission. (A central difference of white culture hit upon in the resulting feature was that white parents will offer you alcohol with dinner, whereas the black youth were still sneaking booze out of their parents’ liquor cabinet.) Another feature interviewed the victims of corporal punishment; one issue carried a comprehensive assessment of the implications of the Protection of State Information Bill; and another looked at the problem of corrective rape of gay men, rather than just lesbians.

Weale draws my attention to a feature in issue three titled “Youth Then and Now”, comparing the young people of Apartheid’s struggle to current South African youth. “This one was written by one of our crew who was ex-Pollsmoor, and got sent back inside halfway through writing it,” he said. “The final corrections for this piece were taken in by [editorial mentor] Lee through a reinforced window at Pollsmoor! But I think the piece is quite distinctive and fresh – and proves you don’t need a journalism degree to write a good story.”

Writer: Rebecca Davis

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  • Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford University. This article was published on Daily Maverick online.