We kick off our 2013 Honcho of The Month series with a man that needs little introduction. He is an Author, Blogger, Senior Communications Manager for Content Excellence and Digital at Coca-Cola. Khaya Dlanga has established himself as one of the most influential individuals in South African Media. In this in-depth interview he talks about his upbringing in rural Transkei, how he overcame life’s obstacles, his achievements, political views on South Africa’s two leading parties, and how he managed to get 5.2 Million views on his personal YouTube channel. Get inspired Honchos!
Welcome to the Head Honcho HQ’s Khaya, how has 2013 been treating you?
Thank you, thank you. You’re too kind. It’s treating me well, seeing that I haven’t been arrested, homeless or impregnated anyone. So it’s great.
Please introduce yourself to the Honchos.
Hi, I’m Khaya and I’ve never been an alcoholic.
Tell us a little bit about your childhood. Where did you grow up and did your childhood influence your career choice?
I was born in the rural Transkei. Ezilalini. Milking cows, herding cattle, the works. In fact I remember being almost mauled to the brink by one of my grandfather’s bulls. It was a new bull and stayed with the sheep in their kraal because the other bulls would bully it. I must have been six or so when I had an encounter with this new bull. My elder cousins weren’t home for some reason and had forgotten to lock it up in the kraal. So, being a courageous young man, I approached it gently as I had done before.
We would tie a rope around its horns and then tie it to a pole in the kraal so that it didn’t jump and escape, because it had those tendencies. Anyway, as I was tying it up, out of nowhere, I found myself being flung in the air by this bull. I landed on its horns again and it flung me up again. Luckily it didn’t have those horns which point to the sky, its horns were horizontal. The third time I landed on the ground, it tried to ram it’s horns on me but somehow, and by the grace of the good Lord I rolled out of the way, it dug a massive hole in the kraal where it had plunged it’s horns and remember running and screaming for my life out of the kraal. My grandmother heard me scream and shouted at me for trying to tie the bull without supervision. Ahhh, the memories. I actually have no idea why I just told you that story but I just remembered it.
I don’t know if I could say that what I knew from my childhood is what made me do what I do. I lived in a village where we saw a car once a week if we were lucky. The village was surrounded by mountain ranges so it looked like that was the world.
Almost every man in that village was a miner. So the village consisted of women and children and old men. The career aspiration of any male was to go work in Johannesburg in the mines and become a miner. But if you had lofty dreams, you dreamt of becoming a teacher or a priest. When I was a child, and I happened to lift a heavy object, an older person would say to me encouragingly, “You are so strong now, you are ready to go work in the mines.” This was the career aspiration. I have many uncles who worked in the mines and still do. In fact one of my relatives was one of the mineworkers in Marikana. He’s ok, thank God. Nothing happened to him.
The system was designed for me to have low aspirations and fool me into thinking that they were a good thing to aspire towards.
When I finally left the village to live with my mother in Mdanstane, we lived in a four-roomed house but we shared it with another family. We had the two rooms in front and the other family had the two rooms at the back. We had no electricity either. I remember being extremely self-conscious every morning before going to school. I’d worry that my school uniform reeked of paraffin because we used it to heat water and cook our breakfast and heated the iron on the paraffin stove so that our clothes could be ironed. I didn’t make friends throughout my school career in case any of the kids wanted to visit me and then saw where I stayed and saw how poor we were. I chose to be a loner to save myself from embarrassment. My mother miraculously managed to get me into a Model C School, Hudson Park Primary and then the high school. I was the only black kid in my class when I got there. There would be very few black kids in the school until I finished matric. Yes, it was a long time ago.
When I first went to this Model C school people would stop me in the middle of the street and ask me to randomly speak English because they had never seen a black child going to a white school. This was soon after the end of apartheid.
I remember after I’d broken my arm having to go to Cecilia Makhiwane Hospital in Mdantsane. I got ex-rayed and had to see a Dr. The Dr was a white man. As customary at Makhiwane, there was always a nurse translating for the white Dr. Instead of waiting for the nurse to translate, I spoke English back to the Dr. The nurses were shocked. Then I said something else. The nurse exclaimed, “Hayi! Uyakhumsha lomntana!” “Hayi! This young child can speak English!” and then in a matter of minutes I had about 20 nurses surrounding me and the Dr listening to us speak English.
I had this privileged education, but on the one hand I lived this very different existence from everyone else in school.
You studied at the AAA School of Advertising in Cape Town, but had to drop out due to financial reasons. I read an interesting story about how you got into the College. Care to share that experience with our readers?
Ha! Well, I can laugh at it now but I remember hearing about this advertising college from the register of the AAA school of Advertising in Cape Town. She came to my school, Hudson Park High School in East London, to talk about advertising and she showed all these ads which had been made by people who were only five or six years older than I was and I thought to myself, “This is what I want to do.” I never for a second even thought that I couldn’t come up with an idea for an ad even though I had never made an ad in my life.
Anyway, I decided that I wanted to go to AAA and I got on a taxi from East London to Cape Town. My mom couldn’t afford to give money for a bus or flight. All I had was a smalanyana bag with my clothes because I hadn’t applied to the AAA and R500 to my name. So I went to the AAA on the first week of the term. I spoke to the receptionist there and told her that I wanted to apply and she told me that I was wasting my time because everyone who had turned up was turned away because applications had closed the previous year. I sat and told her that I wanted to see the register anyway. She called her and she came. I told her that I had applied and never got a rejection or an acceptance letter that’s why I had turned up. She was shocked. It was partly true because I had actually helped a friend of mine with his application form. My friend later said to me, “Chap, if you hadn’t helped with that I wouldn’t have been accepted.”
Anyway, she gave me the forms and told me that I had a weekend to complete the form even though they generally gave people three weeks to complete them. I didn’t sleep that weekend bar 4 hours. I made my deadline of 12 on Monday.
She seemed surprised to see me on the Monday and she told me to come back in 5 minutes. I was devastated because I had spent so much time and all she was going to do was spend 5 minutes on something I had spent so much time on? In my mind she had already made up her mind that I was not going to make it. I was gutted when I returned in 5 minutes. Then she told me to come back in 10. I think she just had a look at what I had done out of curiosity then she was captivated by it. I don’t know. But I know that what she saw made her change her mind.
Then I came back after 10 minutes and she told me to come back in 20 this time. That’s when I suspected I had made an impression. I sat down in her office once the 10 minutes were over and she said, “This is actually very, very, good. I’m surprised. Very surprised.” I smiled nervously. Then she asked me how I was going to pay. I said my mother had a property she was going to sell. She did have some land she had bought years ago in the small town of Mount Ayliff in Transkei but it was worth nothing. I knew that.
The truth is I knew that wouldn’t have been accepted if I had applied the previous year because I knew I would have had no money to pay. I knew that if they met me after having come all the way from East London, they would see that I was serious about studying and would probably accept me because I knew I could do well for the “entrance exam”.
Miraculously, I was accepted despite the fact that many had been turned away before. This told me that I was meant to do this.
AAA was extremely expensive – especially if one had a single mother who has four kids and hasn’t worked in years. I wouldn’t tell my mother I was struggling. Even when I was in school I wouldn’t tell her that I needed money to go on school tours with my rugby team or school camps because I knew she didn’t have the money, and I didn’t want her to feel bad because she didn’t have it. So I would get detention in school for not going on these tours rather than let her know I needed money. I couldn’t possibly ask her for money I knew she didn’t have back then.
So when I started struggling financially at the AAA, especially during my second year, I didn’t tell her. Things got so bad at one point that I ended up sleeping in a flat that was being renovated. It had no windows and there was rubble on the floor. I’d get to the flat late in the evening when I thought that the workers had already left and gone home. I’d sneak in and sleep there. Then I’d wake up early in the morning to leave before they arrived. But one day they arrived too early. So I ran out of the back door before they got in. I always slept in my clothes in case of such an eventuality. I had been sleeping there for about two months.
Then I had to find another place to stay. I decided that I would sleep on the desks at AAA. Luckily the girls would often bring cushions to sit on. I’d put these cushions on the desks and sleep on them. I made the desks my bed. Sometimes students would work late until 3 in the morning and I’d have to pretend I was working too when all I really wanted to do was sleep.
I actually spoke to a former lecturer of mine a few months ago and I told him that. And he said that some students actually spoke to him and he thought that I had problems at home and had no idea it was something so serious that I spent over a month sleeping there because I was homeless. He was shocked I never told anyone.
I lived on a roll and slap chips. That was my treat everyday and if I felt like splashing out I’d have an apple as well.
I used to help out with Youth Group at church on Fridays. So one say my pastor who would pick me up and drop me off was dropping me off at AAA that Friday evening. It was the 4th time he had to do this. Then he asked me why he always had to drop me off at college every Friday evening? I said I have a lot of work, that’s why. Then he turned to me and said, “Tell me the truth.” I broke down in tears and told him that I have no place to stay, had no money and was completely broke.
He told me to fetch my stuff and he put me up at his friend’s place and then to the YMCA until I had saved enough money from my job as a waiter.
Set-backs are a part of life, but like most successful individuals you didn’t allow this to derail your dream of making it in the Ad industry. How did you get your first break at an Ad Agency without any qualifications?
This is a funny story actually. I wrote a CV, an unconventional one because I wanted the agency to notice me. That agency was one of the most creative in Cape Town at the time. My CV basically went something like this:
I can use phone, faxes, and computers without breaking them
Some of my best friends are white
I am not a member of COSATU
I live in Pinelands, not Gugulethu
Then I wrote a headline:
Position Applying for: Copywriter
Experience in this field: I used to write slogans on township walls like “Free Mandela” and “One man one vote.” As you might have noticed, this was a very successful campaign.
When I got the call from Creative Director of this agency, she was still laughing on the phone. I had my interview and showed my portfolio from AAA and I got hired.
My philosophy in life is this: I may not be qualified to do anything but I will not disqualify myself from doing anything. And most importantly, just because your life isn’t the picture you imagined right now doesn’t mean it won’t be that picture. But if you give up too soon your life will be exactly what you didn’t want it to be. You can’t give up on what you want. We can’t give up because life has knocked us down. When we get knocked down we are inspired to get up again when we fall. And when we do fall, we remember that yes we did fall but we did get back up again. Our history then tells us that we don’t stay defeated for long. Defeat, you shall be defeated. You can’t spend too much time in disappointment. If you do, it will hold you back from what you are meant to be.
You’ve been voted as one of the ‘Top 100 Most Influential people in Media’ and won numerous awards including several Loeries, a Gold Cannes Lion, and a Black Eagle. Which awards and achievements are you most proud of?
It’s hard to be proud of awards. I think I’m glad I get them and am honoured because you can never really take all the credit for your fortunes. Almost everybody on earth who has achieved anything has had a helping hand. Thanks to the great agencies and the teams that I worked with. I don’t believe in self-made people.
There are people who realise that they had help, and then there are those who say they did it all themselves even though they didn’t really. We all get a little helping hand, from others, or the hand of fate. But you have to make your own fate. But when fate comes, you must be prepared. It comes unannounced. If you are not ready, it leaves without you.
It was great winning the Cannes Gold for example because it was for an ad that was very South African and the international community recognised and awarded it. The other one was the Black Eagle. I’d probably had my worst day in advertising that day. I didn’t even know that we had been short-listed for the ad. The Black Eagle is also the hardest award to win in South Africa. If I am not mistaken, when we won it, it had only been awarded four times in 11 years. My worst day in advertising also turned to be one of my best.
Your YouTube channel has 5.2 Million views, 10 400 subscribers, and you’re an official YouTube Partner. Why did you decide to start a YouTube channel and how did you manage to make is this successful?
You really did do your research didn’t you? Hahahaha! Not many people know that I used to make YouTube videos. I was looking for a scene in a movie and then by accident, I stumbled on a random person talking to camera. And then I saw another person, and another and I decided I wanted to do it. So I did it. I generally don’t think too much before I do something I want to do. I find that the more time you spend thinking about doing something, the more reasons you find not to do it.
I don’t know how the channel became successful, but I started having these prominent YouTubers telling their followers to check my videos out because they liked them. I also had a couple videos featured on the front page of YouTube because they were so popular. I even got asked by YouTube to ask Barack Obama a question. And he answered on YouTube.
At the time, South Africans’ didn’t know much about YouTube, so I was comfortable making those videos because I knew no one would be watching me in South Africa. I think that it’s because people were just surprised to see that someone from Africa was just normal as them. Plus they thought I had nice teeth and had an amazing accent. Lol!
Currently your job title at Coca-Cola is: Senior Communications Manager – Content Excellence and Digital. What exactly does this position entail?
It means that I work with advertising/communications across all 26 brands. I make sure that we have the best communications strategies for the brands and good adverting. I work with our brand teams and our agency partners to make that happen. We challenge each other to arrive at the best solutions. There is a lot of agency management, working with contracts, long meetings. A lot of the not so fun stuff, but when we do the fun stuff it’s worth it.
What advice do you have for young people that would like to get into the advertising industry? Do you have any pointers for budding creatives?
Creativity is something you have to keep working at. Musicians go to practice everyday. Soccer stars have to go practice all the time. In order to be creative, you have to expose yourself to creativity and force your mind to think differently. You have to have a curious mind. You can’t be creative if you are not curious. Creativity requires you to ask the question, “What it if?” Study creativity and try to understand what makes something creative and another not so creative. You will find a formula that works for you. When you are a creative person, your mind works all the time.
‘In My arrogant Opinion’ is a book you released last year in association with Pan MacMillan’s ‘The Youngsters’ series. Did you always want to be an author, and how did this project come about?
I have always wanted to write. I am not going to lie and say that I always thought I’d have a book out. But I knew I wanted it bad it enough to try do it. So when the right opportunity came I jumped at it. I wrote a book inspired by those Wilbur Smith books when I was in high school, I never finished it. So when I was in school I knew I wanted to write, but I didn’t think I’d write a non-fiction book. I always assumed that if I wrote a book, it would be fiction.
I enjoyed writing even in school. I remember we had a temporary English teacher when I was in standard 8 for a term and she made us write an assay. She gave everyone their books but me. Then she called me to her desk and asked me if I wrote it myself. I said yes. Then she went on to point out words in assay and asked me what certain words meant. I think I answered her the first three words and told her what they meant. Then I said to her, “I will not answer another one of your questions. If you had done your homework you would have discovered that in June I had got the highest mark in this class. And these were marked by the principal of the school. Yes, this black child got the highest mark.” She looked at me and then gave me the same mark I got in June. I had never felt so racially assaulted before in a class room by a teacher.
When the MacMillan publishers approached me with the concept I decided to take it. I had been approached before but I didn’t think the time was right. I was basically approached one day out of the blue by the publishers to write. I became extremely insecure and uncertain. I wanted to say no at first because I was worried about not finishing the book.
A lot of successful people have mentors. Who mentored you and how did their guidance inspire you to get to where you are today?
When I went to Atlanta to visit our (Coca-Cola) global head offices, I had a brief encounter with one of our global Vice Presidents. He gave me a project he was working on to look at and give him my feedback. After I gave it to him, he just said to me out of the blue, “I’d like to coach you, would you be interested in something like that?” I was flabbergasted. Of course I took up the offer.
When it comes to the specific work that I do, I do have a coach, probably the best I could ever hope for. I am also mentored by observing behaviours I admire from many people. It could be a superior at work, a colleague or how a friend works. I have a very core group of friends who have had extra-ordinary achievements, and I view them too as my mentors but I don’t think they know that. I think that one’s best mentors are often one’s friends, that is if one has progressive friends who want to succeed and want you to succeed as well. You can’t hang around people who want to diminish your dreams. Don’t let people without dreams hold yours back. Those people are soul destroyers, hang around people who will nourish your soul.
Let’s talk a bit about Twitter. You are seen by many as one of the most influential South African Tweeters. How influential do you think a medium like Twitter is in South Africa?
I think people think that it is more influential than it really is. Influence on Twitter isn’t real. It’s more of a perception. This reminds of one of my favourite episodes on Game of Thrones, in which Varys the Spider and Tyrion are having a discussion, then Varys poses a riddle to Tyrion, “In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stand a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me-who lives and who dies?”
Tyrion responds and says it depends on the sellsword. But Varys says the riddle reveals the truth about power — “Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall, and a very small man can cast a very large shadow.” I think that the same about Twitter. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall. A shadow isn’t real. So I warn people against the false perceptions of influence they think they have. They have an over inflated sense of importance because of this platform.
Twitter is not the meaning of life. I think Twitter seems influential because of the vocal minority on the platform. I also think that because there are a lot of media folks on it who quote people on Twitter in the media, it creates the illusion of influence. I have roughly 64 000 followers, how can I then be considered influential in a country of 50 million? I think we need perspective when it comes to social networks.
You’re well known for your political views and opinions. How do you feel about the ANC’s current leadership and what do you think are the biggest challenges they face?
I think that the current leadership has some great faces. I was encouraged by the election of Cyril Ramaphosa, he has also been very level headed in pronouncements. He seemed to bring a great sense of calm within the party. I was also greatly encouraged to see that the likes of Malusi Gigaba got the 2nd most votes and Dlamini-Zuma got the most and even Tito Mboweni made it onto the NEC.
I am not completely unhappy with the ANC. My criticism of the party is only because I know that the party can do better, I think that I am also a frustrated servant of the people. I think that at some point I’d like to serve my country but I do not yet know in what capacity. There are many people who are trying within the ruling party but there are many who are letting the side down also. Sometimes I get the sense that the ANC is its own worst enemy. It won’t be the DA or some outside form that will destroy the ANC. The ANC will do that to itself if that day comes. And what a great shame that would be.
We follow you on Twitter and have noticed that you’ve got quite an interesting rapport with DA Leader Helen Zille. What do you think they are doing wrong as the premier opposition party and what would they have to do to win over black voters?
I think she can be very harsh and comes across as a madam when dealing with certain issues and that rubs a lot of people the wrong way despite her positive intentions. People aren’t going to remember positive intentions, they’ll remember what they felt when you said what you said. I think she has the right work ethic but the wrong tone.
I think she can just be as petty about the ANC as it tends to be petty about things like the Spear and other things. I also think that she needs to talk more about what she wants to do for the country than spend too much time criticising the ANC. Even though some black folks are tired of some of the ventures of the ANC, they still love the ANC. So when the ANC is criticised too harshly, people feel the need to hold to it and defend. Give them a reason to vote for you not reasons why they should hate the ANC because we never will hate it. Our history is deeply rooted in it.
This is a question we know you love to avoid answering, but what is next for Khaya Dlanga?
Ha! Yes I do. I will do whatever my spirit tells me to do next. Right now, it hasn’t said anything to me yet. But when it does, it will be in business or in service of the country.
Which albums are you currently listening to on your iPod?
I’m listening to Damian Rice, 9.
Lastly, how do you Live Progressively?
Sometimes you have to grab your dreams by the horns and force them to cooperate.