Magazine for the Upwardly Mobile

Johannesburg-based Tribute markets itself to the increasingly influential black middle class. JOURNALISM: SOUTH AFRICA

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

TRIBUTE magazine, a glossy monthly which calls itself ``a tribute to black excellence,'' reflects the aspirations and dilemmas of an increasingly visible and influential black middle class. Sandwiched between upbeat fashion features and glitzy advertisements for brandy, perfume, and luxury automobiles are features on black achievers and introspective analyses about the crisis in black leadership.

The editorial message is clear: It's OK to be black and middle class and to aspire to excellence. You can be oppressed and affluent at the same time. Tribute's 135,000 readers - some of whom adorn the trendy social pages - fall mainly in that category.

But, with excellence, comes a responsibility to break the ideological stereotypes of black politics, molded by apartheid, and search for abiding values to sustain a new South Africa.

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``We felt we needed to have heroes,'' says Maud Motanyane, Tribute's soft-spoken editor, who has been at the helm for all but the first three months of the magazine's three years of publishing.

When African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela was released from jail, Tribute celebrated the occasion with a special souvenir supplement.

But even the revered ANC leader is unlikely to escape the cut-and-thrust of the critical analysis that has become Tribute's hallmark.

``Tribute has no holy cows,'' said Ms. Motanyane. ``One cannot afford to have any, if one is to be truly constructive.''

Favorite themes of Tribute columnists are the inadequacy of protest politics, the lack of accountability of black leaders, and an intolerance of criticism.

``Consensus is necessary,'' says Motanyane. ``But false consensus is not only deceptive, it is dangerous. This is why, in the same report that we laud Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu as a hero, we can ask questions about allegations that he operates without a mandate from the people.''

Tribute was born six months after the government declared a nationwide emergency in June 1986 in a bid to contain a rebellion in the country's black townships. Tens of thousands of activists were held under arbitrary detention laws and organizations were outlawed. They were the darkest days for upwardly mobile blacks.

``Initially, we were totally rejected by the activists who said we were selling out to capitalist values,'' says Motanyane.

But Tribute also faced a credibility problem with the capitalist advertisers whom publisher Greg Psillos, a Greek immigrant who has made it in publishing, hoped would prove the commercial viability of an upmarket black magazine.

``At first we were rejected outright by some advertisers, who insisted there was no such thing as a black middle class,'' says Motanyane.

The black share of personal income in South Africa is approaching 30 percent. But advertisers tend to be cautious in promoting luxury goods to black consumers.

Gradually, they saw Tribute was working and began advertising. Today the magazine has a healthy advertising component, mainly for luxury goods such as designer clothes, shoes, liquor, and furniture.

But Tribute's more abiding challenge has been to win credibility in the inflexible arena of anti-apartheid politics, as practiced by the ANC.

To compound the problem, the very notion of a black middleclass has been further discredited by the government's promotion of the concept as a matter of policy.

At first, activists could not understand how the symbols of affluence found in Tribute's pages could coexist with anti-apartheid politics. But today it is recognized by many anti-apartheid leaders as making a useful contribution to the debate.

Most of Tribute's small band of black staff writers come from the more independent Africanist tradition, which puts black pride before the ideal of non-racialism.

The magazine has a strong political content, but it has been careful not to take sides within anti-apartheid politics.

`No one can claim us politically,'' says Motanyane, who is on a personal crusade to establish self-criticism and dissent as norms in black political debate.

Tribute has been accused by its critics of shooting down its heroes, but it has succeeded in transcending divisions in black ranks.

Motanyane welcomes the new flexibility and maturity. ``I find it very encouraging,'' she says. ``We have to learn tolerance of the other's views and to take criticism,'' she says. ``The rules we set now will carry us to a new South Africa after apartheid has gone.''

But Motanyane concedes that the recent escalation of violence in black areas is worrying. ``Sometimes I think we have left it too long,'' she says. ``The challenge is as much ours as the government's to sort out the mess. It is as much Mandela's challenge as [President Frederik] De Klerk's.

``Getting out of the quagmire we're in needs informed, brave leadership,'' she says. ``Black leadership will be tested now more than ever before.''

Motanyane sees no conflict between the liberation of the black middle class and the liberation of blacks as a whole.

``We are trapped in a different way [than] the rest - by home loans, not being able to live where you want to, having to pay private school fees to avoid inferior black education, having to run two cars, and having to pay tax to a government that does very little for you.

``Being black and middleclass is knowing that the ceiling is just above your head.''

Tribute tries to inspire its readers to raise that ceiling and reach for the sky, as the magazine has done.

``It is a very shrewd bit of marketing,'' says Professor Gavin Stewart of Rhodes University's journalism school. ``By combining prestige advertising with a radical political content, you have a glossy package, which is highly marketable and unlikely to fall afoul of the censors.''

The mix has been so successful that Motanyane has had to ward off embarrassing approaches from white businessmen and government officials wanting to promote the publication.

Tribute has achieved a monthly circulation of 30,000 and a modest readership of 135,000, of whom 98 percent are black.

While this represents only a minute fraction of the country's 26 million blacks, the magazine reaches a highly influential readership of top professionals, business executives, and upwardly mobile youth - the leaders of the future.

It stands in contrast to a plethora of down-market black magazines and ideologically rigid anti-apartheid weeklies.

``Like the American magazine Ebony, Tribute reflects a very positive image of its readership, which is very necessary at this point in our history,'' says Mr. Stewart.

Catering exclusively - and unapologetically - to blacks, Tribute gives a fascinating insight into the intellectual debates raging within a troubled black elite.

``It offers material which is not available in any other South African publication,'' says Stewart. ``For a white South African there is no better way of getting a handle on the black situation.''

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