Jesus, Smurfs and Nonhle Thema

"I want ALL my smurfs to call me JESUS from now on … i we all good." And there, in one tweet, the genius that is Nonhle Thema deconstructs celebrity, eviscerates its constituent parts, and repackages them as parody.

First, the infantilising of her loyal fans (on Twitter, over 100 000, making her one of South Africa's most popular Tweeters), both a pointed commentary on the nature of worship, and a co-opting of herself into the maternal dynamic. Then, the conflation of herself with Jesus; a witty gibe at the fanatical nature of celebritydom, and at the inevitable martyrdom it entails.

And then the baldly philosophical statement: "i we all good", a hybrid of rastafarian one love and dour American optimism. It's as if Ms Thema is the Catholic host, serving as transubstantitory edible. She's also obliquely critiquing religious fervour, likening believers to tiny little blue folk with odd hats.

Being a fan of a South African celebrity is a difficult thing. They're all such tossers — bloated egos with the self-awareness of a small slug and the sliminess to match. Ms Thema is different, a celebrity who takes her audience with her on the ride. I'll never forget something once said to me by JM Coetzee (the Australian Nonhle Thema, for those of you unfamiliar with his work). "Many people think that fan comes from the word fanatic. It doesn't. Its root is fantasy."

And Ms Thema is all about the fantasy. Her constant stream of tweets present her as an inordinately successful, rich, pizza-loving businesswoman, with her own perfume range and a defiant attitude to those she calls "haters". Some people don't understand her appeal. Someone said to me, "I hate that woman, she's a celebrity for doing nothing," and I was all, like, no! She does do something, she has a long-running soap opera on Twitter! And then I was all like, OMG!, I've just used the phrase "I was all like", Twitter DOES rot the brain.

#Koff. Moving on — Ms Thema has mastered the art of the cult. Tweets such as "Im your JESUS … just Deal with it .. and keep it moving … ha ha ha IM TOOOO POWERFUL" only serve to reinforce the belief her followers have in her. Indeed, there is a certain sacramental quality in contributing to her Twitter stream. For example, when @Attenuator tweets: "NonhleThema I am your servant and you are my jesus! I worship your holy name my Smurfette!", Ms Thema's response is a laconic "Nice", echoing the call and response of more established religions.

Ms Thema is fully aware of how proselytising can lead your enemies to grandstanding, how a simple message of love, cheese and absolute narcissism can be exploited for evil ends. When asked "jesus performed miracles,so what can u do ???", her reply is "I make rappers angry an curse me out for PR LOL im the ish".

Her true insight, though, is into the celebrity's relationship with itself and the implication that the only way to really be fanatically worshipped is to fanatically love yourself. So when an unbeliever asks, "Nonhle Thema you keep on saying the same shit don't u get bored of urself?", Ms Thema's answer is a moment of sober self-analysis: "Ha ha boo Never i even lick my own ass i LoVE me".

Some of Ms Thema's parables are perhaps hard for those outside the church to understand. The Parable of the Patriarchal Hater, for example, might on the face of it read as homophobia. "Guyz that keep hating on me. As a GIRL need a DICK up their asses Full stop … faggots ……" But read within the context of Ms Thema's philosophy, it becomes a call for a feminisation of the workplace, to the betterment of all concerned.

Will the Church of Nonhle be able to sustain itself? How often have we seen prophets ridiculed in their own time and martyred in the court of public opinion? Poignantly, Ms Thema foresees her own death and welcomes it as the concomitant for saving us from our own sins. A poignant tweet from late at night: "How cool im dead …. Thank u".

Follow Ms Thema on Twitter @NonhleThema
And you might as well follow Chris too, @ChrisRoperZA

Chris Roper
Chris Roper

Chris Roper was editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian from July 2013 - July 2015.

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