TikTok's appeal is that 'anyone can do it', say top SA influencers

Paula Andropolous chats to local TikTok personalities to find out why (and how) this video-sharing app has captured the imaginations of a whole generation

05 September 2021 - 00:01
By Paula Andropoulos
'TikTok is redefining digital content consumption as we know it.'
Image: Siphu Gqwetha 'TikTok is redefining digital content consumption as we know it.'

TikTok: the name alone is enough to spark trepidation (and intrigue) in the hearts of almost everyone older than 25. When it comes to our general levels of aptitude in navigating this burgeoning social media giant, we might as well be Boomers - which is to say, we didn't come of age using this technology.

But the astonishing growth and ubiquity of the platform is making it harder and harder to ignore, and there's no question that not only is TikTok here to stay, it's also redefining digital consumption as we know it.

Given that a select group of South Africans is taking to TikTok like fish to water, it's worth investigating why (and how) this video-sharing app has captured the imaginations of a whole generation.

We spoke to up-and-coming South African TikTok personalities in the hope of glimpsing behind the curtain of this brave new virtual world.

TikTok is a short-form video-sharing app that enables users to share their lip-syncs, sketches, parodies and personal stories with sound bites or audio clips.

Creators might choose to respond to trending “challenge” prompts - dancing, mostly - or create a ridiculous alter-ego; they might expend a minute discussing their mental health, or spread awareness about social justice issues.

On TikTok, the world is your stage and the players are diverse and innovative - but their performances are incredibly short, and vying for primacy amid hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of almost-the-same-things.

There is irrefutably an artistry and a savvy to mastering the TikTok format. There's also something a bit manic and crazed about the culture and the fandom, which makes Instagram's content seem sedate by comparison.

You can lose hours to 15-second windows of video footage on the app, which has made it a pandemic staple for housebound humans missing out on pre-pandemic social interactions. TikTok seems to operate on a dopamine-fuelled algorithm of continuity and novelty, community and idiosyncrasy.

Spend an hour on TikTok, and you're liable to hear the same clip of the same song over and over again, which should be repulsive but is instead oddly compelling and, dare I say, addictive. TikTok is frame-by-frame footage of an organism in the throes of a mutation. It's kitsch. It's wholesome. It's problematic. It's mindless. It's the future — now, now, now.

Twenty-four-year-old South African model Karl Kugelman has 6-million followers.

“I got involved in TikTok when I arrived back home following a modelling job in Hong Kong. The app was introduced to me by a friend, who suggested that I give it a try, seeing as many other models had joined and subsequently gained large social media followings quite quickly,” he says.

“I knew that a better social media following would benefit my modelling career and prove helpful towards getting positive exposure. I decided there was no harm in giving it a shot, and I'm grateful to have found that it's something I thoroughly enjoy.”

Kugelman works full-time as a model. In general, he's found social media conducive to work opportunities, and has been able to collaborate with brands like Paco Rabanne, promoting fragrances.

South African Chané Grobler, 20, has amassed 2.4-million followers so far. Her interest in the platform dates back to late 2018, around the same time that the Musical.ly app was bought by - and merged with - the TikTok of today.

“I saw people posting their Musical.lys on Instagram, and I was curious as to what these videos were all about,” recalls Grobler. “I was so confused about all of the mechanics of content creation that initially I didn't even try. [At first] I kept my videos in my drafts. My mom eventually convinced me to just post my videos and give it a shot ... three years later, here I am.”

Now a full-time influencer, Grobler is drawn to TikTok's international community, but maintains that there's something special about the South African offering.

Like many of the local influencers I spoke to, moreover, she has found that you don't need a lot of gear to begin with, which is unquestionably part of the app's appeal for aspiring creatives - she didn't buy her first ring light until after she'd hit 1-million followers.

Roberto de Gouveia, alias k1ngbert0, has 1.1-million followers on TikTok. He also runs a liquor store with his mother - and met his now girlfriend, the aforementioned Grobler, through the TikTok community.

“If there's one thing about South Africans, [it's that] we will make a joke about any situation, no matter the severity,” he ruminates. “I think TikTok South Africans are just the best comedians.”

This theory is borne out by a lot of SA's burgeoning comic personalities, including that of “25-years YOUNG” Cassidy Nicholson, who hilariously parodies Constantia mothers (among other things) on her 150,000-strong profile.

“South Africans are the best when it comes to trauma and big events, because we just make jokes to cope ... South African TikTok is the class clown, if that makes sense. We know how to laugh at ourselves.”

Nicholson says a lot of observers underestimate how much hard work and burnout go on behind the scenes, but she finds her TikTok career “incredibly rewarding”.

In a similar vein to Nicholson, self-identified “former theatre kid,” Sed Pillay (@sed_p) fuses humour and social commentary in his videos.

“Having been called a coconut (brown on the outside, white on the inside) for most of my life, I thought it would be fun to juxtapose the idiosyncrasies of Indian and white South Africans,” he recalls.

“Thankfully, there's been a good reception to these videos. I've recently widened my range to the broader South African audience, poking fun at our stereotypical South African behaviours. I've also begun to include my fiancée, Dhamini, in my videos, where we showcase the funny side of Indian couples.”

TikTok is perhaps uniquely poised to escalate from a hobby to a niche career or side hustle, because of its ubiquity and the variety of perspectives it (sometimes) succeeds in highlighting.

In June, TikTok SA launched its inaugural Rising Voices programme: at the conclusion of an intensive six weeks of masterclasses and content curation, grant recipients were selected from 80 participating creators, all people of colour.

A total of 839-million views, 4.6-million new “follows” and 2.1-million shares came out of the initiative, which showcased a broad spectrum of South African talent.

Twenty-five-year-old Khanyisa Jaceni has always been creative: she used to post her skits on other video-share apps, has musical prowess, and has a professional background in CAD (computer-aided design).

With more than 910,000 followers, Jaceni's star is on the rise - but she adroitly points out that TikTok isn't all sunshine and roses.

Creators have to contend with the spectre of cancel culture, and, while “TikTok allows anyone to be a content creator, not having [ready] access to the internet can bring about challenges, especially considering the high data costs in SA.”

Twenty-two-year-old Paballo Kgware (515,000-plus followers) initially created her TikTok account to watch videos, not make them. But, finding herself “inspired by a sound or a video”, the ADFA drama grad caught the TikTok bug.

Though she echoes Jaceni's concerns about cyberbullying, she lauds the notion that “anyone can do it, and there's no [one] blueprint on how to be a TikTok creator. You don't need fancy lights, tripods, or the latest iPhone. I started TikTok using my kitchen window and the sun as my ring light and I still grew my following. It is the content that matters.”

Kayla Kim (@kaylakimkay, 525,000-plus followers) is an entrepreneur, who, at 28, has already founded a clothing brand (My Hunays) and a hair-care brand (Afrocurl). In her past life, she worked as a fashion buyer, having studied fashion design.

“I tell stories through lifestyle vlogging, hair, fashion, food and business,” Kim says.

Twenty-six-year-old Thozamile Mnguni (@thozimusic) is a music producer and a DJ who
uses TikTok to bring his original approach to the fore.

“The biggest pro is that there's no gatekeeping. The content you create goes straight to the people it's meant for, and if you're good at what you do, people will follow you.”

Nineteen-year-old Banele Ndaba (@Moghelingz) grew her 283,000-plus following after the first national lockdown, when TikTok “blew up".

"I knew I had to be a part of it as well. Everything that was funny started from TikTok. We have so much diverse talent in SA. Creators are always embracing their culture, and that's what makes it unique,” she says.