Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The ‘Bling’ Of South Africa

This was a blog I wrote at the time of Khanyi Mbau’s interview with Debora Patta, but never posted. With this debate, again, coming to the fore after the publication of this picture on the front page of The Times yesterday, I figured now is as good a time as ever to post it.


I can’t think of a single interview of Khanyi Mbau’s that doesn’t immediately spark off a slew of controversy and her recent turn with Debora Patta on 3rd Degree was no different. There more quotes there to achieve exactly what it was the indefatigable Ms Mbau wanted; to get her those headlines - for those who missed it, “blue cheese on a croissant,” is the 21st South African answer to Marie Antoinette’s cake.

Whilst of course, the interview was interesting in and of itself just because Khanyi Mbau, as much as it pains me to admit it, is fascinating as a character, if not so much as a person, there was a far deeper undertone to the interview. As 3rd Degree framed it, the programme was a look at the ‘bling lifestyle,’ of some of the South African elite. Though this is nothing new to the gossip pages, it burst into the wider public psyche after the Kenny Kunene’s equally famous and infamous 40th birthday party, particularly after Zwelinzima Vavi’s scathing attack on it and Kenny’s just as scathing open letter to Vavi.

From this a vociferous, yet important debate on where we, as a culture are going, and who we are erupted. To many, as shown by Vavi and his many supporters, Kenny, Khanyi and their ilk are a living, breathing, blinging representations of the pervesion of the South African democracy. Even I’m so tempted to say, that any sensible person would agree, amongst which I would number myself. However, I can’t.

Who Are We
The government oft repeats, these are foreign and alien notions to South Africa and yes; a South Africa where a small minority live a life of wealth and overt opulence, whilst the far larger majority lived a life of squalid poverty is not the status quo our constitution sought to engender.

However, the very system we chose to live by, the very system our constitution enshrines is a system in which the Khanyi’s and the Kenny’s flourish. However it may manifest, be it the football players and their WAGs of Europe or the starlets and rappers of Hollywood, where there is liberal democracy, our constitutional system, the ugliness of conspicuous consumption rears its head.

For me the irony of the whole issue was best illustrated on Twitter whilst the show was airing and the majority of South African Twitter users were watching and tweeting about the show, an American asked me what the big fuss in South Africa was about.

After I explained to him, his answer said it all, “Welcome to the United States.”

Is It Because They’re Black?
Thankfully, as the first salvo in this debate was shot off by a black man we can somewhat dodge the South African version of Alice’s rabbit hole, the race debate and though I hate to mention it, I would be remiss not to.

Why now, why when Kenny Kunene, a black man, is the one who is splurging his wealth about does the outcry arise? For years, both pre and post Apartheid, through the columns of Gwen Gill we were privy to the conspicuous consumption, often thinly veiled as charity functions, of white South Africans. One may do it ‘for charity,’ and the other may just do it, but be it Edith Venter or Khanyi Mbau, it’s all inconspicuously or not, conspicuous consumption.

Where Are The Parents?
Often these days where the Oprah’s and Dr Phil’s of this world explain our issues of why we are the way we are, we forget one simple thing, personal responsibility. Therefore, when Kenny, Khanyi and their supporters say, “Where are the parents, it’s not for us to be role models,” they are correct, but only to a degree.

The power is of the media and popular culture is pervasive, this we all know. Thus regardless how well a parent may raise their child, unless they raise their child locked in away from anyone and everything, not all aspects of who that child becomes is up to them. It takes a village to raise a child; sadly with the power the media holds in 21st century living, try as we may, we can’t choose who the villagers are.

When I was in university, I got heavily involved in a mentoring programme giving extra Maths and English classes to underprivileged kids. One day, talking to one of my kids, he pointed to my Puma backpack, my iPod and the clothes I was wearing. To me, these items didn’t mean anything, to Kenny Kunene even less, but to him, at 9yrs old, they represented an ideal of what he wanted to achieve, where to be one day in life.

In South Africa, where poverty is something that we face daily; be it saying goodbye to your maid at the end of the day knowing that she has a long trek to make back home, whilst you sip on your chilled chardonnay, or passing spare change to the beggar out in the hot sun whilst fiddling with the air-conditioning of your car, we all ‘spit in the face of the poor,’ as Vavi said of Kenny’s birthday. Granted, it’s at varying degrees, but just by living your average middle class lifestyle, it’s what we do. Perhaps the plain reason why Kenny Kunene, Khanyi Mbau and the others of the ‘bling culture,’ offend and anger us so is because what they do is a reflection of who we are, a grossly magnified reflection of course, but a reflection nonetheless.


  1. I don't know, I think there's still such a thing as responsible consumption.

  2. Well taking it that you're being serious - who knows with types such as yourself? ( ;-P ) - if by simp living a "middle-class" lifestyle, you're 'spitting in the face of the poor,' it sometimes certainly looks like there can't.

    "White liberal guilt," is a common term, perhaps there's also just "liberal guilt."

  3. Questioning what we have and what others don't have, can make you feel guilty and uncomfortable - sometimes it's easier to look the other way and carry on (giving a little change to the beggar outside your air conditioned car) - no matter how heavy the heart gets. Sad but true!

    We all need to do more and try harder!

  4. That, I'd think, is the bottom line. We've all got to try do our bit.

  5. hehehe, I do try sometimes (to be serious) you know ;) I think it's very difficult to not be living a life that others might find offensive, but I do believe that I am very conscious of what I use and I try to take others into consideration by sharing.

    but of course I do indulge as well, ice-cream, wine, beer, holidays. but again I think that's mitigated by sharing and trying to make life better for others as well. does Kenny do that?

  6. Great blog post - and I think it's definitely a topic on many people's minds. I read this morning about Zille saying she couldn't care less about Malema and Kenny and the nightclub, she has better things to do.

    But still, despite that view (and there's many who hold it), there are plenty who avidly watch and consume the celebrity (bling) culture, who see every day conspicuous consumption and who are left wondering why no one's sharing.

    I guess it does come down to personal responsibility, and if that involves an influence over someone who is less informed (like a child) then we need to make the best of that situation and encourage a sharing, giving culture that avoids massive public spending and rather focuses on building appropriately and positively into people's lives through wealth.