Friday, January 15, 2010

"No one's going to sue a charity organisation!"

My first feature article, produced for my Print Journalism degree at UCT.

Sax Appeal. The name is likely to send most modest, God-fearing Cape Tonian folk indoors with a shudder and a vow not to set foot back outside until the sun sets. For undergraduate students at the University of Cape Town, however, the annual Sax Appeal is an excuse to dress badly (for the guys) and skankily (for the girls) and take to the streets in a display of jaywalking that literally stops traffic and causes many early risers to be late for work. In February each year, thousands of students contribute to the approximate R500 000 raised by UCT’s RAG (Remember and Give) organisation through the street sale of this politically incorrect, satirical and often irreverent student publication. In doing so, probably unbeknownst to them, they make up the majority of the funds donated by RAG to SHAWCO (the Student Health And Welfare Centres Organisation), its sole beneficiary.

For most students and readers, the creation of such a publication is a bit of a mystery. No one really knows how the annual student festival all comes about, or, more importantly, why. In examining this cultural phenomenon, there are two primary aspects of Sax Appeal to be considered: how it is made and how it is sold. With respect to the magazine’s making, the build-up to the event of the sale is actually something that begins as far as six months in advance, and involves many hours of work for a tiny, mostly unknown editorial committee. Why on earth would anyone want to spend their entire summer in a stuffy little office hounding reluctant writers and desperately writing pages and pages of content for what is, inevitably, a thankless job? The editorial committee is not paid, and most of the recognition for Sax’s achievement goes to RAG and the thousands of badly dressed students who sell the magazine.

For Kerry Mauchline, editor of the 2007 publication, the reason was simple. “I love satire, and Sax Appeal is the last bastion of off-sides humour at universities in South Africa.” According to her, other universities in the country have no real equivalent to Sax Appeal, making the position of editor of such a magazine appealing. “And I’m power hungry,” she jokes. Murray Hunter, the Internal Contributions coordinator for that year, and editor of the 2008 magazine, said he wanted to get involved because he was so impressed by the content of the previous year’s magazine that he wanted to try it himself. “It was all quite exciting and I had recently discovered that people found the things I wrote amusing. It was like literary puberty, I suppose.”

Hunter’s self-proclaimed ‘coming of age’ was not without its costs. According to him and Mauchline, the sheer volume of work involved in creating Sax Appeal is staggering. The editorial that year comprised only five people (as opposed to the previous year’s ten): the editor, Celebrity Writers’ Liaison, Internal Contributions Coordinator, and two people to do the design and images. Because of the unwilling and often lazy nature of student contributors, says Hunter, only seven or eight articles were submitted by UCT students. “Because the response was so poor, around November I began writing my own content. Two months later I’d done about 35 pages, and I’ve been searching for my faded life essence ever since.”

Hunter’s personal project, a satire of the Tintin graphic novels called “Tintin in Iraq”, took around 60 man-hours to achieve. “I spent about 30 hours in the office once. I showered in the Engineering block.” The strain Hunter took from this endeavour (which manifested itself in drinking), was mostly due to his isolation from the rest of the editorial team, as he was spending the December vacation with his brother in Pietermaritzburg. Most of the content he produced was on an antiquated laptop with no mouse and a temperamental keyboard.

Both Hunter and Mauchline agree, though, that the experience was immensely rewarding. “I now have a much better understanding of how the creative process behind a magazine works – what kind of details you have to know about; how difficult it is to get everyone to contribute,” says Mauchline. Learning how to hunt down celebrity contributors and getting to grips with layout and design were key to the process. Hunter recounts, “I learnt a great deal about writing comedy, and about my own personal limits as a creative force.”

The nature of Sax Appeal as a satirical publication means also that it is crucial to get the tone of the writing right, and that the controversial slant of the content may lead to objections from the public, or the personalities or companies implicated. According to Mauchline, the mantra floating around the office at the time of deadline was, “No one’s going to sue a charity organisation!” Although this proved to be true, the content of this year’s Sax was not without its criticism. There was a spread in the magazine called “Fascism Weekly”, a spoof of fashion magazine spreads. According to Hunter, who conceived the piece, “Some pensioner in a tennis sweater assaulted one of my freshers with a rolled up magazine, saying she was trying to sell Fascism.” Mauchline was apparently engaged in a radio debate on Cape Talk Radio with a man who was similarly unimpressed with the piece, saying they were making light of someone like Hitler, “when our own dark past yields men like Verwoerd and Malan”.

The magazine’s motto reveals the primary aim of Sax Appeal (apart from raising money for charity), which is constantly to push the envelope when it comes to satire. Gavin Haynes, editor of the 2005 edition, says, “Really, to me, strong satire is the mark of a mature society. It shows confidence in who we are, that we can jab our own sacred cows with a pointed stick, and it allows us to make points that might polarise people too easily.” Haynes had an aim in mind when he took on the role of editor at the end of 2004. He wanted to change the format and content of the magazine so that it was no longer a “bunch of plagiarised tat hoovered from international bargain bins”, but a more substantial publication of satire and culture jamming. “The classical form of the joke is outmoded...if you want jokes, you’re probably the kind of person who says on Sax Appeal day, ‘It’s time for my annual dose of humour.’

Jokes aside, in spite of all the hard work and careful thought that evidently goes into producing the magazine, the words Sax Appeal are far less likely to evoke thoughts of political and social commentary than they are to conjure up images of scantily-clad cross-dressers weaving in and out of traffic shouting, “It’s for charity, you bastards!”

Every year, these absurdly-attired do-gooders are given a different theme to work with. One student who had been consistently committed to the cause for five years in a row now, is Warrick Ball, a Physics Honours student. Each year has seen his costumes becoming ever more outrageous: from a bikini and water balloon breasts for the ‘Sax on the beach’ theme, tiny red shorts and ‘RED HOT SAX appeal’ on his chest for the theme of the same name, and a tiny white mini dress for 2005’s ‘Saxxxy supermodels’. “I got properly made up and generally walked around very prissy. Construction-type characters on the backs of bakkies would whistle if they weren’t facing me, and then I’d turn around and ruin their libidos.”

2006’s ‘Bling Bling’ theme was probably one of Ball’s finest Sax moments: he dressed “as a negro whore. I had a short black skirt, a sort of cut-up looking top over a black string bikini, stupid make-up and monstrous earrings.” Other incidents of bad dressing are common on Sax Appeal day. Emma Webber, a third year PPE student recalls that in the year of the ‘Sax on the beach’ theme, a friend of hers got dressed while still really drunk from the RAG party the night before. “She thought it was a good idea to wear her bikini and knee high riding boots. Only when she sobered up in 8:30am rush-hour traffic did she realise what she was wearing.” In the same year, Robert Garlick, a respected member of the UCT community and winner of the Vice Chancellor’s prestigious Award for Outstanding Leadership, donned thigh high boots, fairy wings and a Speedo (with a sock stuffed down the front, “for good measure”). He called himself the “Bondage Fairy”. According to his friend, Dean Peters, a number of motorists either refused to buy magazines from him or called him “a pervert or ought to be ashamed of himself”.

Besides the obvious entertainment factor of shocking people, Ball was also amused by his nearly being hired as a promotional worker for some product while he was selling Sax. He asked if the two blondes who approached him were looking for girls or guys, to which they replied, “Both”. When he asked if it was usual for them to hire barefoot cross-dressers selling magazines for charity, “their response was something weird like, ‘It’s a requirement.’” He never heard from them again.

This is not the most bizarre occurrence during a Sax Appeal sale; just about anything can happen on the day. Webber recalls how one of her friends jumped onto the back of a Land Rover at the traffic lights, only to have the unsuspecting driver pull off and drive away. His friends had to jump into their car and chase him down. Another Sax seller, desperate to pick up the change a driver had flung out of the car window as the lights changed, had his hand run over by another car.

Apart from the sheer lunacy and good fun of it all, there is also the small thing of Sax Appeal being sold for charity. Most students admit that this is not the deciding factor in whether they choose to sell or not; most just want to be a part of this annual institution. Ball does, however, enjoy the fact that the proceeds all go to SHAWCO. “There’s a small kick in knowing that I have some good karma points to weigh against all my bad karma points. I guess even if the money went to some grand conglomeration of capitalist pig-dogs, I’d still do it, but it’s nice to know it is actually for a good cause.”

Sax Appeal has been raising money for SHAWCO for more than 60 years now, and the takings from the sales comprise more than half of RAG’s total fundraising efforts. The charity aspect is a huge swing factor in persuading people to part with their cash, says Ball. Peters remembers “selling a magazine to an elderly Afrikaans woman, who was utterly unmoved by any appeals to the merits of the magazine (‘It’s hilariously funny’ etc), but coughed up immediately upon mentioning that it was for charity”. The other buyers probably only do so in order to get the students to stop harassing them, but, Mauchline hopes, “even if they buy it to get rid of the students, they’ll leave it in the car or the lounge or the bathroom and will pick it up and read it at some point. If it’s good quality (which it is), they’ll buy it again next year.”

Hunter and Mauchline have also both done their bit for charity and, as Haynes eloquently puts it, “had the satisfaction of passing their work through car windows to the reading public, to stand on the white lines and see hundreds of dashboards festooned with their own efforts”. Hunter recalls befriending the manager of a Nando’s in an effort to get her to buy that magazine, only to have her invite him inside for a free beer while she sold magazines to her customers. When Mauchline was in first year, (before her taste of editorial power), she was propositioned by one of her buyers. “Some guy in a car said he’d give me R200 if I dropped the towel (I was wearing a bath towel). I did. I had a bikini on underneath, but he still gave me R200.”

Such scenes are likely to be repeated all over the Peninsula on Sax Appeal day (in varying degrees of friendliness); this is what Sax Appeal is all about: uniting people in humour, social commentary, political incorrectness, frivolity and silliness alike. It’s one day of the year when students are allowed to run amok in short skirts, swimwear and ridiculous make-up and disrupt traffic, because it’s all in the name of charity.

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