The people vs the advertisers

Place-maker: Greg Maloka, managing director of Kaya FM, also spent 10 years at Yfm. His hand in two Johannesburg radio stations has given him a unique perspective on the identities the city’s residents have grown into. (Delwyn Verasamy)

Place-maker: Greg Maloka, managing director of Kaya FM, also spent 10 years at Yfm. His hand in two Johannesburg radio stations has given him a unique perspective on the identities the city’s residents have grown into. (Delwyn Verasamy)

Greg Maloka’s corner office in Rosebank offers panoramic views of Auckland Park, Northcliff and a sliver of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs. This is just one of the rewards of having played a pivotal role in reimagining what a Joburger is, first as youth radio station Yfm’s general manager and now as the managing director of Kaya FM.

Both 20 this year, Yfm and Kaya were the born-frees of commercial radio. The stations entered the market in the dusk of Nelson Mandela’s presidency, when Thabo Mbeki and his dream of an African Renaissance were waiting to take over the Union Buildings.

Maloka and Kaya’s adoption of an Afropolitan identity are what bring me to his office. As a radio journalist, I’m interested in the role of radio in “place-making” — the notion that cities and their infrastructure, such as regional radio, should create ideal spaces in which people can live, work and play.

Gauteng is nothing without its money-spinning capital, Johannesburg. The city was established by gold prospectors in about 1886 on land occupied at that time by the Bafokeng, Bakwena and other Batswana. Mzilikazi, who split away from Shaka in the 1820s, left what is today KwaZulu-Natal and settled with the Ndebele in the Gauteng/Mpumalanga area before being chased by the Voortrekkers across the Limpopo. The Boer Republic of the Transvaal, established in 1852, was crushed by the British at the turn of the century and was incorporated into the Union of South Africa in 1910, a white supremacist dominion of the British Empire. The Union became apartheid South Africa.

And so we stumble through history, with disputes over who belongs here and who does not.

The making of the Afropolitan

Much has been written on Afropolitanism since academic Achille Mbembe and Ghanaian-Nigerian author Taiye Selasi popularised the concept. Under Maloka’s stewardship, Kaya  FM officially declared itself “the home of the Afropolitan”.

Selasi sees the Afropolitan as a person who derives their sense of identity from many places at the same time, because global mobility defines their experiences. “Were you to ask any of these beautiful, brown-skinned people that basic question — ‘where are you from?’ — you would get no single answer,” she wrote.

For Mbembe, Afropolitanism is “a way of being in the world, refusing in principle any forced form of victim identity — which does not mean that it is not aware of the injustice and violence inflicted on the continent and its people by the law of the world”.

Mbembe imagines Afropolitanism as a refusal to accept essentialised notions of identity that for centuries have set those who belonged here apart from those who did not. He sees Johannesburg as the centre of Afropolitanism par excellence.

This is why the concept strikes me as being idyllic and as having long passed its sell-by date. Beneath the multiracial, cosmopolitan facade of Jo’burg, there are people and groups who are made to feel that they do not belong here. These are poor black people, immigrants from other African countries and even South Africans from elsewhere in the country.

Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba is xenophobic and wants people from other African countries removed from “his” city. He has been dubbed the Donald Trump of South Africa for his comments last year that “foreigners, whether legal or illegal, are not the responsibility of the city”.

In 2012, then Gauteng premier Nomvula Mokonyane, during a speech at the opening of the provincial legislature, blamed immigrants for the province’s failing public health infrastructure. She said the province was a “victim of its own success” because it attracted “health migrants” from elsewhere.

Surely if the Afropolitan is to signify a rejection of essentialised identities, it should include all Africans?

Are we all Afropolitans?

But Maloka disagrees that the term is outdated. “South Africans have been Afropolitans long before the term existed. Who wants to exist in many places at the same time by choice?”

He is alluding to the country’s violent history of land dispossession, forced removals, Bantustans and the migrant labour system.This is where his ideas become more challenging. He might also be alluding to the disconnects in origin and identity that exist among the descendants of the 1652 Dutch settlers, the Voortrekkers, the 1820 British settlers and the Randlords, who made the city what it is today.

Many of them, too, may not be able to easily answer the question: Where are you from?

“What we have realised over the years is that the Afropolitan is an interesting creature, and that’s how we can have David O’Sullivan [hosting the] breakfast [show on] Monday to Thursday and then Skhumba on Fridays on the same station, same time slot, same audience, because [Afropolitans] are all those things.”

The strategy seems to be working. Kaya is among the top five regional stations, enjoying an impressive 6% of a total of nine million possible listeners and making it the top independent station in the province.

“There are a lot of black people who don’t identify as Afropolitans and many white South Africans who, with their two passports, are waiting for an excuse to get out,” Maloka says.

For him, Afropolitans are “South Africans and Africans who are invested in Africa and want to see it work”.

This raises more questions: What would an Africa that works look like? Does work refer to economic productivity? If so, is it equitable, and on what basis is the value it creates shared?

Money talks

Maloka’s 10 years at Yfm hint at answers to some of these questions. He recalls how the station became a political project for many of its on-air talent and staff.

“We all knew that popular culture was a very effective tool to push on a new struggle for an identity, freedom, opportunity, economic access and access to education,” he says.

Young black people were being told that they could be and do anything. So that’s how Yfm was run. It broke established norms of what made for “good” radio. Their trademark sound, a mix of hip-hop, house, kwaito and Afro-pop, attracted 600 000 listeners in the first year.

When they went knocking at advertisers’ doors, they were told to come back when they had one million listeners. When they did, they were given another story. The goalposts kept on shifting, he says.

The problem was not the number but the identity of Yfm’s listeners. In the minds of marketing executives, young, black, uneducated, poor people could not afford their products so directing advertising at them was pointless.

The subsequent financial strain caused the big bosses at Yfm to put pressure on the team to change direction. They had to target a demographic that would lure advertisers and make the station a commercial success.

Maloka says many of the staff refused to do this and opted for pay cuts. They wanted the station’s commercial success to come from the Yfm ethos of encouraging young black people to claim their place in the world.

The late Fana Khaba, known on air as Khabzela, took this project seriously. Maloka says Khabzela went on air a few days after yet another meeting at which advertisers had told them that Yfm listeners had nothing to offer.

He said if Yfm listeners were serious about changing their lives, they should start a business such as a car wash. People called in, so Khabzela took his own car and those of others to be washed. He urged more young people to
start other businesses in the car-wash value chain.

Place-making inverted

This is why Yfm was important. It taught young people the importance of the hustle, of making something out of nothing. If it was not for the commitment and sacrifice of Yfm’s on-air talent and staff, the station might have bowed to the pressure from advertisers and changed tack, leaving young black people voiceless.

Maloka’s early days of experience at Yfm with advertisers makes me wonder: Is commercial radio’s role in place making inextricably tied to free-market capitalism, which only recognises the monied?

The answer is yes. But Yfm’s resistance to playing this role flipped the model on its head. Radio, the infrastructure, did not make the space for people. The people, Gauteng’s youth, made radio make space for them.

Maloka has taken many of these lessons with him to Kaya, which has an older, wealthier and generally black listenership. But even it is ignored by certain sectors.

Kaya’s research division, which he established, recently published a study into the black traveller market, which domestic tourism businesses had ignored. The report showed that black people do travel. The problem wasn’t the market; it was the products on offer that lacked appeal. The report was yet another attempt by Maloka at having Afropolitans make domestic tourism’s infrastructure make space for them, rather than contorting themselves to fit into whatever little space the sector offered them.

I mull it over: people asserting their existence to bend the market to their will. The idea is seductive but it sits uneasily with me.

How many more times are the poor, voiceless or marginalised people in cities going to need to assert their existence? How long before we realise that the main problem is that the prevailing worldviews and structures are inhumane? They recognise and prioritise certain categories of people and grant them space in the city, while they demand that others prove their worth before making space for them.

As the sun sets, Maloka and I walk out on to his patio. As he looks out at the brutalist architecture of the SABC, I realise my unease, though important, is irrelevant. Maloka has chosen his own way to make people unseen be seen. He has chosen to think about what kind of world he wants his children to grow up in and he is taking the necessary steps, through radio, to make that world real.

Gugulethu Mhlungu is a writer, editor and broadcaster on Radio 702

Client Media Releases

MTN backs SA's youth to 'think tech, do business'
Being intelligent about business data
PhD for 79-year-old theology graduate