Absa films poetry behind masks at Constitution Hill

13 July 2020

Between the Wits University campus and the inner-city residential neighborhood of Hillbrow lies the Constitutional Court - a giant building erected on the site of the Old Fort, Johannesburg’s notorious prison complex.


Video player requires JavaScript enabled. You can watch this video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vnepDphNv74

From the Court you look down towards Hillbrow, a neighborhood of an estimated one hundred thousand people, most of whom are immigrants from other parts of Africa. In one glance from atop the hill, you can take in both the inner city, with all its social challenges, and the leafy green forest of Johannesburg’s more affluent northern suburbs. A stark contrast, even from afar.

The Constitutional Court is a symbol and guardian of the South African Constitution, one of the most democratic public declarations in the world. Containing a bill of 26 rights, our constitution is a document widely admired by legal scholars and human rights activists across the globe. These rights have frequently been claimed by individuals and communities to defend themselves from irrational, unreasonable or otherwise unlawful or discriminatory conduct by state or private sector entities.

But these human rights victories may be far from front of mind in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. Democratic governments across the globe have been compelled to claim rarely used powers and authority and limit freedoms in response to the threat posed by this deadly virus. For how long, and to what extent, civil liberties should be limited or suspended will largely depend on the future trajectory of the virus.

Throughout the world, billions of people are having to adjust to a new normal. And while many may feel that their human rights have been encroached on by the various lockdowns, viruses don't discriminate. COVID-19 does not distinguish between a president and a beggar, how educated you are, what car you drive or where you stay. We’re all at risk - and we’re all in this together.

“That then, makes the location we chose to film Absa’s COVID-19 social relief advertising campaign, very relevant,” says Justice Mukheli, from Bomb Commercials, who directed the production.  “Constitution Hill is a potent reminder of the power of communal action and togetherness. With its rich historical context, it is an iconic heritage site that every South African can relate to, illustrating a great sense of patriotism, urging the audience to pay special attention in a time where we need to come together while staying apart.”

“The one thing that pandemics do well, is show us what is already broken, failing and flawed. COVID-19 has exposed structural cracks and left many that fall between them even more vulnerable and marginalised. In these challenging times, our focus is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our people in all our communities. With nearly a quarter of all cases on the continent, South Africa is currently the worst hit in sub-Saharan Africa, and this is where we are currently focusing our support efforts,” says David Wingfield, Managing Executive responsible for Branding and Marketing at Absa.

“With this campaign we are making an appeal to South Africans to make a donation to the Absa Social Relief Fund, to expand testing, secure personal protective equipment for medical personnel, and bring food and other vital resources to vulnerable communities across the country.  This is done in conjunction with the humanitarian aid organisations, health sector and community support initiatives Absa has partnered with.”

Now nearly two years since the refreshed brand was launched on 11 July 2018, Absa is on a journey to bring Africanacity to life. “In this campaign Africanacity is depicted as an attitude, as an unrelenting force that doesn’t back down in the face of hardship and struggle. It is portrayed as the African spirit that finds a way regardless of how insurmountable the global pandemic might seem. It speaks to an unwavering will to continue and overcome, whatever it takes,” Wingfield adds.

Phase one of the campaign includes a 30” TVC, a 40” radio ad and a suite of videos created specifically for social media, targeting specific sub-messages.  During phase two, we will be sharing some of the stories where the donated funds have made a difference in people’s lives.

To produce the campaign, Absa chose to work with a team of creatives from award-winning branding and design Agency Grid Worldwide and Bomb Commercials, an award-winning production house.  “Our country is blessed with phenomenal young people. Now, more than ever before, we need to support local, upcoming talent, and the creatives at Grid and Bomb bathed the production in optimism and energy and a sense of limitless youthful opportunity,” says Jenny Moore, General Manager Brand, Design and Group Functions Marketing at Absa.

The campaign was filmed following strict COVID-19 protocols. “For all of us, there have been a lot of learning opportunities. Working within the protocols, you quickly align and ensure absolute clarity of communication given that some team members weren’t able to be physically on set. Production is about finding solutions and making things possible, which is made so much easier when there's a strong collective team that operates at the highest levels of professionalism and passion.” says Hazel Neuhaus and Lauren Shewitz, both from Grid Worldwide.

As South Africa was well into level four lockdown conditions at the time of filming, Grid pulled the team together on conference calls. “It's incredible what you can achieve in your “pajamas”, working from home,” Mukheli smiles as he recalls the initial planning phase. “With tight deadlines, we stepped into a virtual chatroom and everyone said, ‘what do we need to do?’ The creative discussion on Whatsapp was about finding the right sentiment – how to authentically and honestly speak to people in a time of extremely high emotions.”

The campaign conveys a youthful, gritty message - using slam poetry delivered by writer, poet and spoken word artist Sbu Simelane, to call people to action. “The intent was to create a commercial that South Africans from all walks of life could connect with on a very personal level. With that in mind, the message needed to be the hero, and we collectively chose slam poetry, using one character, no music and no edits - just a single shot of our poet addressing the nation,” Mukheli adds.

As well as being a prolific international performer, Simelane is the founder and managing director of Black House Literature, an NPO aimed at making literature accessible in townships. He is also the founder of Slam for Your Life, a South African national poetry slam competition first launched in 2014 at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival.

Born and raised in Duduza township in the far east of Johannesburg, Simelane’s work is significantly influenced by the experiences and stories of township life and how language can be used as a tool for social transformation. “We are bombarded with an array of messages from brands every day, all competing for our attention. I believe the only way to truly connect with people is to speak from a place of truth, authenticity and empathy, and that can only happen when brands are connected to people’s everyday experiences,” says Simelane.

“Slam poetry has its roots in Africa’s oral tradition of storytelling, and I believe that using this art form in the campaign truly resonates with people, calling them to action and support those who need our help the most in these uncertain times.”

Watch the full video below.
Video player requires JavaScript enabled. You can watch this video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v=rgn_RJAkV-8

Disclaimer: The advice contained on this blog is for general purposes only and does not take into account individual circumstances, objectives or financial needs. Accordingly, readers are advised to seek appropriate advice from licensed professionals prior to making any investment, or taking up a financial product or service.