Gold-digger, noun: “The person, usually a woman, who uses charm to extract material benefits from a man,” says my pocket-sized Oxford Dictionary. How disappointing. So I scoured for a more nuanced definition and they all turned out the same. “A woman who uses …”
Oi, poor womenfolk! Even a Neanderthal man like me — not a shocking-pink, bow-tie clad metrosexual type who never leaves home without a moisturiser — feels for them. I’m sure you’d agree: women have been given a bum deal. Throughout history they’ve been called everything from salt of the earth to mommy, ma’am and bitch.
Depending on their assigned roles in life’s script, the labels would assume both pejorative and performative import with just a hair flick. Take “ho”, the species found in hip-hop videos with baby-oiled hot bods and imported hair culled from dead Indian villagers.
Lately they’ve upgraded her to “vixen”, as in Karren Steffans’s wet-wet memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen. Then there’s the “Milf” who drives a station wagon and can be found dropping and collecting children at school.
So, that’s what I found. What I did not find is a picture of the local show girl Khanyi Mbau, whose star is shining brighter on the back of a newly published biography titled Bitch, Please: I’m Khanyi Mbau (Tafelberg), co-written with City Press show business editor Lesley Mofokeng, as well as her debut stage performance in Drama Queen, a musical revue about the late kwaito sphinx Lebo Mathosa.
At 27, and two years after dumping and being dumped by her millionaire Daddy Os (notably the Cristal-swigging, Porsche-loving ex-Robben Islander Mandla Mthembu and her out-of-town Afrikaner industrialist lover Theunis Crous) Mbau, now fitter, saner and filled with commitment to clean up, has never slaved so hard for her art.
In the two weeks leading up to the musical’s opening I tried with no joy to get face time with Ms Mbau, a dance machine on a par with her alter-negro Mathosa — if not in vocal chops, at least in their unorthodoxy.
At one point I pitched at the theatre for a talk, but had to wait for the preview to wrap up at 11.20pm. At 11.30pm the actors exited from backstage, off to their dressing room from where they’d file out one by one at about midnight. That night an exhausted Mbau crawled out like a licked lollipop into the cold-cold morning light.
I looked at the clock: 12.30am, thank you bloody much. I didn’t get my interview then and I wouldn’t get it ever for this article.
Her most tightknit circle of friends (Mbau’s “monsters”, à la Lady Gaga), such as Mofokeng, say her participation and commitment to the military-drill discipline demanded by the musical’s director has basically clamped down on everything, including her beloved social life.
So is Mbau, the girl who’s had a riotous, idyllic, sad and bizarre growing-up period and a public nervous breakdown, actually growing up?
Perhaps growing up to be an artist is what she’s really been hankering after all these years.
I bet my last dime you don’t. But look at it this way: in the past two weeks alone, she racked up millions of rands worth of column inches without so much as opening her mouth. No Exclusive! Khanyi Speaks to Us! — nada in the media! So somebody out there, somehow, cares so much.
Media blood sport
The value of the free advertising she got is fit to kick-start a medium-sized multinational company’s annual marketing campaign. And nobody knows how many staffers’ salaries will be processed just on the unit-sales of newspapers carrying her baby-oiled hot butt-naked bod on the cover and page three across the land. Go figure.
In her short life in Celebville, Mbau has become fully practised in the media blood sport perfected by stars past; the marry-ups, belles of the balls and showgirls of the jazz age (think of F Scott Fitzgerald’s debauched Riviera) or Sophiatown’s Night at the Odin (think of the sizzled Dotty Tiyo; achy-breaky-mah-heart damsel with a mouth to jump the Zambezi).
Of course, Mbau really doesn’t have the proper old-money “society” chops, as Lin Sampson implied in her recent bitch-smackin’ open letter to the “plastic princess” in the Sunday Times.
South Africa 2012 does not have a culture of bona fide playboys taking their mistresses to ballrooms. Thus go-go girls like Mbau and the raft of carbon copies she inspired in her wake — like the Fikile Mbalula R10 000 Bonk Girl — come across as phony versions of the party girls of the gilded age.
Indefensible as Mbau’s persona is, there’s also something ahistorical, out of touch — a shocking expression of a collective lack of vocab from a country that never stops yapping on, especially in a town like Johannesburg — about hearing references to her as a “gold-digger”.
Dig this: “gold” and “digging”.
One still occupies an exalted god status within the premier ranks of the world’s minerals as well as the stock exchange economies.
The other is a virtue synonymous with both “hard work”, seeking and the street argot for a “deeper” appreciation of both the arts — say jazz or style — or the curative powers of self-restraint.
The first-ever time I laid my peepers on the svelte, daring and problematic Mbau was in 2005. I had a feeling that although she was not outrageously original, there was something out of the ordinary about her.
And that’s the thing that grates our nerves about Mbau. She is an ordinary girl who exposes our ordinariness while willing us to dream, costume-play or idealise ourselves as beings we can only dream about: Cinderellas, princes in shining armour and so on.
The first time we met she was hardly 20 and I was well into my mid-30s. Back then, as now, I affected a misplaced hipster pose. Mbau, I reasoned, just wasn’t my interview type. Her “ilk” definitely had no space in our heads. No space in “our” coffee shops and certainly no space in “our” graffiti-tagging, other than as punch lines.
To be seen with her type was an aberration, an act of war. The articulately envious sisterhood we were down with branded Mbau’s type “chicken heads”. But eish! — life is what it is. And so I was assigned to interview, or at least to “make sense of her”.
The twain, as it were, seemed destined to meet, after all.
She turned up at Killarney Mall in a pink hoodie, with her then-12-year-old sister, a bubbly thing going by the name of Buhle. Back then Mbau was a hot news item for dumping her fiftysomething hubby, Mthembu, after yet another punch-up at the Lost City’s Palace: the Conradian “dark continent’s” Vegas, indeed.
Innocent-looking as she was, she understood the unwritten code of celebrity. Act utterly sexy, behave as though you are not aware that all eyes are on you, put on the shades 24/7 and yet pass off as innocent and/or a victim of circumstances. Suckers will lap it up. And we did.
Three minutes into the interview, Mbau asked me point-blank: “Do you find me fuckable?”
“I say, do you find me sexy?”
“Uhm, maybe but … the professional ethics …”
At which point, seeing how unhinged I was, she laughed heartily: “Ethics, what’s that …? Do you feel like you want me now?”
“Well, Ms Mbau, I am sure any man would …”
I was shocked into mumbling, biting my tongue and silence. Her little sister burst out laughing: “Yes! You would. Why do you act so shy now, why?”
Is this child 12? I swear if she repeated her sister’s question in isiZulu or any vernacular, I would have slapped the scrawny piece neat, right there and then!
“Like me,” Mbau interjected, “my little sister is mature. She knows what attracts men to me and what attracts me to them.”
From then on she was in the saddle. She piloted the rest of the interview with just the deft management of a pout. Back at the office I proceeded to stick it to her in my shrilly “the end of values” self-righteous tone — “what sort of a role model is this” and other middle-class inanities.
But she got her way: a cover story, for which we directed her as the ghetto reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, iconic blown-up cream dress and all. The girl was on fire. She’d brought the whole shebang (it felt like a “She-Bang!” then) — a trunk of sheen-dripping brand bags, wigs, eyelashes, mascara, boots, grace and, shockingly, professionalism.
On the same day the story came out I got a call from a big-time American entertainment channel. They had just arrived at OR Tambo, saw the papers, were dumb-crazy about the girl and wanted to shoot a half-hour doccie — Life of Soweto’s Bling Queen — premised on her fly life.
‘Gold-digger.” Had it been chosen as Khanyi Mbau’s book title, “digger” would have had the same captivating capital as the “bitch” in the theatrically titled Bitch, Please: I’m Khanyi Mbau. Like the “bitch”, the “digger” is often accused of unsavoury behaviour. No one ever praises her as an exemplar of discipline, never diverting the gaze from what matters most for man’s prosperity, namely selfishness and focus.
All signifiers of hard work, even if in Mbau’s case she should have known there are other ways of working hard without having to break one’s nails enduring the pain of anal sex demanded by her millionaire Daddy O’, as she reveals in the book.
The story of Egoli and its charming skyline and phallic skyscrapers, its soot, hustle and bustle is the story of digging. The tale of Africa’s most super metropolis: the Atlantis that would not sink for where is the water to drown its sins? This is, at heart, the story of hard toil. Digging.
Historians tell us that, from the 1870s onwards, this place developed an irresistible pull. Hustlers, military men, thrill seekers, enterprising Africans, ex-British Colony soldiers, immigrants from the ol’ country (England) and Australia all migrated to the Reef, where lawlessness and the lure of the shiny metal were impossible to resist.
Early diggers were looking for diamonds when they hit on gold.
As with the story of the making of New York City, gloriously told by Martin Scorsese in Gangs of New York, the making of Johannesburg happened at a human cost. Fierce battles — between tradition and experimentation, belief in man versus belief in the higher being — took place in and out of the belly of the earth. While the drama raged, one thing that held it tight, one thing that proved a constant and unifier in the tent town forming around the “discovered” area, was greed.
Everything that has happened then and since the early days of mining in this town, from the 1800s to the present day, is the story of pain, selfishness, survival at any cost: gold-digging, in other words. This is also the story of fear and loathing that led to race classification and the umbilical disconnection for African folk.
It is also the story of forcefully herding Africans’ best brains together with Africans’ dim-witted, thugs and men of letters, pagans and believers, loafers and entrepreneurs from town into squatter settlements such as Alexandra and the 1940s POW camp-style barracks built in the southwestern location far from the city, Soweto.
This is as much the story of the heralded community leader James “Sofasonke” Mpanza as it is the story of Soweto’s fast guns. It is also the story of bootleggers such as Peggy “Bel-Air” Senne, Godfrey Moloi and Lucky Michaels. It is also the story of Khanyi Mbau.
Optimism and delusion
Mbau’s grandparents were forcibly moved from Sophiatown to Soweto. Her mom, Lynette Dubasi, was born in Mofolo. Her father was a taxi operator who was hardly present for the most part of Mbau’s upbringing, a claim she makes in the book, which is perhaps why she’s always had “daddy issues”.
Although Mbau likes to evoke some notions of bourgeoisie upbringing to explain her expensive tastes, like a million other youths raised in township squalor she imbibed the spirit of survival and the creativity to self-recreate from the debilitating reality of humiliation.
Mbau’s story is also the story of a lot of South African townships far from Soweto. Many wake up and look for the nearest sucker to pay for their way out of the rut, or maintain an aspirational lifestyle analogous to the one of their blue-blood lineage before apartheid stole the family heirlooms. Whereas some toil, others con their way through life.
Both the pickpockets and the phenduka (frivolous) girls who fell for gents in slick-hot jalopies occupied the same space as the docile ones kicked around in the madam’s kitchen in the ’burbs. They all wanted to put bread on the table. There was dignity within the humiliated and the damned.
Mbau’s story, though, is also a chapter from a black ghetto fairy tale.
Born in 1985, raised by a single mom and grandparents, she dreamed of show business and trippy lights from a very young age. As a girl she nursed ambitions of being married off into England’s royal family. Alas, her Prince Charming came in the form of Mandla Mthembu.
Mbau’s story is about the nonsensical power of optimism and delusion. It also the story of the multiplicity of blackness: today, you can be any black you want. You can be a blonde black woman without being a bimbo. You can rock blue contact lenses and get down to maskandi music. You can be wrapped in a million-dollar suit and shout “Viva!” at a workers’ party.
Mbau’s story is also a combination of bullshit and the power of fate. In a paid-for interview, titled Meet the Real Khanyi Mbau, with the popular magazine Move, Mbau brags about her upbringing.
“We used to have dinner at the dinner table and would have to eat using knives and forks, which was unusual for most black families back then.” Bullshit. But worse, shouldn’t a product of well-bred stock say “cutlery” instead of the ghetto “forks and knives”?
And this: “My grandmother, the matron, absolutely loved herself. She had grown up in the era of Sophiatown — same circles as the likes of Miriam Makeba and Felicia Mabuza-Suttle — grandma was so stylish. If things had been different, she would have ended up in Houghton.”
That one’s possible. Much less classy types than your grandma, Khanyi, made it there.
What is impossible is the bullshit claim that Makeba and Mabuza-Suttle lived in the “same circles” in Kofifi. How could they? Makeba was an icon of 1950s Sophiatown, whereas Mabuza-Suttle, a daughter of parents booted out of Kofifi, was a 1970s beauty queen.
Look, Khanyi … forget it. Baby, I am not mad at ya.
I’m mad at those who pull their noses in virtuous self-righteousness and call you a “digger” when that’s the highest honour they should bestow on you. Because this is what this city is all about. I am mad at their feeble attempts to sell a moral tale of a city founded on sin, sweat and thug life.
These are the sort of folks who haven’t even heard of your predecessors in this game.
Thugs and kings
Ever heard of a “lady” going by the birth name Jeanne Antoinette Poisson? That’s the Marquise de Pompadour, the ultimate courtesan-muse, kid. How about Jeanne Bécu? That will be Comtesse du Barry. They had it all: royalty in their beds, money and attention, attended to and slept with both thug and king. Oh fo-sho this is not what I’d prescribe for my daughter, but I will make sure she grows to eschew hypocrisy.
I am also mad at them for failing to explain to their children how come it is possible that a person (you) can purchase new hair, new boobs, a pout with lip-enhancing surgery and, wait for this, someone dared to ask me as we were filing out of the theatre in the first week of the musical’s opening: “Would you by any chance have Khanyi’s surgeon’s numbers?”
“I want her body!” she screamed. “And oh, did you know she’s also bought a new pussy? Yeah … it’s all surgery.”
Before I could ask whether that woman actually wanted that too, she was gone.
As for Ms Mbau, well, she gave me some clarity on the matter just before going to print. “Oh dear, it is not a job — it is augmentation,” she said. “And, nah, I haven’t reached that stage yet. Thanks God, my instrument is still working.”
But even after that I started having 99 questions. I mean, even if you were just to hire-purchase half of a “new you”, would you still be the same person you were just yesterday?
Bitch, Please: I Am Khanyi Mbau is available at bookstores countrywide.