Township Entrepreneurship and Naked Kings

(Originally appeared on 11 December 2005 at yeahfi.com)

Mark Twain once said that any time he found himself in the majority on any given issue, he always reevaluated his position.

One of my favorite stories of all time is “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The main character is a vain king with a particular affection for fine clothing. He gets swindled by two tailors who sell him a suit made of material so fine and pure that it was invisible to the foolish and the unworthy.

Of course, there is no material, but as the king and everyone else don’t want to be exposed as fools, they all keep quiet. When the king parades his new suit in front of his subjects they all cheer and make comments about how ‘fine’ his new suit is. Until a little boy points at the king and shouts out “The King is naked!”

People started realizing the trick, but the king continues the parade, telling himself: “I must go on pretending. I cannot stop now”

I’ve often felt like the little boy, pointing at naked kings of all sorts. There is a particularly large amount of ‘naked kings’ being sold to the public these days through the insane amount of advertising, marketing and branding being forced upon us. But who is to blame? The ‘swindlers’, or the public who accepts their lies?

Luxury goods (think of a $100 rolled-up tobacco leaf) in particular is a whole ‘naked empire’ in itself. And it’s particularly interesting when marketers try to sell a ‘naked king’ to a group that isn’t used to buying ‘naked kings’.

For example, I recently went to a wine-tasting in Gugulethu. For those of you who don’t know, Gugulethu is one of Cape Town’s infamous townships, and when I was invited for a wine-tasting in Gugs, I thought my leg was being pulled.

But it appears Mzoli, an intrepid entrepreneur who owns a butchery, hair salon, restaurant, cellphone shop and shebeen all in one small building, was launching his own wine label. (The up and coming black middle class is a major new target market for the South African wine labels.)

Everyone at Mzoli’s got free samples and Pieter, the wine maker, explained to a crowd of about a 100 black people how to drink and “appreciate” wine in the correct fashion.

He then asked the audience if they could identify the subtle hints of guava and tropical fruits in the Chardonnay and if they could taste any other fruits in the wine. “What else can you taste? What else can you taste?” he shouted at the somewhat rowdy crowd.

And the crowd answered as one: “Grapes!”

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