Thepisang is starving.
He’s hunched over his university exam paper while his belly growls. He’s had nothing to eat since he set out from Soweto at the crack of dawn this morning. His stomach feels like it’s eating its own lining.
His day doesn’t look like it’s going to get much better. Once his exam is over, Thepisang will have to battle through #FeesMustFall protesters and hopefully scrounge up some cash to buy some food. He’s kicking around an idea to buy ice and sell it to the protesters, but even if he manages to get his hands on a meal, he faces a stark choice as the evening sets in.
Thepisang lied to his Gogo this morning. He turned down her offer of taxi fare because he knew she’d have to borrow the money from a lone shark and the pair of them have enough trouble without adding a thug to the mix.
Instead, he told her that if he couldn’t blag a ride home, he has a friend in town with an apartment that will let him crash on the couch. The truth is, that come the end of the day, the 24-year-old student will either have to walk home in the dark – a rather dangerous prospect – or sleep in the university toilets and just hope that the security guards don’t find him.
For a comic book protagonist, Thepisang has it pretty hard.
Young Hustlas – Not your average comic book
Comic books are big business – a Marvel or DC superhero film should be coming to a cinema near you soon – but so far, the most successful of them are set firmly in the world of fantasy. If you wanted to gain heat on your creation, it seems your comic had best feature a super-powered individual in long underwear or at least some connection to the occult forces of darkness.
By contrast, Thepisang and the rest of the cast of Young Hustla are recognisable figures from the contemporary South African landscape. Thepisang’s travails detailed above may sound like a gritty 24 hours from hell to some readers, but to others it’s a recognisable series of events they have to deal with on a daily basis.
This may all sound like pretty grim stuff for a medium associated with escapism and fantasy, but Young Hustla’s Creative Director Andile Dube (who also happens to be the founder of the comic’s parent company, C.R.E.A.M.) is adamant his comic isn’t aimed at shoving gritty reality into the reader’s face. Rather, he says, Young Hustla’s purpose is to educate and inspire its audience – to help build an entrepreneurial mind-set.
“The idea was to find a platform to teach young people entrepreneurship and business,” says Dube. “It could have been any medium – it just happened to be a comic book because it was affordable and easily accessible.”
“We want to also make it resonate, so while one issue focuses on teaching people how to think like an entrepreneur, another one looks at issues they face every day – the #FeesMustFall movement, for example,” he says.
“We want to educate and entertain – to change the mind-set. As a society, we constantly tell kids they need to go to school and then they need to get jobs,” he says. “But once they leave education they find there aren’t that many jobs out there – we want to help them create their own jobs and opportunities.”
Thepisang’s trials and tribulations aren’t just geared towards recognising and highlighting problems real people his age face; Young Hustla also weaves advice on problem solving into the story’s narrative. One issue warns of the dangers of walking alone at night after a pretty troublesome day, while another offers dating advice that could double as the strategy for a startup.
Dube is quick to point out, however, that while education is a part of the Young Hustla project, he and the comic’s other creators know that any educational aspect of the book had to be backed up by decent storytelling and engaging characters.
“It’s a fine line. A fine balance,” he says. “For the book to be compelling to any audience it has to entertain as well as educate. The stories we cover come from real life, but they have to relate to the readers and resonate with them.”
“The comic can break down barriers and even if you’ve never lived a life facing the challenges the characters face, you can connect. People who have never faced something like [Thepisang] can find out how the other side lives,” he says. “Other readers will recognise his problems because they may face the same thing themselves every day.”
Young Hustla: Part of a movement
Young Hustla isn’t the only avenue Dube wants to use to educate and inform his audience. C.R.E.A.M. also runs free entrepreneur workshops down in Maboneng Precinct (check out the Young Hustla Initiative Facebook page for dates).
“We work on the mind-set and we work on the business side of things,” says Dube. “At a typical workshop we’d say, present a problem like the current water crisis in Gauteng. Then we challenge people attending the class to come up with a solution that they can implement quickly, starting on the ground. How can you – and your community – ensure that the water shortage’s effects are minimised?”
“A game we played in the last workshop was designed to teach innovation. We wrote down key words, put them in a hat and everyone drew one,” he says. “Then the task was to come up with a product centred on that idea or need and pitch it to the rest of the class at the end of the workshop. They had to come up with a brand, a jingle and decide who their target audience would be.”
“It’s kind of a mind-set kickstarter course.”
But Dube has big plans for the Young Hustla comic; while it solely exists in comic format for the time being (punters can pick up a physical copy for R50 at selected outlets or download it for free from the official website) Dube has his eyes on expanding the IP.
“We want to do the same thing that Marvel is doing,” he says. “We want to be the Marvel of entertainment education.”
“The model Marvel uses is the model we’re going after. We’re looking at licensing the characters and the artwork for figurines. We’re looking the gaming and animated series avenues.”
Dube notices my raised eyebrows and laughs.
“Look, it’s very early and you have to start somewhere,” he says. “But you’ve got to aim big.”