Soweto stories

Earlier this month I travelled to Soweto for the inaugural Amaphiko Academy. It’s a ten day academy for social entrepreneurs, put together by Red Bull.

Eighteen South African social innovators were selected to take part. Some of them were running pretty sophisticated social enterprise, others had never heard the words ‘social’ and ‘enterprise’ put together and certainly didn’t know that their after-school art project or skate education scheme or township gardening operation was indeed a social enterprise.

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It was eye-opening for everyone. Each day comprised a moderated lecture (hence my involvement) with a top-flight guest, ranging from MIT’s entrepreneur-in-residence Julius Akinyemi, to Subway Art photographer Martha Cooper to Andy Walshe, director of high performance at Red Bull. The afternoons were spent in small crowdfunding workshops or in sessions where participants could co-create a logo or a short video, or where they could just work out ways of explaining exactly what they do.

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Soweto is a huge place (population 1.5m) and much of the world’s most famous township is in pretty good shape. There’s a growing tourist industry, a new theatre and one of SA’s largest shopping malls. Some of Soweto, though, is still grindingly poor, like Kliptown, the area just across the tracks from our hotel where Amaphiko staged three evening events – itself a small, trusting, leap from the usual way of doing things. There’s nothing quite like walking along train tracks in the dark, with burning tyres as street lighting, chaperoned by street kids in youth centre t-shirts, to challenge your preconceptions.

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I saw a huge degree of civic duty, innovative thinking and low-resource ingenuity. Meshack Sitoe runs an arts project for people with learning difficulties where they don’t have money for clay – so collect it from the riverbed. When his project was kicked out of their community centre he dusted himself off and set up in a friend’s back yard. Ramona Kasavan realised that girls were missing over 300 days of schooling a year because they couldn’t afford proper sanitation during their periods – and developed a two-pronged solution that involves a low-cost, high-performance pad and the rebranding of periods as ‘happy days’. Sifiso Ngobese realised that the township reclaimers who lug hug loads of rubbish each day to recycling for pittance wages were actually doing a great civic service – and developed branded, durable carts that both make life easier and rebrand these workers as heroes, not lowlife.

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This resourcefulness was also present in the people we met along the way, like the Kliptonians who run the SKY Youth Centre, or the collective of artists behind the Post 77 Gallery, or the kids adapting reclaimed plastic toy trucks with a long stick to make them more navigable. In a world where low-resource ingenuity will become more valuable as resources become increasingly scarce, societies like Soweto are well-placed to thrive – and there’s a lot we can learn from them.

It’s increasingly obvious, to quote Peter Senge in this month’s RSA Fellowship Magazine, “we’re not going to be able to keep privatising profit and socialising cost to the degree we have been.” Projects giving grass-roots social entrepreneurs access to networks and opportunities are a good start. It’s about putting social profit on a par with financial profit and recognising the value that both bring.

I don’t feel I got to know too much about the vastness of South Africa in my short stay, but I feel like I got a strong taste of Soweto, a place described in Philip Bonner and Lauren Segal’s excellent ‘Soweto: A History’ as “a catalyst… what happens in Soweto will determine what happens in the whole country.” On the 20th anniversary of democracy in that country, here’s to a new generation of social upstarts. And the next Amaphiko academy. I’m in.

 

Superteams

I went to hear Khoi Tu, author of Superteams, speaking at The RSA a few weeks ago. He was sharp, smart and very interesting.

The best thing you could do is just to go straight to the podcast.

But if you want more of a taster, here goes. His premise was to go and spend time with some of the most successful teams in the world including the people behind Pixar, The Red Cross, The Rolling Stones, The SAS and Ferrari’s Formula One unit. He found out what made their teams so wildly successful.

There were too many delightful nuggets: Pixar appreciate the value of ‘creative abrasion’, where team members are tasked with positively pulling apart work that has been created. The Red Cross embody the motivating power of shared purpose. The Rolling Stones contain four essential elements of a superteam – a leader (Mick), an individualist (guess who), a diplomat (Ronnie) and a stable element (Charlie). It went on, brilliantly, including the suggestion that successful teams are between four and twelve deep; that teams who work together remotely need physical or at least visual hanging out time, and Mandela’s brilliantly understated observation about FW De Klerk in answer to a question about how to make difficult relationships work: “We get on, but we don’t hang out.”

And the best bit? He’s donating the profits from Superteams to The Red Cross. Now that’s putting your money where your mouth is.

Enter The Positive Hustle

So, Generation Next, presented by Gemma Cairney went out on on Sunday and it’s on iPlayer til the end of the week. The idea was to shine a light on the young people coming up with creative responses to the recession but it also required some historical digging. This was a highly enjoyable part of the process.

It was clear to me that grime had a big part to play in this story. I remember seeing what my friend Kevin Braddock once called ‘crews with a business plan’ right back at the point where UK Garage turned into grime. Acts like So Solid Crew might have seemed like a raggle-taggle bunch of talented MCs but from their perspective, they were an early incarnation of band as brand. They were a business, with a record label, promotions arm, radio station and huge fanbase. They were a Wu Tang Clan, born from a Battersea estate rather than Staten Island projects. To the front and centre of Wu Tang were crews like Ruff Sqwad, More Fire, Pay As U Go, Musical Mobb who were channelling music and business without the former polluting the latter. The old idea that art and money shouldn’t mix was being broken down by a new generation of artists with an eye on the future.

I didn’t actually cover So Solid in the documentary but that’s because you have to make fairly brutal decisions about what to include and what to leave to the side. I did catch up with JME though, who provided a perfect Year Zero for the new generation of grimepreneurs. He was the first person to monetise the impulse sent out by the UKG Wu Tangs in a way that resonated outside of the margins. Boy Better Know became famous within and outside of grime for selling thousands of T Shirts, and built a solid base primarily by being one of the funniest and smartest MCs on the block, but also by making sure his business was on point.

You can’t look at grime without looking at hip hop. Dan Charnas wrote The Big Payback: The History Of The Business Of Hip Hop and provided the expert American voice for this section. I read the last part of his book before we spoke but hadn’t read the whole thing til afterwards. It’s an incredible read and one of the best music books I’ve ever read. He has a lovely style that fuses a minute attention to the detail of what happened with dialogue that reads like fiction. You don’t have artists telling you the boring stuff about what they did, you just hear them talking amongst themselves, as if you’re in 1984, hearing Rick Rubin motormouthing across a table somewhere, or as if you’re earwigging Damon Dash and Jay-Z shooting the breeze somewhere in the mid ’90s.

He placed hip hop firmly at the centre of this trend for a new wave of enterprise that sits comfortably with art: rap, he says, changed everything.

There was one more historical corner to examine. You couldn’t normally justify talking about punk on 1Xtra but it’s a jubilee year and the parallels were just too compelling to ignore. So I went along and interviewed Pete Donne from Rough Trade East who spelled out the links between the new wave of creatively-inspired entrepreneurs in 2012 and the kids inspired by punk to start record labels, make fanzines and start bands.

It’s up til Sunday, if you want a listen.

I just made a documentary for BBC1Xtra about the new wave of young entrepreneurs coming up with creative responses to the recession, presented by Gemma Cairney. It’s going out tonight.

It was a real pleasure to be able to make this, and not just because I’ve discovered I love making radio. It was a pleasure because I know there’s a huge disconnect between what the mainstream thinks about the youth and what I know from my work as editorial mentor at Live Magazine. Most people are just fed stories of doom and violence, dispossession and laziness. We hear that exams are too easy, that school-leavers can’t read or write, that young people are addicted to their phones or to celebrity and that’s not to mention the constant hum of our obsession with the tiny minority of youth who get involved in criminal violence, who end up as inaccurate poster children for a whole generation. They’re not.

I see a different reality, of a generation – or perhaps more accurately a sector of a generation – who are incredibly motivated and capable. These are people who are spending their teens and easily twenties making their own jobs, setting up charities and social enterprises, starting businesses that will end up employing other young people, or otherwise just doing stuff that will help make them more employable. Enterprise these days, says one of my interviewees, Andre Campbell, isn’t all about The Apprentice. It’s just “a positive hustle”.

I interviewed some positive hustlers for my documentary, like Sam Harris who set up Pedal Power in Bristol, or Live Magazine editor Celeste Houlker who also runs 12th Estate, a social enterprise to support young women who want to set up their own businesses.

The only downside was that I couldn’t include more people, like Beejay Mulenga who I first met when he was 13 and was hurtling headlong into a world of enterprise with his Supa Tuck Shop company and charity Supa Inspire, or the Rianna Price from the supa dupa fly Run Dem Youngers or Shadrack Straker who dreamed up a business that would bring people together and would solve youth unemployment at the same time. He became one of the first Virgin Media Pioneers and has subsequently met Richard Branson on a number of occasions. There are thousands more like them all across the country and I think they’re great.

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