Forgive me if the facts are screwed, Y days were heady and chaotic. I think it was the late summer of 98 when it all started. In the precinct of Time Square, in Yeoville there was not much square and all the clocks had all stopped. That suited us fine, it was African time.
I was in this corner café, diagonally across on Rockey Street, talking to the newsstand. The shop was on its third owner since I had arrived in Johannesburg. In a matter of months, two owners had been taken out in armed robberies. I was berating the newspapers and magazines for the failings of the timid, greedy, unimaginative pale old men in charge of them when a tall dark man with a beard tapped me on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” he said, stepping back in a half-bow, “I think you should write for us.”
Us was Y magazine, just starting up. The tall man was S’busiso Nxumalo commercially known as The General. He was a DJ, social luminary – comfortable anywhere, uneasy in the right places and a jolly good writer. He had been made editor of South Africa’s FIRST BLACK youth magazine. But Nxumalo is generally lax to say the least and so he pulled someone slightly more qualified for the job, insisting the publishers make Itumeleng Mahabane editor with him as general roust-about.
When I say heady, one day Mahabane was toasting his first published piece in some women’s rag with cognac and a cigar – which made even the punch bag whores run by ex-CCB officers raise their eyebrows from their brothel balcony above the square where the Ghetto Luv girls were tantalizing ex-MK soldiers eating Yemese bread while they debated meaty issues of transformation – and the next he was editing a magazine.
Every cover stated evocatively “Ubuza Bani?” which you could translate as “you want to know?” but the best way to describe it is: “If you have to ask you’ll never know.” Contrast this to the payoff line on sister (white) publication SL that stated: “everything you know is wrong”.
Over the cold expanse of ten years, it’s difficult to encapsulate the sheer exuberance that accompanied those times and danced from the pages in staccato, machinegun prattle prose that stretched the boundaries of what was then considered magazine journalism.
Excuse me, I need some kwaito playing while I write this. Y mag had a soundtrack, abrasive in parts and with more than fragments of the toyi-toyi coming through, but it was largely kwaito that set the rhythm. Bennie was making us mal, Brenda was very much alive, TKZ were huge, Mdu was the man, Ghetto Luv and Ismael and Roots 3000 were nascent, blk sonshine were just jamming at Monday Blues and MXO was a little boy fresh from Dwezi (Ibayi) sleeping rough in a Mahala hotel, dreaming of getting onto that stage.
Y Fm had been wrestled from community and Youth League interests and was now a full-tilt commercial success, the fastest growing radio station in Gauteng. Y Fm opened the media planners’ sleepy white eyes to the market presence all those young black people might hold, and it was suddenly cool to be black – especially if you were white. When the magazine launched, the media world was all a twitter, here was a publication for black youth, by black youth. The thing is Y mag was never a black journalist’s association, which explained my presence among the regular contributors.
This was before Mandoza pulled in and crossover was in thin streaking veins across Johannesburg’s inhospitable chiefdoms. So the concepts of black and white youth were still vastly segregated. The publishers decided on separate development approach where one day SL and Y would merge and become SLY. That never happened.
I think I did my best work ever for Y magazine, especially in the early days when we were really pushing the boundaries. Look it was pretty crude stuff…but beside the fashion and horoscopes and practical jokes by the editorial team, there was some extraordinary journalism. I recall the brilliant, subtle story Nxumalo wrote about Lance Stehr of Ghetto Ruff records and Mahabane’s piece on the youth of Richmond. There were lots of voices that you had never heard before, all excited all vibrant, all pushing to be heard, and as far as I know it was lapped up greedily by an audience that had never been addressed in its own language before.
I never went inside the cool clean offices on lime street in Aukland Park, never beyond the reception area to collect a cheque, but what came out of those offices – and most business was in bars and in cars and under stars – was a new voice, sharp and collected, politically aware yet unaffected. I gather the office was party central, as it would have to be, to come up with cover lines like “WHY BLACK people SHOUT.”
We heard of attempts to dumb it down, and I remember that when I produced a piece of friction in two parts the publishers were aghast…we don’t do that, they said, and were overridden, and it was done. Despite the frantic grappling that was afoot, to package and sell a user-friendly version of black youth, Nxumalo and Mahabne held sway. We got wind of attempts to dumb it down, but we kept using words ike dilettante alongside moegoe and tito.
For me as a writer, it was a golden time. I never have had, nor I suspect will ever again, the space that was provided on those glossy pages, to speak in a voice that came naturally, that caused kak, or maybe I was just full of kak, maybe we all were.