The State of Us Address

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a high school visual arts teacher from a school in KwaLanga, Cape Town. She told me a story about one of her students. This young boy was virtually a creative prodigy. Of all the creative disciplines she taught at the school, there were none he didn’t master. So exceptional was this matriculant’s portfolio of work that the teacher decided to take it to Stellenbosch University’s art faculty. So impressed were the powers that be that they decided to offer him a full 3yr scholarship to study graphic design. The teacher, besides herself with excitement, went to give the youngen the paperwork. Upon hearing that a prestigious institution had so much faith in his ability, as to allow him to study there for free, this was this talented young man’s reply, “it’s ok ma’am. I don’t need to go to university. My older brother found me a job at the company he works for. I am going to be a security guard after matric.” Apparently, he ended the sentence with a smile.

This post was inspired by Tebogo’s “…in search of fire” post. In the post, she tells the story of a young who came to her to tell her that he was quitting the pursuit of his creative studies. He says he’d rather ‘pursue other means of “securing” a living. The creative culture and youth development are very personal to me and that post touched me like an uncle. I hate writing emotionally or negatively but, you’ll just have to bear with me on this one.

What totally pisses me off about the post was that this young man’s dilemma is all too familiar, far too consistent. I am going to direct this to my fellow creatives. What gets to me is not that this kid wants to quit. We’ve all been there at some point. It was May of my first-year graphic design course when I sat in my residence room, packed bags sitting on the bed, coming up with a reason to tell my folks why I had failed. Fortunately, I never made it out the door. What is grinding me are the reasons why he’s quitting and how we are almost incapable of giving him palpable motivation why he shouldn’t.

“He argues that many talented brothers in his hood are sitting with their creative talent, unable to provide for themselves or their families with it…”

The apparent “lack” of role models in the hood has been documented ad nauseam. There was a time I thought the same. That there were few people to look up to as a young, black creative. Bullshit! Go to Rosebank, Sandton and the likes. There they are, young black professionals, young black professionals everywhere. I remember being gobsmacked back then. I didn’t know black people could be so beautifully rich. I think I can safely assume that the majority of black people come from townships, including those 5 grand weavers.

I came to realize that most of those who made it out the hood, stayed the f*** out the hood. The news and newspaper headlines force us to remember what we left back home. Then we start hiding behind questions, “what’s going on in this our country?”. But the thing, is we ask those complex questions with impossible answers. Like, a woman would rather ask, “why do MEN cheat”. The answer is nicely convoluted, if not for anything but the fact that no one can speak, conclusively, on behalf of the entire male species. This question is far easier to ask than, “Why did Jabu cheat on me?” The answer there could f*** a girl up good and proper. Two days ago, a guy called into a local radio station, saying he was worried about the rape saga in India. It’s far easier I suppose. It’s clear there’s not much we can do and our sincere yet meager concern absolves us from our guilt. The time to stop asking questions is hurtling towards us at a mad speed yo!

When the fire is blazing, it’s too late to try to find the match that started it.

I used to organize job shadows for high school and tertiary students at the company I used to work for. They came from all sorts of races and backgrounds in small groups. My black brothers and sisters were always the quiet ones at the back. Like fish out of water in a professional, white-dominated workplace. Inferiority complex etched on their faces. That experience alone would turn many off from even attempting to pursue a career in the creative industry. Many would cite a lack of funds as the reason. I understood that one. By the time I finished high school, both my parents were unemployed. If it weren’t for bursaries, scholarships and straight up hustling, many of us wouldn’t have made it this far.

But then, what about the young man who gets given a full scholarship, based on his natural talent, then turns it down? What then? What do we say to him? What reasons does he have? Is he hell-bent on not becoming ‘anything’ in life? If you are not mentally and emotionally determined to do a creative course, it will eat your ass out! So forcing the guy won’t help. So what now? This is usually round about the time when we sigh deeply and someone changes the topic.

The problem with ‘our country’ is that coming up with concrete answers and solutions does not make for good banter around the braai. We’d rather ignore and hope it goes away, somehow. That one morning after Pop Bottles, we are going to wake and it will be fine and all this shit will be gon. I’ve spoken to a few professionals trying to get them to help with some of the projects I run in my hood. I’m usually met with a “haai no, fo sho jo! We must!”, I’ll usually never hear from the said individual again. YOU live in a fucked up country! It is NOT going to fix itself! The creative community is imperative in salvaging the situation. To be creative does not simply mean you do cool things and hang out the cool spots, legs crossed, peace sign, waiting to populate Instagram. It is this very creative culture that is part of the problem. TV, fashion, internet, cellphones, music, and pop culture, these are the very things enslaving our youth in self-destruction and they are all products of creative output. I for one don’t why we can’t use it as a solution.

I am under no delusion that this post is going to change anything. Much of what is on the Internet is absolutely useless really. Also, the people I am talking about in terms of needing help, most of them don’t even have internet access. If you feel guilty after reading this then I have failed. Our generation has grown immune to internet related guilt. It will last only till you close this window. So what am I ask you to do? Something! Anything! You can start by, once in a while, taking a break from being so damn cool all the time and talk to a kid. Tell them what you do. Mentor someone. If you come from the hood, stop hiding in your mom’s house. Stop looking away. Stand out the very same way you want to stand out at Arts on Main or Old Biscuit Mill. Talk to your neighbour’s kid. Be accessible. Maybe all that kid sitting in front of Tebogo needed to hear was someone he can relate to, someone who’s been where he is, to tell him wassup up in this bitch! Be to someone today, the person that you needed back then. You never know, you could be saving someone’s child from getting their heads blown off by wrong decisions.

Writer & Illustrator: Vus Ngxande