Telling South African history through pictures

Umlando Wezithombe is a South African comic production company focused on making African history, stories, and role models accessible to African youth. Umlando has produced comic book histories of such prominent South African leaders as Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, and is also working on a history of Apartheid in collaboration with the Apartheid Museum. The majority of Umlando’s comics are distributed in township schools, and all artists for the company are sourced from South African townships. Ayiba’s Rara Reines recently spoke with the founder of Umlando Wezithombe, Nic Buchanan, about comics as a medium for storytelling, current projects underway, and some of the challenges of being a startup in South Africa.

How did Umlando get started?

I started out with a comic book called Supa Strikas. I think it’s the world’s most published comic book ever now. We started in 2000 and within two years we got it into three different countries and I think they’re now in around thirty-nine countries. We were taking comic books to these different countries through the medium of soccer, or football, and using the same images and characters with just slightly different slang and city horizons that localized the content. Having seen the success of the comic book medium I then left and moved into education which is where the Mandela and other comic books came in.

What does “Umlando Wezithombe” mean and how does it relate to your mission as a company?

It stands for “history in pictures” in Zulu and the mission of the company was to try and get role models into an accessible format for African youth. As you know, our apartheid history destroyed any proud Black history. The idea then was that kids growing up without any role models or people to look up to were not going to be looking at a very positive future so the history in pictures was to try and give them that positive history.

How would you describe your style?

We’ve got a number of styles and one of the objectives right in the beginning was to come up with an African style. I still don’t think we’ve succeeded. For example you can always tell a Japanese comic or a Marvel comic. African comics have copied different styles on a lot of levels and what we wanted to do was something different. I think we sometimes have gotten something different and other times it ended up a bit of a crossbreed between different styles.

Mandela 3

Could you tell us about putting together The Life of Nelson Mandela comic?

We approached the Mandela Foundation and they had seen through their research that his message and his life story had already been lost by about 2002 to the youth of the country, so they saw the comic book medium as a good way to reeducate the youth. We did it in consultation with them and they advised a lot on the content and allowed us to run with the visual treatment.

We broke his life up into eight chapters, and each chapter was published in an individual comic book. Companies sponsored a million copies of each that went out free of charge to children in schools. Once the eight were finished we then put it into a book and that book is now in about thirteen countries and eight languages.

How do you help companies communicate visually to their customers?

It all boils down to visual communication with the old cliché of a picture telling a thousand words. I think everyone’s the same as me and is slightly ADD—if you give me two pages of text I’m not going to read it, especially if it’s work or safety or health related. But if you gave me a string of pictures with engaging characters I’ll glance at it and pick up the message. So with corporate communications, we’ll take their literature and put it into visuals with speech bubbles and the like using characters. If it’s mine workers, for example, we’ll use characters that mine workers would relate to so that they can more easily engage with the material.

Evolution of Mandela (1)

What is the primary audience for your comic books?

The primary audience is youth, generally from around the age of six to eighteen. There are younger kids who do read the material with their parents so you have early childhood development material. The reading age will go up to sixty-five, it just depends.

We generally distribute into township schools and then on the employment side we source all of our artists from the townships because they are the people we’re trying to reach. So they know how to draw and they know the living conditions and the township life that we need to portray in a lot of our stories.

What other projects are you currently working on?

The main project at the moment is the TV series Jabu’s Jungle and we’re finishing off a series of comic books with the Apartheid Museum. It’s called Timeliners where a kid visits the museum, finds a time machine, and goes back into Apartheid and experiences it firsthand.

Jabu's Jungle show

You say that “we think visually, why don’t we communicate visually?” How can visual communication portray ethics and morals in a way that written words cannot?

We read a lot into every picture that we see and characteristics are quite easy to portray visually. If you create a dark character and just by facial features make them look sinister and evil, and they are the nemesis to the story, then automatically their actions are seen as being the wrong way to go. Then on the opposite side you can draw the good guy with happy features. So the ethics can be portrayed through these visuals.

What challenges have you faced being a startup in South Africa?

Access to investors or capital is not even an option. That’s always the biggest problem, especially when you’re moving in the education sector. On the commercial side it’s a bit easier to bring in customers.

Before we started the Supa Strikas comic there wasn’t really a job for the guys who sat in school and just sketched their lives away. That’s changing a little bit, there are now quite a few comic book studios in the country but administration in animation is still scarce and difficult to train up and hold onto.

How are comics a unique medium for storytelling, especially when telling the stories of historical figures?

They have been very successful. A lot of the time the feedback from our readers’ forums is that the kids pick up a comic book and expect 100% entertainment and they follow the story and go with the whole flow of the book and then realize they’ve been taught something at the end. We’ve got projects that were started ten years ago that have been re-printed twenty times so that the same content keeps going out to new kids out there, which is great.