by Veli Ngubane (@TheNduna) The transformation debate is no longer an issue about black and white people; it’s about opening practical, results-driven dialogue between the people who care about the future of this industry.

Core problem

The core problem with the transformation debate is that it’s been more about politics than about reforming the economy, resulting in the discussion being more about the past than the future.

It’s also been seen by some as a system to replace white economic power, when its objective has always been an equitable sharing of that power and its benefits, that is, including a sector of society that had faced legislated exclusion for hundreds of years. It’s time we start an inclusive discussion that aims to correct this — also in our industry — to ensure a future for all of us.

I sit here addressing an issue that shouldn’t be taking centre-stage at this advanced stage of human development, a topic that we as people should have long progressed from. This is the topic of race, white privilege and positively correcting the social injustices of the past to ensure a fair future for all. If we can launch a rocket 384 400km into space and take people to the moon and back, then surely, we can understand that “Black Lives Matter”.

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This article is a declaration of war, a warning and an agitated plea to the industry decision-makers to take transformation seriously for their business survival and the development of the country, to take a stance against racism and the lack of appreciation of black people’s talents notable in our industry (and many others).

Both the present and future

Our lives as black people matter in the world and in the advertising industry in South Africa because our collaborative voices, experiences, insights and work represent both the present and the future of this communications industry. We have and still can contribute much to the growth of this industry, if transformation is achieved and the barriers to access are broken.

Silence by our industry leaders in the fight against systemic racial oppression — faced daily by black entrepreneurs, creatives and practitioners — counts as an endorsement of this wrong; we need more people to speak up. Disappointingly, many brands and agencies have been silent on these issues concerning race, gender and other social justice issues.

It’s time for the industry to unite in creating a sustainable roadmap for the future of the industry. This should involve a collaborative approach by the various industry organisations and stakeholders, where we aim to find common purpose, reporting, measurement and planning in all issues related to transformation.

Hashtags and superficial support are simply no longer enough. It’s time for concrete, visible, practical and measurable solutions to be applied and reported on.

Position of privilege

If what you’re seeing happening in the world today is a shock to you, then you stand in the position of privilege and that’s what we must put an end to as an industry. It’s been the reality of millions of people, the only difference now being that it’s widely documented with the advancement of technology. Racial inequality is the real pandemic.

It’s a privilege when your social conditioning, environment and upbringing don’t create insecurities and doubt just because of the colour of your skin. It’s a privilege that your ‘success’ is automatically accepted and not constantly interrogated or probed because a sector of society doesn’t believe that you have the acumen or ability to achieve and deliver, simply because you’re black. It’s a privilege that there are positive preexisting media biases and narratives that are in place to automatically support your progress because of your race.

That we have to fight to matter in this world as black people is a real indictment on our society, as it is on societies around the globe.

I’d like to believe that, because of our democratic transition and the victories associated with it, we as South Africans have progressed beyond the American condition, where black people are still fighting to matter politically. Ours is now a legislated path to making sure the imbalance of the past is corrected. The issue for our industry is the acceptance and the authentic execution of the intent of those laws, which is about having equity in the economy and a power dynamic that reflects the demographics of the country.

Sacrifices can’t be forgotten

You see, black lives have always mattered to us as black people and that’s why the sacrifices of previous generations can’t be forgotten, as they laid the foundation for us to truly liberate ourselves from the shackles of slavery, injustice and systemic racism. Yet our racial and economic divide is clear for all to see, and made even more obvious by the covid-19 pandemic. The divide is real and needs us all as South Africans to address it.

This time allows us to prepare for a post-covid-19 environment, where transformation is indigenous and organic to the behaviours of agencies and brand custodians. We need to put the struggle of black people, especially black women, at the forefront of our transformation agenda.

I’m reminded of a board position I once held at what was then a leading globally owned agency, Ireland/Davenport, where I flagged the dire need to take transformation seriously at board level and its importance to the survival of the company. I was promptly replaced. A decade later, the results become clear when it was abruptly left to ‘black’ hands to save the business — but the cards had already been stacked against them because of the historic reluctance to transform.

Without an authentic approach to transformation, your organisation will struggle to survive and cease to exist in a transformed economy; this is the reality of resisting transformation. The consumer is growing more intolerant to the ignorant communication that has become a norm in our industry, with communication showing little appreciation of their culture and intellectual essence.

Out of touch

Strategists and creatives keep on dishing out their prescription of offensive, non-insightful, social media trend-dependent creative that they think we love while we, as the consumer, blankly stare back in amazement at how out of touch they are with the market and the consumer.

Many businesses in our industry don’t publicly discuss that transforming is a grudge purchase, something they wish away, and I’ve even heard some people say that, “after 26 years of correcting over 350 years of the evil legislated injustice of the past, transformation doesn’t work.” It’s the equivalent of getting a head start in a marathon for hours and then expecting the people who were held back legislatively to have an equal chance at success. We need to debate these in a non-political way but a progressive factual stance in order to understand each other.

Well, here is a story: transformation works.

It has for me in growing the largest 100% black-owned and -founded advertising group in South Africa, and it’s working for many businesses that are benefiting from applying the spirit of the law correctly.

The fallacy promoted by a few that it benefits an elite minority is a lie. I was born in Kwam’Mhlaba Uyalingana in rural Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). There are many of us and we’re unstoppable.

The next phase

We’re now at the next phase of this battle: the economic phase. As we celebrate Youth Month, we remember the brave young people who paid in blood for our rights to be treated as humans, marching daily and refuting tirelessly against the legislated limitations of our freedom based on our skin color. We’ve not stopped. Our long walk to freedom is far from over. We use their inspirational feats as fuel to achieve economic freedom and dismantle the systematic oppressive systems in our society that are aimed to stunt black progress.

I implore you to be on the right side of history. Stand up and join the fight to truly transform this industry. We need to hear from South Africans of all races on a constructive way forward if we’re going to start a substantive dialogue.

We’re at a crossroads that needs our collective effort. Examine the role your brand or agency plays in practically transforming this industry — it’s no longer a time to simply talk about it or hope that the need to transform will go away with time. It’s time for measurable action.

Connect with Veli via Twitter or LinkedIn to further this discussion.

See also


Veli NgubaneVeli Ngubane (@TheNduna) entered advertising after completing his BSocSci (law, politics and economics) at UCT and a post-graduate marketing diploma at Red & Yellow, where he’s currently advisory board chairman. He also sits on the IAB’s Transformation & Education Council, is a DMA board member and Loeries, APEX, Pendoring, Bookmarks and AdFocus. He is the group MD of AVATAR and co-founder of M&N Brands, which is building an African network of agencies to rival the global giants. In his monthly column, “Young, Gifted & Killing It”, he profiles award-winning, kick-ass black creative talent in South Africa.

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