Khanyi Mbau: Bling and nothingness
When you read about Khanyi Mbau’s reaction to the break up of her mother's marriage ("Khanyi was overjoyed") and her recollection of Brenda Fassie’s memorial ("it was as if I was the star of the memorial!"), you know you’re dealing with a deeply unlovely person.
It makes it difficult to avoid the instinctive feelings of distaste that this book has already prompted across a wide spectrum of people. For example, reading the description of Mbau's idea of being a good mother is guaranteed to make any middle class parent wince: "Khanyi also tries to be there on her daughter's special days, like her birthday."
However, a kneejerk reaction would be to do a disservice to the writer, Lesley Mofokeng, who has crafted a bleak tale of existential pointlessness. Although possibly despite himself. But a sentence like "Unit 3 on Melrose Square at Melrose Arch was the address to have" ranks with the finest things ever written about futility and despair, and is easily the equal of Beckett's: "They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more."
The problem with reviewing a book about a non-entity, or "celebrity", to use the old parlance, is that you are certain to become embroiled in a battle about who has the right to speak. Because Khanyi Mbau is nothing, in the sense that celebrities are always a construct of society and culture, and can't exist outside of that construct, every opinion about her necessarily becomes about the person speaking. So instead of falling into the trap of giving legitimacy to the fiction that is Khanyi Mbau, let’s rather look at how this fiction is presented in this biography.
According to the writer, "the story of Khanyi Mbau parallels the new democracy in South Africa. It reflects the changing values of a generation of Born-Frees, tired of the self-sacrifice of the struggle." And, "Mbau is the unashamed product of the new South Africa." Such an elision of our cosmogonic myth with a self-serving teleology suggests that we are to see Mbau as having already existed in the very design of our democratic society. It's bullshit, obviously. There've been bubbleheaded socialites using "their wiles and beauty to get ahead", to adopt Mofokeng’s euphemisms, since the first Neanderthal woman suggestively licked an old mammoth bone in an attempt to get a new fur coat.
The idea that being a self-serving, immoral egomaniac is in some way one of the precious democratic gifts Nelson Mandela bequeathed us, is beyond insulting. You can say many negative things about apartheid, but you can't deny that as a system for allowing white men to take advantage of penniless black women, it did a far better job than our current government could ever hope to.
Some of the stuff included by Mofokeng seems calculated to make us think Mbau is an idiot. For example, she can see dead people. Lebo Mathosa visits her from the grave, presumably to give her singing lessons. And Mbau is described as a natural talent, but when she gets her big break on the SABC show Hard Copy, she screws it up. "I had to make it work," she says. "I imagined the line was a diamond and I was determined to polish it until it shone. It was to be the line that would launch me – that would make the career of the great Khanyi Mbau." But destiny made a fool of her. She couldn’t get the line right no matter how hard she tried. "It was agonising." What was the line, you ask? "It’s ready." The producers cut the line, presumably realising that it would be foolish to fight destiny.
Mbau's contention that she has struggled so that the young girls of South Africa can walk free, hold their heads high and not feel shame at being a kept women paid for sex, is slightly perplexing. I know unemployment is high in our country, but is this really a great career choice? The perplexing part is not that women are forced to make these choices, or that they would want to, but that, given her own experience, Mbau seems to feel they’re worthy choices.
The two major sugar daddies in the book are Mbau's husband, Mandla Mthembu ("I was basically in the care of this man. His property almost"), and her married lover Theunis Crous ("Theunis bought my soul for R30 000 a month"). Referring to her relationships with older men who gave her money in exchange for owning her, she says, "I was tearing down walls. Breaking taboos. Because of me, younger girls now have the confidence to walk around holding hands publicly with their sugar daddies. They're inspired by my story."
I find it difficult to understand the use of the word "inspire" here. You want young girls to believe in the redemptive power of having an older man's penis forced in them? Or of being kept chattels? Mbau's sugar daddies beat her up ("Mandla beat me until I bled"), knock her up, and desert her and her daughter (called Cannes, named after ... ah, God, I can't even write it, it's too depressing). They put naked pictures of her on the internet. Of Mthembu, she says, he "loved anal sex ... I remember breaking nails clutching the headboard in pain."
Mbau’s not exactly a class act. She claims her grandmother is dead so that she can leave the set of Mzansi and go on a Middle East trip with that other celebrity leech, King Goodwill Zwelithini. Here's her reaction to staying in a hotel room once frequented by megastars like Kanye West: "I fainted on that bed a few times ... I should have peed on the bed and left a mark or carved my name into one of the closets!"
Of the four typos in the book, one is a misspelling of the word extravagant. It's a telling irony. There are some ludicrous examples of Mbau and husband Mandla Mthembu's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (a TV programme that is mentioned many times in this book, and appears to have been Mbau's bible), examples that suggest that style is not something that you can acquire from watching TV and hanging out at ZAR. "They got special deliveries to their loft of Giovanni's delicious baby chicken even though the restaurant was right downstairs" (italics mine). I'm not being snide here about the nouveau-riche – I'm despairing at the low level of awareness of millionaires. At least buy your own chicken restaurant, for God's sake! Even I've used Mr Delivery!
At times, Mbau's vaingloriousness is breathtaking. She styles herself for a photo shoot in a crown of thorns, a la Jesus Christ, "to illustrate how she often feels singled out for public criticism". She and "fellow star" Jesus are very similar: like Mbau, "Jesus was sold out by one of his own". Hm. He tried to save humanity's souls and was sold out for 30 pieces of silver and crucified. Mbau took photos of herself having sex with a man for R30 000 a month, and they ended up on the internet. Am I the only one missing the similarity here?
In the end, the only bit of self-analysis by Mbau that rings true is this: "I sold my soul to the devil but he couldn't find a buyer for it, so I am lucky to have it back". Imagine that your sins and excesses are so trite and boringly predictable that not even Satan, the Steve Jobs of temptation and damnation, can find a buyer for it. That's pretty grim. Although possibly not as grim as Mbau's idea of what it means to plunge into the depths, and of what constitutes the moral fibre to drag yourself out. "Every day I am surprised by the strength within me. Some people think I've hit rock bottom – but that's okay. They make fun of me for dating a guy who plays the flute. That's fine." Antonin Artaud never wrote a better line.
Chris Roper is the editor of the Mail & Guardian Online. Follow him on Twitter: @chrisroper