A few years later the publishers, SLYmedia took on the job of launching and publishing Y Magazine in conjunction with YFM who were busy breaking kwaito and capturing the hearts and minds of the largely black Gauteng youth. The initial idea was to allow Y Magazine to consolidate the 'black youth market' and to allow SL to consolidate the 'white youth market' and then within a few years to merge the two magazines to create SLY magazine. It was a great idea, but it never happened. The reason that there was never any serious intention to merge the magazines was due to the entrenched mindset of the media planners, advertisers and the publishing industry as a whole, who perceive the South African youth market as neatly segregated into a small top-end white market (LSM 7-10) and a large, amorphous black market (LSM 3-6). This market paradigm may have been a correct assumption during the enforced oppression of apartheid, but does not allow or account for a steadily increasing integrated, cross-over youth market made up of model C graduates and other individuals riding the crest of economic empowerment into a de-segregated new South African culture. Despite the inherent symbolism of bringing the two magazines together in a sign of nation building, reconciliation and integration, one youth united, it was no more than big talk and the magazines remained stuck in their appropriate, colour-coded, market-defined trenches. The unspoken attitude was, do not upset or confuse the advertisers and media buyers by trying to sell them a new market, which they do not believe exists.
Alas, what occurred as SL and Y Magazine struggled to capture their respective markets was a sort of internal apartheid. The magazines cannibalised the same content, as both magazines inevitably ended up reporting on the same scene, albeit from different angles. 'Black stories' went to Y and 'white stories' landed up in SL but what about the in-betweeners? The fact that loads of white kids listen to kwaito and hip hop and loads of black kids skateboard and rock to punk music. While South African youth culture tended towards the middle ground of integration, tolerance and unification before the great god of consumer culture, South African magazine publishing, via its media buyers and advertisers (A predominantly white, middle-aged, middle class sector) remains corralled into the black market/white market laager mentality and still gives no serious thought or research to the changing landscape of post-apartheid South African youth culture. A perception promulgated more by the sub-conscious prejudices of those who make up the sector than any market research or trend analysis.
It continued like this for about two years with neither SL or Y magazine managing to consistently sell more than 20 000 copies a month. Finally Y magazine was bought back and published by YFM. At which stage they could finally be recognised for what they are, a magazine in competition with SL for the same market share.
Soon afterwards SLYmedia ran out of steam and sold the SL title to Intelligence Publishing in Johannesburg. A company that trades in stock, 'cut 'n paste', syndications of British computer, gadget and business magazines. Brendan Cooper, the editor I worked under at SLYmedia, resigned in disgust and I, with the bright lights twinkling in my little eyes, picked up the mantle of SL editor. From day one it was my intention to drive SL straight into the heart of integrated, multi-cultural, meritocratic South African youth. If the market didn't exist yet in the minds of our advertisers and their media planners, we would clear the cobwebs so they could see it. Integration is, after all, the future of our country and I could not see how any sector could deny this truth and expect to survive. It was obvious from the moment the editorship dropped in my lap: SL must become the voice of the new non-racist, non-sexist, meritocratic South African youth.
Now this is not an easy task in the rocky and barren landscape of post-apartheid South African publishing. It was my intention to ween the largely white SL readership off the white rock music and white model diet they had been fed on for several years and mix it up with a wider perception of local culture, some kwaito, some hip hop and lots more black faces. To create a magazine that reflects the type of widely diversified South African space we inhabit. At the same time this strategy would increase sales by attracting a more representative readership, which has far more economic potential than the 'white market'. We introduced the SL Selection CD and filled it with the best in contemporary South African music, specialising in all genres from rock through hip hop to kwaito and other stuff that doesn't have a pigeonhole. The idea was to represent the myriad influences and styles that make up the South African youth market, so that no matter which background you come from, there will be some music on the disc that appeals to you.
What I learnt as we struggled to pull together an original magazine with a high journalistic ethos covering an ill-defined local scene catering for an as of yet unrecognised market, with a tiny budget, is that the new South African youth are largely racially tolerant and unambiguous. Although the economic and social scars of apartheid are prevalent they are not encumbered by race and are largely oblivious to racial, cultural and tribal classification. It's more about wealth and consumerism than the colour of your skin. While the older generation get stuck in the mind ruts of apartheid guilt, inequality, reparations and land reform and think back nostalgically to the miracle of 1994. The kids seem to have learnt the lesson and have moved on to other things. They are highly idealistic, pro-active, media savvy and very, very good consumers.
There is a dogma widely held in publishing circles that black covers don't sell as well as white ones. It is an interesting axis of sexism and racism that drives the decision making process of most magazine covers. Attractive, well-known white women are 'proven' to sell more magazines. That is why you'll see at least 70-80% of the magazines on the shelves this month will have such covers. The black cover dogma certainly has no place in the South African market, with our population make-up and ever-increasing upward mobility and economic growth steadily blurring the black/white economic divide. The dogma consistently overlooks 90% of the population and prospective market. Silly as it may seem, you will find the 'black covers don't sell' dogma alive and well in South African magazine publishing. Perhaps this is because most of the media buyers, advertisers and publishers in this country are products of a generation who grew up and were educated on the white side of apartheid. It would seem that the 'black market/white market' dichotomy served the publishing industry so well in our divided past, that the industry has not managed to get beyond this erroneous and completely racialised perception of the marketplace, and continue to portray it as the dominant market paradigm. Just take a trip to the Mondi Magazine Awards to see exactly who makes up the South African magazine publishing industry. 10 years post liberation and the industry remains almost entirely white owned, white run and inevitably caters for the needs [and prejudices] of white advertisers and their small, affluent, electric fence protected white market.
SL, being a youth culture magazine with a ridiculously short lead time, irreverent content, attitude and publishing precociousness that has always been on the cutting edge, should have bucked this trend years ago, but the publishing dogma stuck. In such a cut-throat publishing industry even something as seemingly logical as black covers on South African youth culture magazines, was perceived as a risky business proposition. The truth is by failing to recognize an integrated South African youth market, a magazine like SL is snubbing its greatest potential for growth and relevance in the new South Africa. SL's publisher just didn't have the guts to repeatedly test the industry dogma, and the magazine remains trapped under a glass ceiling of 15000 sales a month. In fact it was Elle Magazine that regularly started using black covers and has successfully shifted its demographic from white to integrated South African women.
Despite buying into the rhetoric and press release of positioning SL as an integrated South African youth culture magazine, black covers always caused great difficulty. The October 2002 issue featuring a very popular Msanzi model on the cover was vetoed. So was the Zola cover for February 2003. Lorcia Cooper was the uneasy compromise. However she will never be as popular or as relevant to the South African youth readership as the socially minded, multi-platinum selling, award winning kwaito and television star, Zola. The April 2003 issue of SL, which ended up displaying the grubby, battered form of Justin Nurse from Laugh It Off, was intended for rising Springbok rugby icon Gcobani Bobo. Despite the argument that Bobo is perfect for an SL cover because it consolidates the interests of our traditional white readership (rugby) but shows the new face of South African rugby that any South African can get excited about, a black rastafarian who is basically a poster boy for transformation in the old white sport. Gcobani Bobo was a sure winner for a cutting edge SL cover. Below is an excerpt from an email conversation with the publisher on this issue:
'I know rugby was the bastion of white SA, I don't need the history lesson, thanks. The issue is market related of course; why else do we publish magazines but to appeal to the market? Males on covers sell fewer than women... it is an issue of guys won't sell so many copies, quite likely for SL that black guys will sell fewer. I am more concerned though with the fact that the only person that you have found who is worth seeing and reading about is a black rugby player.'
Racial attitudes aside, the obvious economic point here is that the publisher failed to recognize the growth opportunity that an integrated South African readership presents and instead chose to remain stuck in the 'safe' paradigm of the industry's racialised market perception.
Since my departure, it has been very pleasing for me to see the roll out of SL's first black cover since 1996. Credit must be given to the current editor Natalie Dixon. Regular black covers will be the acid test. It was also distinctly pleasing to see the double page spread of Gcobani Bobo diving across the September issue's Nike advert. Poster boy for transformation in rugby.
At the end of the day this debate is much larger than South African youth culture magazines. It is a manifest example of a white owned and managed industry blinded by its own prejudices from recognizing the plum opportunities that lie before it. And this situation exists beyond publishing, it is pervades almost every facet of South African media. It is exactly this bogus perception of distinctly racialised markets that continues to hold back the South African media industry and transformation as a whole.
The question that remains unanswered is how do we get beyond the black market/white market paradigm? How do we assert and establish a South African market perception that goes beyond the stock apartheid colour distinction? Primarily, I believe that we need publishers, media buyers and advertisers who are willing to take risks with local content and probe the market space with new products and research aimed directly at this emerging market. Beyond that we need to really commit ourselves to transforming what is essentially a white industry into an integrated meritocracy that can actually serve the society it is representing. Inherent in that is a requirement for the established media institutions to transform themselves. This will only happen when they actively engage and educate a new school of South African professionals beyond the narrow definitions of race and class.