An embarrassment of riches

When South African bling queen Khanyi Mbau was interviewed by Debora Patta on eTV a few weeks ago, she got a surprising number of thumbs up from young black professionals for holding her own and “showing up” the much-feared Patta.

Mbau is not exactly the epitome of black empowerment. In fact, she is anything but.

She is the caricature of what black parents don’t want for their children: a bimbo who came into easy money, fuelled by a lack of education and mindless extravagance.

The eTV interview mainly consisted of her explaining why she should not feel guilty for being black, flamboyant and without any moral obligation to the poor.

For example, Mbau said she is not going to feel sorry for someone who can’t afford to buy bread. She said she will have her croissant and blue cheese!

Favourable reaction
But reaction was quite favourable to her as compared with the aggressive Patta.

“I might not agree with Khanyi’s lifestyle, but at least she knows what it is she represents, and I resent the fact that she should feel she has to justify that to people.
Especially on the premise of ‘morality’ or saving the nation and not rubbing it in the face of the poor,” was one typical comment on the websites.

Race was also an undercurrent. Many asked: Why does Patta want to ridicule rich black celebrities? Why is she not putting wealthy white people in the hot seat?

In one fell swoop, Mbau had played the victim card and mobilised support for herself in an accidental fashion.

On her Facebook page the following day she gloated: “I believe u have to be honest @ all times. so what if m dating sugar daddies, at least i get to wear the fancy n expensive stuff, get to go places—etc….need i say more???? u gt a prob, deal with it!!!!!”

It was a bit strange. This often loathed young woman became an overnight celebrity by getting married to a rich man, then driving a Lamborghini, renting an apartment for R100 000 a month at the upmarket Melrose Arch, charging R35 000 just to make an appearance at a function and gracing the front pages of newspapers and covers of magazines.

But it was Mbau—and the ensuing public spectacle of a pot-bellied ex-convict, Kenny Kunene, eating sushi off a half-naked woman’s body at his R700 000 birthday party—who provoked debate and questions about morality and whether this behaviour was not spitting in the face of the poor in the most unequal society in the world.

Honest money and honest fun
In his own defence Kunene said that he had done nothing wrong.

“I’m grateful that my businesses are successful and they allow me to buy the same things that others may have had to be corrupt to buy,” he reportedly wrote in a letter to various media outlets after being publicly attacked by Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi for his sushi feast. “I should not have to defend what I spend on a huge milestone in my life, when it’s honest money and we were having honest fun.”

Then Kunene proceeds to boast about how he drives a Lamborghini, a Porsche Cayenne, a Porsche Carrera and a BMW I series.

He’s far from being the only one who loves to flash his cars. Who can forget the image of Khulubuse Zuma, nephew of President Jacob Zuma, driving a new R2,5-million Mercedes-Benz SLS63 AMG Gullwing on his arrival at the lavish “wedding of the year” of the similarly materialistic national police chief Bheki Cele in October?

The image was particularly grotesque in light of Zuma keeping 5 000 miners at his Aurora mines unpaid and unfed for months.

Moral debate
So the question is: Should we moralise and ask how the wealth was acquired and how it’s being blown on trivial materialism or do we let people enjoy “their” money without seeking to burden them with a social conscience they do not have?

I asked a few young black professionals what they thought.

“I’m generally revolted by all conspicuous consumption and not just in South Africa, but globally too,” young researcher Lebogang Mokoena said. “The crude materialism that we readily associate with black people here is no different to the burgeoning Chinese or Indian middle/upper middle classes, whose consumption of expensive global brands flies in the face of the material condition of many of the people within their societies. The irony, however, is that blacks expound notions of ubuntu and affirming their humanity in a manner that upholds and promotes the dignity of others.”

Said Madibeng Kgwete, a Pretoria-based communicator: “It is interesting how people get wealthy without having invented anything. All they seem to do is sell booze, date a millionaire, and win a lottery or a lawsuit. It’s all wealth without work,” Kgwete said, pointing to Mahatma Gandhi’s “pleasure without conscience” and “commerce without morality” as the roots of violence.

Antoinette Mokgohloa, a freelance producer, said she finds the phenomenon of blacks flashing their money a disgrace.

“I’d say blacks should enjoy their wealth and not brag about it, because there is a difference between wealth and bling,” Mokgohloa said. “It shouldn’t matter how I acquired my middle-class lifestyle, as long as I know I got my great job through good merit and not by favours. I made peace with my middle-class lifestyle and I live according to my means of income.”

Mokgohloa and Ndavhe Ramakuela also bemoaned the fast riches acquired by those who have come to be known as tenderpreneurs, a breed of politically connected young men who trade political patronage to established businesses and in turn acquire huge tenders for construction of houses or roads—mostly trade skills they know nothing about.

I saw these types while attending the ANC’s national general council in Durban in September.

While the ruling party was ostensibly discussing policy, Durban was invaded by the cigar-smoking young men wearing long-collared shirts, shiny suits and sharp-nosed shoes, who spent most of the time at the Hilton hotel (next to the NGC venue) mixing it up with the top politicians as well as at the trendy Cubana restaurant where they were joined by fashionable young girls in miniskirts.

The sight so disgusted a friend of mine, who left in a huff, not wishing to be associated with the “artificial” world he saw.

It’s the hypocrisy of preaching ubuntu without a social conscience that bothers Mokoena. “It would seem rather two-faced that we are also the first to buy super-expensive watches when within our extended family abject poverty and socioeconomic exclusion are the order of the day,” Mokoena said. “It would seem that we have not fully defined and internalised what we mean by ubuntu and whose responsibility it is.”

Former ANC spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama lacked diplomacy when he summed it up rather crudely that “we did not struggle to be poor”.

The truth is black people should feel no shame in sending their children to better schools (be it the former model C or private schools), joining private medical aids, eating sushi, buying houses in the former white suburbs and generally living better lifestyles. Some call it the moral bankruptcy of the new African elite. Others feel it is no less than what they deserve.

I am personally quite embarrassed when I am witness to exhibitionism, even from friends who worked hard to achieve their current status. But like the journalist I am, I am content to be a camera, clicking away at the action, uninvolved and non-judgmental.

Rapule Tabane is the deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal. Read more from Rapule Tabane

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