#Transformers: Larry Khumalo on race, identity & lived experience
by Charlie Mathews (@CharlesLeeZA) Born and bred in a free, post-colonial Zimbabwe, during the infancy of that country’s democracy project, Larry Khumalo (@statelylarry), Havas Southern Africa head of PR, talks to MarkLives about identity, race, power, sexism and change in the marketing sector.
“Transformers Transform 2020” is a special series produced by MarkLives and HumanInsight and sponsored by the Association for Communication and Advertising (ACA), running Jun–Sep 2020. Together with Lebogang Tshetlo, we’ll be profiling remarkable local #Transformers every other Friday until September, featuring Tshetlo’s photography. The objective of this an independently managed, journalism-driven research project is to explore and map new paths for brands and marketers to transform, adapt and build resilience while the world adapts to covid-19 and its resultant social, political and economic toll.
Personal & professional transformation
- The moral dilemma of transition and transformation being dependent on the goodness of people, and why people don’t choose to be good
- What it means to live in a world where black people fear for their lives at every turn and how hard it is to come to terms with this truth
- How a lot of brands are stepping and embracing diversity, but points out that some are just latching on to a moment
- Why commitment to transformation is long-term and about making fundamental, structural changes
- Why whiteness must “take the responsibility of defining” itself and stop being so ‘needy’
- Why real structural change doesn’t readily happen. “Unless there’s money in the mix, unless there’s some money to be gained at the end of it, people in this system generally don’t have a reason to try and do anything,” Khumalo says.
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A PR practitioner with over a decade of experience working in agencies and corporates, Khumalo talks frankly about how the first time he ever experienced racism was after moving to South Africa. “In Zimbabwe, you’re not black; you’re a Zimbabwean. But, moving to South Africa, I learnt that I was black and I learnt this within the first two weeks of living in the West Rand,” the communications leader and lobbyist says.
Shortly after arriving in SA, he stayed in a rented apartment west of Gauteng. “One of the tenants of that complex saw me walking to school and assumed that I was a gardener and basically asked me if I had time to come and tend to their little garden. I didn’t get it at first and I brushed it away, but I thought about it a little more and I got the fact that they thought I was a gardener because I’m black.”
“Opened my eyes”
“That thinking opened my eyes a lot,” Khumalo adds, explaining that racism was part of Zimbabwean life, but was nowhere near as blatant or aggressive as the racism he’s experienced in SA. “I think the visceral nature of it [racism] here, and how it’s just so close to the surface, is what hit me hard.”
He’s also “had a very interesting ride working in marketing here in Johannesburg.”
He asserts that the South African communications sector remains largely untransformed: “I have come to a conclusion that, I think, generally describes my full-on experience, which is that marketing, and many other sectors, are not transformed. There is a killing of black people every day. It’s just not in the visceral sense of George Floyd having a knee on his neck. But the plunder is gradual and it is violent, and it destroys black bodies in the most-fundamental of ways, on a daily basis.”
“No black voices”
Khumalo says that this “starts from something as simple as not being listened to in a boardroom all the way to having to explain to a colleague why ‘all lives matter’ is a violent statement at a time like this.”
Fronting is frequent in the industry, he says. “I always used to wonder, for instance, how do we in a majority-black country have commercials about airtime where black women are dancing for airtime, or you have black children dancing for Surf, or for pap, or for sweets? It didn’t make sense to me how, in a country on the African continent, we have advertising that essentially is derogatory to black bodies… Until I walked into brainstorming rooms, until I walked into rooms where people conceptualised and I realised, oh, okay, so there are no black voices in this space.”
- #Transformers Transform 2020 • Sponsored by the ACA
- #Transformers video interviews on transformation on YouTube
- #Transformers video interviews on transformations on Facebook
- Download the #TransformersTransform2020 pdf
- Zeitgeist of Now: Privacy in today’s world & what it means for brands — Jason Stewart
- POPI Act FAQ: What’s next? — Retailing Africa
As an entrepreneur, Charlie Mathews (@CharlesLeeZA) has worked in growth teams with Naspers, Microsoft, and Tutuka.com (the global prepaid card company). Mathews has also successfully founded and exited two marketing companies. Published in Rolling Stone magazine, Guardian UK, and SA’s Greatest Entrepreneurs, edited by Moky Makura, Mathews wrote for Daily Maverick during the title’s legendary startup era. Today, Mathews is the founder and CEO of HumanInsight, a research, insights and learning company that helps brands better understand, and serve — humans.