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Culture, Reality

Best of 2012 | The Wallpaper Game

by Rob Cockcroft / 25.12.2012

Originally published 14 March 2012

At times, my life is like an absurd socio-economic comedy. What happens to a young man of obscure social standing, neither comfortably middle-class but not really that poor, when he’s a wannabe writer fresh out of college with a journalism diploma? The career he chose is highly underpaid and, even to make it into that meager salary bracket, he has to navigate through a maze of close-knit networking, unpaid work and internships. To add to his plight, his baby is ready to burst forth into the world from his girlfriend’s inflated womb at any second. It becomes excruciatingly clear that he’s teetering on an unstable ladder in-between the middle class and working class realms. Eventually it’s going to come toppling down on one side with no safety net to catch him.

Just over two years ago I enrolled in a college diploma course in journalism, vowing to turn my lowly existence around after spending half a decade doing depressing, subservient retail jobs like packing CDs on shelves in alphabetical order, hanging up clothes and swiping credit cards at a surf shop. Eating shit from customers because of faulty phones and network issues at a Vodacare service counter.

A good couple of months after handing in my final exam sheets, though, the money I was making from this very veritable chronicler of Mzansi culture, doing the odd bartending job and working as a doorman every second weekend at Cold Turkey just was cutting it. I was pretty much still matching the wages I pocketed as a waiter at Spur when I was in high school. With the overpowering burden of having to pay off a monstrous student loan on top of the cost of rent, cots and diapers; I had to can the ambitions of soaking up pop culture while interning at prestigious magazines, freelancing (a euphemism translating to dignified unemployment) or straight up writing yarns for charity, to take whatever job came my way. There was no choice. I needed to make money right away, by any means necessary.

In January I joined the rest of the 99% in the sweat-filled trenches when I was offered a contract to put up wallpaper on the sixth floor of Engen head office. Appointed as a lackey to the skilled artisans, my 7-day work weeks were spent stripping off the old paper, removing glue and paint spatter off carpets with rags and 5L bottle of thinners and breaking my back, awkwardly moving office fittings and deceptively heavy filing cabinets which were reinforced with titanium. Since I knew less about working with tools than the bar charts and ledgers, which made the accountants on that floor sit completely transfixed on their computer screens, I sliced my fingers twice with a box cutter within ten minutes of the first day. In the days that followed, the overtime we were clocking and because of the fact that we had no days off, I was nodding off like a narcoleptic during my lunch breaks and on the train to and from work. It was almost enough to make me quit, but the pay raked in three times the amount of dough than the aforementioned writing gigs. I could only laugh at the fact that I was of more value to society in the wallpaper game. Despite paying through my ass for an education, I was, in fact, worse off than before I had one. College helped my previously ignorant self to understand the meaning of irony, plus with my newly developed faculties of reason, I could rationalise the situation. Makes sense I guess; in the fast food world of online journalism a story holds relevance for a day or two. Wallpaper sticks for years to come.

These days I’m selling my labour more than my words. Last week while suckers on this site were scribbling up art reviews about the Design Indaba, I was resting up after making proper loot as a yes-man with a walkie-talkie. Just one of the hundreds of workers playing my small part tending to minor electrical glitches in the stalls at the Indaba conference, setting up display stands, lugging boxes of informational pamphlets and helping to turn the hall of the CTICC from a construction site into an exhibition. So what’s more honest – written art-faggotry or physical labour? The cash points to the latter.

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  1. Onan the ambidextrous says:

    Nice one. The first decent story in weeks. I was beginning to think Mahala was under new management.

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  2. creepy steve says:

    “bullshit walks, money buys the whiskeys”- Baillie mike
    nice one

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  3. brandon says:

    A bit grating at the end there but this is exactly the writing this site needs.

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  4. gunston says:

    touche’ brother

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  5. SihleMthembu says:

    This article is so SEXY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  6. squawk says:

    Educations are expensive, sure, but perspective, man that stuff is priceless. I have been enriched by your art-faggotry – thanks.

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  7. Poster says:


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  8. Robfather says:

    feelgood article of the summer.

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  9. straight gay guy says:

    Rad piece. Very True.

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  10. nero says:

    Awesome article. But why didn’t the author just solve his financial woes by getting money from the trust fund like the other freelancers? 😉

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  11. Tyrion Lannister says:

    Cock is boss!

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  12. Reader says:

    Thanks for this article. It’s good to know I’m not the only one out there with a daughter on the way and slaving (in advertising) for meagre pay after spending an arm and leg (or two) at ad school and a couple of years of ohmygod jobs.

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  13. Douchie says:

    Onan you sleepwalking… Spoek, Kony, RAMfest, Fokn Bois, Shit at the Design Indaba, Airborne Aids… been a good coupla weeks on Mahala…

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  14. Onan the ambidextrous says:

    A bit lightweight for my liking, Douchie. This one has depth and complexity. Like the guy has got his heart on his sleeve and his cock on a block. Writers need to do dangerous stuff. See what I mean?

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  15. Mufasa says:

    Cockcroft, nice piece but one question: how is physical labour more “honest” (your word) that “written art-faggotry” (your phrase) ? and how does the “cash [point] to the latter?” I don’t quite understand that last sentence.

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  16. Alex Montana says:

    I’m surprised this piece has been met with such a positive reception. I like the piece, Rob: it’s provocative and interesting. But I’d like to offer a few constructive criticisms that will hopefully engender some amicable debate on the thread:

    1. The first is to reiterate Mufasa’s question above, which has me perplexed.

    2. The second is that, this is only your experience of being a freelance journalist. I can assure you that overwhelmingly, the median wage paid for career writers (whether they’re feature writers, corporate shills, PR dudes, political commentators) far outweighs that paid to blue-collar labourers. It also expends less energy, has more symbolic capital in middle-class life, and requires you to put in less (less man hours etc.). It’s worth keeping this in mind, instead of possibly tending to valorise labour that is often undertaken by most workers out of duress rather than as free choice.

    3. The third problem, which is a ubiquitous one, is the idea that physical labour consititutes the real labour in the world, and journalism and so forth is just some irrelevant icing on top of the cake. This is again a matter of dispute, because the more admiral strains of journalism tend to be about provoking a change in the status quo which is deeply necessary in a democratic society. So, to argue the converse on my second point, it’s dangerous to trivialise journalism, and make some kind of nostalgic argument using blue-collar labour as a foil. As someone who’s (at various points) worked many hours of physical labour in his life, I can assure that the novelty and apparent lavishness of the pay will wear off very quickly. The life of a labourer is accumulatively exhausting in ways that other professions are not.

    But mostly, I get what you’re saying – I get the theme you’re going for. But I’m worried that you’re using your own particular example (pregnant girlfriend, need cash, not working well-paid journalism jobs etc.) to project to widely about the differences between journalism and manual labour. The latter is for most, not a job that disillusioned middle-class journalists pick up when they don’t feel like wordsmithery is covering the rent .


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  17. lindokushle says:

    @ Alex Montana You make many assumptions in your comment. You do not know how many publications Rob has worked for ( more than just Mahala), and you also don’t know how much he was paid to put up wallpaper (you would quit your day job). You also make the mistake of assuming that his reference to “written art-faggery” applies to all journalism.

    Also, even as a writer for Mahala I can not pretend that my contribution (or that of many other writers) matches that of the working-class who tirelessly toil to sustain our middle-class privilege. That’s some overly-romanticised self-important bullshit.

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  18. montle says:


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  19. Nuray says:

    We can complain about not getting payed enough or not getting paid at all, but at the end of the day if you give up on your lifes dreams you’re as good as dead anyway.

    Yes, we suffer. But who gives a fuck? Suffer in silence and continue to create.

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  20. cnut says:

    I like it… arguably not the best prose… but a total counter to the usual Mahala-high-5-brigade-I’m-cooler-than-jou-but-pretending-to-be-down-with-it-wankfest content!

    Rob if you’re near CT or Melbourne, drop us a mail as we have many openings in my SEO/SMO business and pay above norm for the right players.

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  21. / says:

    ‘meager’ – hayibo
    ‘lowly’ – make it stop!
    ‘aforementioned’ – OK, the art faggotry has gone far enough.

    Take the fucking boxcutter that sliced your aforementioned lowly meager fingers and cut those kind of words out, and you’ll be on your way to being a shit-hot writer. On your way.

    Come on, mahala, get your shit together!

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  22. Ooo Ooo says:

    CNUT you need to die

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  23. Samora says:

    Yep this was on point… and I can totally relate. But no point being defeatist. And you still wrote this right? The best art comes out of adversity.

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  24. rob says:

    @samora. Aweh, thanks. Not giving up just yet. It’s just a short-term solution, best thing I can do for now, nahmean?

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  25. starz says:

    interesting start, but started to lose me at the end waffling on about irrelevent things. can relate to the story!! life as a creative. i’m the struggling create and the pregnant girlfriend all in one…

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  26. Kontlap says:

    he who feels it knows – great article bobby – look out for number 1 (you and yours) thats the law of the land

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  27. Anonymous says:

    I freelance for newspapers. The rate is the same, sometimes less, than when I started 20 years ago. Lindokushle – workers do not toil tirelessly to maintain anybody’s middle-class lifestyle. They toil tirelessly to survive and put food on the table, and their actions enrich the super-rich. The rapidly thinning middle-class is simply an increasingly hard-working buffer zone.

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  28. kropotkin says:


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  29. Diva says:

    Freelancers have HUGE balls! I say RESPECT. They’re either talented or braver than those of us who hang onto our ‘steady’ jobs like amateur pole dancers in their very first superman move. I envy that kind of freelance-freedom, but alas… I’ve chosen ‘security’ myself. 12-ish years spent climbing that slippery advertising industry ‘pole’, doing my ‘steady’ job so that my ‘steadily’ increasing ‘steady’ salary pops into my account every month before my debit orders kick in. Over a decade dedicated to writing and directing mostly candyfloss, selling absolutely average stuff to people who don’t really need it, and doing it for mostly unreasonable clients with mostly self-inflicted crazy-ass deadlines so that their debit orders won’t bounce either.

    On the upside… I get to hang wallpaper and waitress on weekends too, but I get to do it at my restaurant, the same one that a decade of steady slogging (and a truckload of tricky clients) helped pay for. Maybe they’re not biatches and SOBs after all…

    Naaah. They so are.

    Point is (I think), we all get somewhere in the end, we just take different tacks to get there. So, rock on my fellow creatives… and all kinds of ‘insert colour’-collared friends.

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  30. Merry Frankster says:

    All together now: There is no brighter future ahead.

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  31. dudie says:

    bukowski, factotum – nothing’s really changed. keep on writing at all times and hope, always hope.

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  32. Icedoctor says:

    ” in the fast food world of online journalism a story holds relevance for a day or two. Wallpaper sticks for years to come.”


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  33. the ghetto banker says:

    I can relate.

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  34. j says:

    Phew man.
    This is heavy.
    Nice one.

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  35. sue mitchell says:

    I would like to use this image for a personal music video. Is that ok? How can I contact the artist?

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  36. Dennis says:

    @sue mitchell, It looks like Bansky.

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  37. GeileJanette says:

    I saw a lot of website but I believe this one holds something special in it. “Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip.” by Will Rogers. GeileJanette http://bryskyemedia.tumblr.com

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  38. mist says:

    Living in a world built of adverse economic climate. Journalism stands to be the root of information disbursement though the market is crippled by the media corporates structures that make it nearly impossible to succeed in that sphere.

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  39. mist says:

    Living in a world built of adverse economic climate. Journalism stands to be the root of information public reports though the market is crippled by the media corporates structures that make it nearly impossible to succeed in that sphere.

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