Being Mandela: ‘Real housewives from exile’

After a phone call from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, her granddaughter Swati Dlamini storms out of her Sandton garage.

In a pre-arranged — dare we say scripted? — meeting, she confronts her sister, Zaziwe Dlamini-Manaway, through the window of her huge black Jeep 4×4 in the driveway.

“I’m upset — I just got a call from big mummy and she told me you told her about this guy I was seeing,” Swati scolds. “I really put my trust in you and thought you’d keep it to yourself.”

Zaziwe, realising she won’t be invited to get out of her car, says: “Are you being for real? I don’t appreciate that; suddenly I’m getting the third degree from everyone — from big mummy. It’s not okay.”

Spinning on her designer heel, Swati storms back into the garage, calling out: “Like, I’m very upset. Like, who does that?”

This was one of the highlights from the pilot episode of Being Mandela, which American viewers had to process last week.

In an “unscripted” 13-part series broadcast on a new NBC channel in the United States, the 30-minute reality show chronicles the suburban Jo’burg lives of two of Zenani Mandela’s daughters — Swati (33) and Zaziwe (35), who spent their childhood years in exile in the US.

According to Thandi Davids, marketing director for Fox International Channels Africa, South Africans will get this rare window into their first family on Fox from the first week of April. At least those who subscribe to TopTV, which carries the channel.

“I do think it’s great TV,” said Davids. “They represent a new generation of aspiring go-getters and jet-setters, and this is an indication of how far South Africa has come.”

The production focuses on motherhood, Mandela clan events and the pair’s promotion of their Long Walk to Freedom clothing line, which has them working literally behind the coat tails of Madiba’s statue in Sandton Square.

For Americans, the strange mix of gossip and liberation legacy will be closer to surreality TV.

Shallow showcase
On her way to give birth at a Netcare hospital, Zaziwe complains: “I shouldn’t have worn this white top — I look massive!” But after giving birth to “Zen”, she gives this fluent and seemingly sincere line to the camera: “I know my grandfather and family trust us to uphold his legacy of freedom and tolerance and justice for all, and I hope I can pass down those ideals to my son.”

In flash-forward clips of the coming episodes, the duo are shown sipping white wine in Camps Bay, shark-cage diving off Gansbaai, dancing in a Jo’burg nightclub and bickering in living rooms that would suit the lobby of any private safari lodge.

In one scene, Zaziwe appears to berate a female shoe salesperson, who protests: “So are you going to feel fine if I lose my job?

“I’m just fine,” Zaziwe counters.

At first glance, Being Mandela looks like a show about the kids of the night-club owner Kenny Kunene, or a sort of “Real Housewives from Exile”.

But we might also be forced to call it the ultimate showcase of South Africa’s hard-won freedom. In a remarkably honest and insightful comment to the Huffington Post, Swati said: “To be able to be in a position as a woman to choose if I want to go into entertainment — I’m fortunate that my grandmother did that for me. She fought, she was in solitary confinement for 18 months so that I can sit here and I can have this choice and live it out as I please.”

It’s a powerful claim: that South Africa is now sufficiently free that even the grandkids of its twin liberation icons can unselfconsciously cash in by acting silly.

In a comment released to the Mail & Guardian both sisters remarked: “Our country can never repay our grandfather and his generation for the sacrifices they made for our freedom. Our country is thriving and it’s now up to our generation to take us forward.”

Certainly, marketing authorities are thrilled about the show.

Brand Madiba
Simon Barber, Brand South Africa’s US country manager, said: “If his family can extend Brand Madiba in ways that benefit the people to whom he dedicated his life by helping us attract tourist dollars, I would have to say three cheers!”

Much of the interest will focus on Swati — a glamorous PR-trained woman who hopes for reality-TV stardom, but who, at the same time, swears that she craves privacy and fears embarrassment.

Minutes after being filmed pouting for a photo shoot, the sassy single mom laments: “There is no privacy in this family!”

Swati’s vanity, charmingly, appears to trump her showbiz instincts.

In one family kitchen scene, a child spontaneously flicks a streak of melted chocolate on to Swati’s Diana Ross-like mane of hair. Rather than milk a food fight for the highlights reel, Swati, in her American twang, sternly shuts it down. “Look at my hair! Wait a minute, what are you doing? Put that down!”

In a later scene — presumably, after input from the production team — the fight resumes, with Swati getting a hand-sized splodge of chocolate in the face.

Zaziwe — a married mother of three — is Swati’s grounded foil.

In one of many cameos, Winnie names Zaziwe’s new son, Zenkhosi, from a carefully researched list in a maternity ward. In another, she offers this gentle dig at her ex-husband: “We always overcome, thanks to [my] grandma’s genes — your granddad’s side does not have my genes,” she says, before singing, “and never wi-ill … heh, heh.”

Despite citing “38-million” US households with access to Cozi TV, there was no information from NBC on viewer numbers or ratings.

TV critics ran previews along the lines of “First the Osbournes — now the Mandelas!” with the conservative Washington Times devoting major space to marvelling at the fact that Winnie — who “publicly championed … burning people alive” — had won a reality spot as a doting grandma.

Meanwhile, following a recent revelation by Zaziwe, Vanity Fair noted that in “sad world news”, Mandela “has been identified as a regular viewer of TLC’s horrifying child beauty-pageant reality series, Toddlers and Tiaras”.

In a contribution for the website Your Black World Network, one Mississippi college student spoke for its core US fan base, describing the show as “a great outlet for introducing Mandela’s legacy to a new generation. In the US, reality shows generally have a negative influence on society, but hopefully this show will be nothing like [that].”

But one of the US’s most respected critics, Andrew Dehnart, assistant professor of journalism at Stetson University, wasn’t so upbeat.

“After watching the first episode, it seemed very clear that Being Mandela is, beat for beat, a series that would fit into Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise. The drama and entertainment on these shows tends to come from relatively well-off people arguing over relatively inconsequential things, and viewers have a love-hate relationship with characters whose lifestyles they may envy but [whose] behaviour they do not.

“With the possible exception of their trip to see their grand­father’sprison cell, it doesn’t even seem all that interesting.”

To be fair, Being Mandela is vastly more dignified and revealing than Real Housewives, just as it is less entertaining.

Beyond the jarring images of casual wealth for Americans watching a show about a family famed for democratic self-sacrifice, there is the added confusion of repeated references to royalty.

Winnie reminds her granddaughters that they have “princess names because of your royal blood”. And Americans won’t know to cringe over an upcoming episode, when the happy sisters journey to Swaziland to gossip with relatives within its shameful royal dictatorship.

But there is something about watching this seemingly impossible recipe on American TV — of silliness and profundity; of privileged royalty and equality struggle; of African glamour and Americanised ordinariness — that reveals the real value of the show.

South Africans will, quite effortlessly, understand all of these things, and, in getting it, will be reminded of how stunningly unique they really are.

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