Back Then

Commercials to promote a retro music show on a local Cape Town, South Africa-radio station provides a necessary corrective to the amnesia and myth making in the country's public (and popular) life.

In the mid-1960s, South Africa’s government established three regional services Radio Highveld (for the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging-area), Radio Port Natal (for that province’s urban centra) and Radio Good Hope (for Cape Town  nd its surrounds).  These stations would break with the bland, staid programming of Radio South Africa and Radio South Africa and would mimic the kinds of popular radio enjoyed in Anglo-American or European cities. I grew up in Cape Town and was acquainted with Radio Good Hope from an early age. The best way to describe Good Hope (how it became known) was a certain kind of sugary mix of what Americans would call “pop” (meaning white) and “urban” (meaning black, i.e. R&B and soul) music.

I may have my history off by a few years, but by the late 1980s, Good Hope also started to feature black (read: mostly coloured or mix race) DJ’s. By the mid- to late-1990s, many of the latter DJ’s (Clarence Ford and Dimitri Jegels as prime examples) broke away to join a new “easy listening” jazz and talk radio station, P4, geared to the city’s growing black (meaning both coloured and “african”) middle class. By the first decade of the 2000s (meaning now), Good Hope was more focused on the “youth market”; so more a mix of American hip hop (which increasingly came to define youth culture regardless of where you were in the globe) and that bubblegum pop of Britney Spears and the various, and mostly white, boy bands like NSYNC or their British retreads like One Direction and Take That. Basically, elevator music with bounce. And mostly with a base among coloured listeners. There’s nothing surprising about this. As South Africa made the transition to full blown capitalism, including its media, it was all about “market segments” now. It is an aspirational version of this audience that Good Hope sells to advertisers.

But enough of the self conscious (and probably flawed) media history lesson.

Of all the SABC’s commercial radio stations, Radio Metro, founded in the early 1990s and broadcasting nationally from Johannesburg, has understood the importance of marketing. It is all about the brand. In any case, the regional stations like Good Hope has also caught onto the need to brand relentlessly.

Which is how Good Hope’s “Kinky Afro” ad campaign found itself landing on my virtual desk.

Kinky Afro refers to a new weekly radio show featuring 80s pop. I don’t know if the show exists anymore.

Here are the spots: One, two and three.

The set up is simple in all the ads. The characters in the ads, either walking on a beach or a street or in the back of a limo, hear some familiar pop sounds from the 1980s (via a ghetto blaster, a phone or a car stereo). They proceed to reminisce about good the music was. Cut to flashback. In one ad, two men, one white and the other black, walking on the beach, hear an old song, and the black man says “wish we could go back to those days.” Cut to him in tight speedos and a processed jheri curl. Then the white guy comes into view as a stern looking policeman and a beach sign behind him declaring the beach for “Whites Only.” The tagline flashes on screen “NOT EVERYTHING WAS COOL BACK THEN. BUT THE MUSIC WAS.”

The second ad shows a young married in the limo remembering the music of the 1980s. One of them is less sure about going back: It turns out they’re a gay couple. Gay marriage became legal in South Africa in 2006. South Africa in the 1980s was a homophobic, patriarchal and very Christian society. Some claim it still is, but at least now gay people are protected by the law.

The third ad is less memorable and is a joke about the absence of cell or mobile phones in the 1980s.

But back to the first two ads: In South Africa, a country short on memory and too eager to invent new myths (the very white Springbok rugby set up as nation building vehicle and the obsession with “unity” and “reconciliation” when all the material indicators point to the deep divisions in the society and how the past continues to shape the present), these ads a necessary corrective, though they may go over most of the audience in Cape Town and its surrounds’ heads. That’s it.

Further Reading