/ 7 September 2018

He had to drop out, but now he’s a brand

Sibu Mpanza’s videos have drawn an audience and now he also has other gigs and a portfolio of clients
Sibu Mpanza’s videos have drawn an audience and now he also has other gigs and a portfolio of clients

It’s Sibu o’clock, and Sibu Mpanza is sitting on the edge of his bed, his trusty stuffed panda propped against the pillows, looking on with a wry half-smile and a few sprigs of bamboo clutched between its chubby paws.

“Hello, and welcome to my YouTube channel, my name is Sibu Mpanza,” says Mpanza, as if you didn’t know that, as if you weren’t already part of the multitudes who tune in to catch his news, his views, his feelings about the state of the nation and the weight of the world.

Since 2014, when he was still a student in social development and gender studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Mpanza, who is now 23, has been vlogging about the big issues (race, class, politics, relationships) and the minor irritations (the way your mother’s pile of Tupperware hits you like a rockfall when you open the kitchen cupboard) with an engaging mix of candour, vulnerability and a comic sensibility worthy of a professional stand-up.

But right now, Mpanza is turning his gaze inward, focusing on a matter that is very close to his heart. He’s sharing the pride and happiness he feels at the graduation of a group of friends from his alma mater, but at the same time — and this is freaking him out — he can’t help feeling a crush of shame and disappointment, because, well, he is not among them.

Mpanza dropped out in his second year — “financially excluded”, to use the euphemism — a harsh reality that also brought a halt to his hopes of studying musical theatre at the Waterfront Theatre School in Cape Town.

As he talks to camera, Mpanza impulsively whips off his horn-rimmed specs and blows on the lenses—“I probably look really weird without glasses on, hey,” he smiles—and you can see the hurt in his eyes. This is why so many people watch Mpanza. He’s real.

And when he says, towards the end of his video: “Does anyone else feel this way? Even though you feel you’re doing something right, you can still feel like you’re doing something wrong,” it strikes a chord that resonates long after the love-you-guys send-off and the reminder to subscribe.

The thing is, Mpanza must be doing a lot of things right, not only because he has become one of South Africa’s most popular social media stars, but also because he is working proof of the dictum that you don’t need a degree to make your dreams come true.

Mpanza grew up in Khayelitsha and Mandalay on the Cape Flats, and he remembers his upbringing as marked by compromise, rather than struggle. “I used to think it was so unfair that my friends had things I didn’t have. But after a while I just learned to deal with it and take it in my stride. I would say to my mom: “Why don’t we have cooldrink in the house anymore?” And she would say:“You should go and ask the fees office at UCT”. Mpanza’s stepfather bought him a car and then sold it, along with one of his own, to pay for Mpanza’s tuition, but it still wasn’t enough.

“I totally bombed out and I hit the ground running,” says Mpanza. At Wynberg High School, he had been a promising musician, talented enough to land a spot on the Cape Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and the Youth Wind Ensemble. He was a natural performer, an improviser, at ease in the spotlight or behind the microphone, thanks to his stint as a campus radio presenter. And then, he discovered YouTube.

He borrowed a DSLR from a friend and propped it on top of a pile of books, including A Game of Thrones and the Bible. He hit record. “Hi,” he said, “I’m Sibu Mpanza and there’s something I’d like to share.”

Thus was a career born, one of those jobs, as the futurists like to tell us, that didn’t even exist until a few years ago — YouTube content creator and social media personality, it says on Mpanza’s CV — although it didn’t become a paying proposition until he packed up and moved from Cape Town to Jo’burg at the end of 2016.

He had R2500 with him, just enough to pay for a month’s rent at a friend’s place. He was hoping to find work as a video editor at an agency, but January came, no job, February came, no job; so he carried on YouTubing, drawing on his BSocSci studies—no study ever goes wasted, whether you graduate or not — to lend some weight to his views on the burning societal issues of the day.

Then, one day, a major bank approached him and said: “We love what you’re doing, we want to work with you.” Aha.

Today, Mpanza has more than 30 brands in his portfolio, working with them as a blogger, consultant or content creator, and he himself has become a brand, with his own Pty (Ltd) and his name styled as a corporate logo that shines with bling. “It’s me, my producer, my PR and my accountant,” he says. “That’s like, my business.” But he has multiple income streams too, working as a co-host and content creator with Carissa Cupido on Yfm, and as a social media specialist at Student Village. How’s that been going?

He laughs and gives one of his famous Sibu Mpanza shrugs. If the move from Cape Town to Jozi was a culture shock — “The white people in Johannesburg are nicer than the white people in Cape Town,” he marvels in one video — working a nine-to-five gig has proved to be even more so. “Like, I knew it was going to be a shock,” he says, “but I never realised just how much. Waking up in the morning, travelling to work, back at five, I’m exhausted. I’m used to working at my own pace, my own time. So, it’s been a matter of meeting me halfway, and just getting used to the flow of it.”

He thinks about what it means to be a millennial, a member of what certain other generations like to call the entitled generation. He’s not going to argue with that old stereotype; he’s just going to turn it on its head. “Yes, I am entitled,” he says. “But not in a bad way. I feel like I’m entitled to be able to have a fair chance at something. I’m entitled to have access to opportunity. I’m entitled to want to have a job. I’m entitled to a certain pay, and if you don’t want to pay me, that’s okay, move on to the next person.”

The other day, Mpanza’s mother said to him, as he was telling her what was going on in his business and his life: “Do you realise how weird it is that you can think that you will one day become a millionaire? Because nobody in our family has ever thought they could become a millionaire.” It’s not about the money Mpanza is making for himself. It’s about being able to say to his sister, when she doesn’t have money to get a bus to go to university, “I’ve got you.” It’s about being able to help his brother pay his fees. It’s about being able to help out at home.

Mpanza used to think, when he was catching minibuses back and forth to UCT, that the epitome of success would be hailing an Uber to get around. Now he has come to realise that success is the freedom to be who you want to be and do what you want to do. And that scares him.

In one video, he speaks of his struggle with mental illness — he was diagnosed with depression and anxiety while still in school — and his biggest worry as a public figure: “I’m terrified of my goals and dreams,” he says. “When I don’t reach them, people notice.”

But still, when the fear hits him and he has to walk into a big meeting or start on a big project, he has learned a way of coping. He takes a deep breath, stands tall, and tells himself: “You’re Sibu Mpanza!”

And then he gets right down to business, as scary as it may be, because, hey, it’s always Sibu o’clock somewhere.

This profile is part of the Afrilennials project run by Student Village (studentvillage.co.za). Gus Silber is a veteran journalist