Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Musa Nxumalo and 'Generation Disappointment"

The young photographer Musa Nxumalo (pictured above in a recent self portrait) scooped an ACT Award last week for Visuals Arts. About a month ago I happened to interview him in connection with a story I was writing about the youth – the titular Generation Disappointment. What was most interesting about my encounter with Nxumalo was that I discovered that this young photographer had with his Alternative Kidz series taken the notion of the ‘constructed’ photograph to a new level in the sense that he had played a primary role in creating the social subculture that he would photograph. Thus he wasn’t simply a participant in the alternative Rock scene in Soweto but he had actually had a hand in creating that scene. From his photographs one would not be mistaken for thinking that the subculture which he documents is a growing one, however, it is incredibly small: in fact so limited and fleeting that it is only really given life through Nxumalo’s photographs.

Nxumalo was inspired by documentaries which mapped the rise of rave culture in Manchester. He yearned to be part of a similar youth movement. When he looked around there was nothing like it that he could latch onto so he created a movement with the idea that he could document it at some later stage. In other words he conceived of a society for the purposes of documenting it. In this way Nxumalo’s construction of his photographs extends far beyond the moment he stood behind the camera lens.

In my feature story below,which was published in The Sunday Independent a few weeks back, my interest was in contextualising Nxumalo’s work within the broader sociopolitical context:

With dreads and a tattoo, Thato Woody Khumalo looks a bit out of place in the non-descript rural setting. He seems completely unaware of Musa Nxumalo’s penetrative camera lens as he gazes deeply into a pool of water in front of him. It is not a narcissistic compulsion which has him contemplating his reflection in the water but rather an enquiring stare that one imagines is compelled by the brand of confusion that grips twentysomethings attempting to come to terms with themselves and their place in the world. The barren rural setting succinctly articulates the sense of alienation that Khumalo and his band of punk-rockers experience in Joburg, in Soweto, where they are outsiders.

Nxumalo’s image of Khumalo could function as a poster for this new supposed Generation Disappointment. His contemplative stare could be read as a despondent gaze. Nevertheless his dress, demeanour and the setting suggest that Khumalo is not part of this group of young people pegged as impatient materialists disappointed by the fact that they have been unable to fast-track their way into cushy well-paid jobs.
Khumalo and the photographer Nxumalo are part of one of the counter-cultural youth movements emerging in this country. It is these rebellious voices that are foregrounding the flaws in our society and driving us towards a new status quo. The youth are like a mirror of our society. So certainly if they are despondent it is not a situation of their own making. It is an expression of the environment that has shaped them.

Like many of his contemporaries, Khumalo carries a unique brand of baggage. As a young black man living in a post-apartheid society there are high expectations of him. Because there are no longer any racially defined laws hindering an upwardly mobile path, he is expected to supersede his parents’ generation, many of whom sacrificed their own youth so that he could freely pursue a bright future. Consequently, it is his moral imperative to succeed. The models of who the Khumalos of this day should be, are an ubiquitous part of South African popular culture. In adverts we see them sucking on fat cigars in between sipping brandy. In soap operas these twentysomethings head up big companies and in glossy magazine spreads featuring young high achievers there is a sense that not only are materialistic gains the true measure of success but that the accumulation of wealth is within the grasp of any young educated person.

The reality is quite different. High unemployment rates among the youth, the growing spread of HIV/Aids in this population group and an education system that is failing to equip young people for the technological age in which we live have all made the dream of wealth and success just beyond reach for most young South Africans.
Generation Disappointment. That is what Dion Chang, head of a trends analysis firm called Flux Trends, terms this population segment. It is a phrase he borrowed from a Time magazine article, which was coined to describe a global youth phenomenon.
It seems that the youth have been the silent victims of the world recession, which has substantially curbed job opportunities for a generation that “had come to expect a life of easy consumerism”. Approximately 81 million young people (aged between 16 and 24) around the world are out of work, according to Chang.

In this way the growing cynicism among South Africa’s youth is not necessarily limited to this country. Nevertheless, the trend here is laden with local inflections. The ubiquity of the so-called “tenderpreneur’ has engendered the notion that wealth accumulation is still within grasp - if you know the right people and are aligned to the right political set.
“The youth think that if they get in with the ANC Youth League they will have access to money,” observes Ian Calvert, managing director at Instant Grass, a leading youth trend-spotting agency. It is perhaps for this reason that Chang’s research found that many “born frees” hankered after jobs in the government.
“This has never been a sexy option for young people. But this generation has learnt that this is the fast track to success,” he observes.
Ironically, in this context, newspaper articles engineered to expose the excessive lifestyles of government employees and politicians only serve to promote models of aspiration for the youth. Chang suggests this culture has created largely unattainable expectations for the youth, who expect to have achieved all their material dreams in their 20s. But it has had much more far-reaching consequences for those youngsters who have opted to take the “slow road” to success by studying and working their way up the corporate ladder. Like Didintle Pilane, a 22-year-old marketing graduate who moved to Joburg to study and find suitable employment. She has been job-hunting for almost a year. It has not been easy, particularly when she has seen other young people get ahead because of who they knew.
“The opportunities here are limited. As much as young people are encouraged to go to school and study, most of the people who have proper jobs right now didn’t even study,” she says.
Thulaganya Pholose, a 21-year-old studying towards a sports management diploma at the University of Johannesburg, has had similar experiences.
“I have seen a girl, who quit university but is now living in a nice home with a nice car. It is all because she had the right connections,” says Pholose.
Zanele Malevu, a 23-year-old industrial design student, who will qualify at the end of this year, doesn’t hold much hope for her future. Living in a country with such a limited manufacturing industry means that there are few jobs available in her field.
“It is hard for me to imagine where I will be in five years. I will probably be waitressing,” she says.
“I know this guy who finished his marketing degree four years ago. He is still working (in a lowly position) at Clicks,” says Pilane, who opted to study marketing because she believed it would increase her employability.

Pilane, Malevu and Pholose’s parents sent them to university in the belief that education equalled financial success. Immediate success. But the limited number of jobs available to young people has meant that education is no longer a guarantee.
“Our parents think that when we complete our studies we will get a nice job and a nice car. But it isn’t going to be like that. We are not even sure if we are going to get a job that will help us survive,” says Pholose. Within this context the phrase “generation disappointment” might also apply to the parents of these disillusioned youths, whose expectations seem to exceed reality. Parents ambitions for their children are driven by pragmatism. They have made financial sacrifices for their children and need to see a return on their investment – they can’t battle on for much longer. Malevu is under pressure to generate an income for her family when she qualifies.
“My mother thinks that I will get a job when I finish my studies. I must have one. She has already given me responsibilities. She has been paying for me for my whole life and I am grateful for that but it puts so much pressure on me,” she explains.
If Malevu and her contemporaries don’t land well-paying jobs, their parents and their communities will perceive them as failures and it will appear as if the money spent on their education was wasted.
Pholoso and Pilane’s parents laid out a considerable sum to allow for their daughters to move to Joburg and study.  To return to Rustenberg without any money or prospects will be a source of great embarrassment.
“If we go back home and are sitting in the same position as the rest of the young people in our community who didn’t go to varsity, and we are living the same life, then it will seem like our parents wasted their money.”
Though Pilane suggests that there is tough competition for internships, Chang suggests that young people simply aren’t interested in entry-level jobs.
“There is a job complex feeling among young people. We have a young generation who thought it was their birthright to have designer jeans, an iPod and gadgets on tap.”
Reality TV shows that document and create overnight success stories, young rich celebrity culture and technology that is geared towards achieving immediate results have engendered a generation that demands instant gratification, believes Chang.
“The consensus is that you should have made it by 30 – the house and smart car. This is why there is a resistance to entry-level jobs.”
Pholose and her contemporaries don’t appear to yearn for excessive wealth, just the basics – such as a car that will help them get a job in their field of specialisation.
In fact they find it hard to believe that they will ever have a house of their own.
“I want it so much but I see it as an impossibility,” says Malevu.

Other young people are rebelling against this entrenched notion that material wealth is a marker of success. This has become particularly apparent in the counter-cultural groups such as the Smarteez and the one that Nxumalo has spearheaded and documents in his photography. The Smarteez have mostly disbanded but in late 2007 a group of youngsters emerged on the fringes of Soweto who defined themselves via ensembles in primary colours that evoked the shades of Smarties.

The Smarteez embraced an “anti-label” aesthetic; they eschewed designer label clothing, preferring to wear second-hand and/or inexpensive clothing that had been altered and dyed to suit their edgy look. Combined with spiky hairdos and tight jeans, the Smarteez look evoked a distinctly punk sensibility. The “Smarteez” designation makes a wry reference to intellectual acuity. Thus some of the key characteristics of Smarteez attire, which include oversized glasses and bowties one would expect an old-fashioned professor to wear. These accoutrements were engineered to parody the bookish persona. The look implied that scholarly achievements or lack thereof were superficial markers of achievement. This seems to tie in with Chang’s assertion that young South Africans are more attuned to the outward manifestations of success.

Nxumalo and his crew similarly eschew the hyper-capitalist thrust that seems to be driving our society. While the Smarteez used dress as a platform to enact their rebellion, Nxumalo and his friends have, like many youth movements before them, used music to assert their identity and rebel against the status quo. Rejecting hip hop and kwaito, the predominant music styles in the township, is a core feature of this rebellion. As Nxumalo explains, these music styles and the iconography associated with them valourise material wealth and encourage young men to parade tough, impenetrable façades. Nxumalo suggests that the male persona was bolstered by and tied to flashy products.
“With hip hop it is all about saying, ‘look at me I am better than you’. I think rock music gave me the ability to say if I was sad and that would be okay.”
Nxumalo therefore turned his attention to rock music and alternative electronic rock. This kind of music was once the preserve of disgruntled white kids. Embracing this music style allowed him to break out of a preconceived mould. He was looking for an alternative value system that wasn’t determined by the kind of car you drove.
“If you are from eKasi (the township) you must dress and be a certain way. If you wear tight skinny jeans people think you must be gay. The way I chose to rebel against all these things is through the arts and music.”

Nxumalo quickly attached himself to like-minded youngsters and become a proponent of a small counter-cultural movement in the township, which has produced bands like Rebirth and Organised Distortion. This sub-culture, which Nxumalo has been driving since he finished matric in 2005, is relatively small. It has no name or fixed identity; though Nxumalo identifies with a group of people who enjoy rock music he does not like to think of himself as being part of a scene. At the same time, of course, he is part of one and through his photography he has found a way of concretising it.
By photographing images of his friends at parties, gigs and on the road, he validates this lifestyle and proffers a new truth. His photographs mostly present banal scenes of young people. Slightly inebriated and mesmerised by music, they look like they are living lives without purpose. The interiors they inhabit are ordinary – appropriately ordinary, given that his subjects are in their late teens or early 20s. There are no new leather sofas or flat-screen TV sets in sight. These images are the antithesis of the affluent lifestyles the youth are supposed to be living as promulgated by the media.
Nxumalo was tired of having to feel he needed to live up to that ideal.
“As a 24-year-old black man living in South Africa I am supposed to look and be a certain way. At home they look at that guy who gets paid well and has a top job and they compare me with him. Those aren’t my ambitions. I am looking for something else.”

Nxumalo blames the media for creating mostly unachievable models. “If you watch TV and see the programmes, especially the soapies like Generations, and see how they portray a 24-year-old, they show how black people are supposed to live. We are boxed (in by this image). Your parents want to push you to be like that. If you do things differently they don’t want to open their hearts to that and you don’t get the support that you should be getting (to pursue a career that isn’t well-paid.)”
The youth have been “pushed around” by the media and the government, says Nxumalo, implying that they have been expected to live by value systems that they have not determined for themselves.
“The majority of us don’t see it – especially the ones who aren’t educated.”
By displaying photographs of youths living a lifestyle of their own making, Nxumalo is attempting to the wrest back control from the media. His photographs suggest it is okay for young people to just be young. They don’t need fancy suits or a car. It’s okay for them to be irresponsible and to have fun. After all isn’t that what young people are supposed to be?

Mostly it is advertisers and commercial enterprises wishing to cash in on this burgeoning group who want to get a handle on this segment of our population. Hence there is such heightened interest in their mindset. The “generation disappointment” label may be giving expression to the sentiments this group experiences but it is yet another imposed paradigm which dictates what it is to be young. As Gerard Boyce asserts in his essay Youth Voices in South Africa: Echoes in the Age of Hope (2010), it has been popular to characterise the youth as a generation of crisis.
“According to this view the youth are characterised by problems that need to be ‘fixed’ somehow,” asserts Boyce. During his analysis of 2005 attitude surveys he concluded that not only were older people between the ages of 25 and 35 more despondent than the younger generation but that there were not enough differences in attitudes between the older and younger generation to warrant making distinctions between them.

A naïve sense of optimism has been one of the youth’s universal characteristics.  Calvert seems to believe that there is truth to this long-held notion.
“They believe that their world is their oyster. Even if they get a wake-up call they haven’t given up hope. They just move on to plan B. They are very resilient. They think that they are always a couple of steps away from being famous. For many of them it is not a case of if they will be famous, but when.”
Malevu and her contemporaries might be determined and ambitious but one can’t help noticing that the flicker of youthful optimism one usually notes in young people is quite absent.
“These days if you have a dream you must keep it in your pocket. Because it is likely you will never get there. When I walk out of the university after my last exam the world will be open to me. But it’s a gamble. Will I win or will I lose? Will I end up an alcoholic? I make the choices but at the end of the day things around me will push me to make those choices,” says Malevu.

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