/ 19 December 2013

Bonfire of the vanities: Divorce, death and designer dresses

Bonfire Of The Vanities: Divorce, Death And Designer Dresses

You see, from the get-go, the scribbling was on the wall: 2013, Mene mene tekel u-fucked up! Big time. It wouldn't take long to decrypt it. As early as February, the year gave off a whiff of things to come.

When the marriage of Tokyo Sexwale – a former government minister, former premier, indeed a war hero who was thrown into the spotlight in the wake of another hero's (Chris Hani's) cold-blooded death, and now a stupendously wealthy man – unravelled, the nation initially didn't appear to care.

But when the same billionaire started sniping insults and bedroom secrets to and fro with his estranged wife – the mother of his children, the white woman he, an activist from Soweto with slim prospects in a white world, fell in love with while on Robben Island – the public began to take notice.

Billionaires' public spats? Sex, money and rock 'n roll? Let the games begin!

All the elements of a pulp thriller were there. Talk was that alongside the meltdown of the marriage, there were private jets, as was reported in the Sunday Times; the Sexwales owned two. A Learjet, and a Gulfstream, baby. Take that! Stew in your envy.

It was not all. There were the yachts moored off some exotic islands and, not to make too fine a point about those, multimillion-dollar mansion spreads in South Africa's paradises of the irretrievably moneyed: Sandhurst, Clifton and Houghton. The works.

Every time each aggrieved party exposed an inventory list of bling owned and bling coveted in the media, interest in the case ratcheted up.

The new squeeze
But then the Sexwale show spiralled on. There's nothing like the inclusion of a third party, a fetching young woman at that, to quicken the pulse of onlookers.

At its crest, the high stakes skandaal dug deep and – voila! – there was a subplot to shore up any lagging interest in the tale. Out of nowhere the media first hinted at it and then followed up with photos of Tokyo's alleged new squeeze.

"At 60, Sexwale is openly dating a 20-year-old, Salma Hayek-like model," scribbled both the Sunday World and its sister broadsheet the Sunday Times. But still, today, not a word has been heard from Salma Hayek. No one ever heard her voice. Did anyone ask her whether she had asked for the publicity?

If the Tokyo & Judy show often read like a Judy Garland Show script, albeit an x-rated version, which is to say some harmless, Saturday late-night entertainment, it is because it actually was. Which is sad, for who knows how much it emotionally hurt all the others who suffer when two elephants battle. Mostly the children?

Well, you can't say the same about the next Greek tragedy that befell the country.

'Bullet in the chamber'
South Africa woke up to news of Oscar Pistorius's cold Glockin' of his bikini-model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on a rather breezy Valentine's morning.

Step back and remember this bit of otherwise seemingly harmless publicity gumpf. You will need it later. Pistorius's website once had him ready to roll, with a pay-off line courtesy of Nike. It read: "I am the bullet in the chamber."

And so on February 14, news of the killing sprinted on to the national news bulletins, dripping with blood and bursting with questions.

So huge, scary, unbelievable the story was, and got worse as the information poured out, that, if nothing else had happened in 2013, the Pistorius story on its own would have rendered this a truly tragic and implausible year to forget.

Fine-chiselled, wealthy to a fault, as show-offy as a prized horse and as self-aware as anyone in his fellow "groomed for the big stage" tribe of performing machines, Pistorius, like Tiger Woods, always warranted a tighter scrutiny than we allowed.

All the signs of an ego on steroids were there from early on. Fascination with guns. Ex-girlfriends disclosing, however initially coded, warnings of anger issues.

But we adored him, were so damn proud of one of our own and we felt somewhat responsible for him. So we smothered him with love. So when our Oscar clearly behaved like a brat upon losing at the last Olympic Games, we looked the other way. He was our Blade Runner.

Triumph over adversity
In a world that has a short supply of triumph against all odds, the Oscar Pistorius narrative was a miraculous story.

Hang on and replay intimate details of his biography in your head. Let's see if you won't shed a tear or two at this, regardless of how you feel about him now.

A young man spurred on by the courageous, if not tough-love support of an Afrikaner mother who taught him to distrust pity, shun victimhood and strive to be Number One. Here's a boy growing up with no limbs who toiled to be "the fastest man alive".

But there's also the belligerent and super-achieving young man who, now that he's become more of a product, has no mother to speak of. His late mother is not around to draw him closer to her bosom and whisper: "Baby, you have to man up!" or to tell him: "Son, no matter how much you feel you might have suffered in your own way, the next person is worthy of respect, just as you would want accorded to you."

Would he have listened?

Little Lord Fauntleroy
Like Jub Jub, the fallen musician before him, Oscar is something of a Little Lord Fauntleroy. He is also a product of the pugnacious tabloid age and, in 2013, the year that defined us: the Oscar story is a broadcast bulletin of the way we live now.

Regardless of the fact that he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, as the papers do not tire of reminding us, his is the story of New Money. And because it is related to a specific activity – in which its main players toil hard as opposed to making boodles of dosh out of, say, un-toiled-for mining shares – this is an altogether different brand of New Money.

This is the story of gladiatorial money. This is pay-per-view New Money, crowded by multimillionaire teenagers nursing bad cases of acne.

In this, Oscar is one of the latter-day masters of the universe. And in this universe, the unspoken wisdom is: fuck Gordon Gekko. Yeah, fuck Gekko and instead hug your sports agent, the heir to the excesses of the gilded age of Old Money.

What struck me as odd, and sad, is that, throughout this, our eyes were trained on the "bullet in the chamber". It feels as though Reeva didn't matter as much. We treated her with mild irritation if not condescension. We felt shame about what happened to her, the gruesomeness of it – "Arme skepsel" (poor creature) – but not really for her.

Although we were too sly to call her names, it was as though the silent jibe we shared only in private was that of another "gold digger". But because her name evokes painful truths we can never ever speak about, Reeva's name has come to embody the soul of the present-invisible.

It is also emblematic of the narrative of violence in this country. The "statistics" of gun violence in this country are women: much gawked at, and nevertheless the world's ultimate present-invisibles.

But there was never any way of getting around the fact that an unarmed Reeva Steenkamp was, mistakenly, or otherwise, pumped full of live lead from "the chamber" of a fatal instrument, a gun, by a man. A gun-obsessed man.

Here's a woman apparently hopelessly in love, shot several times by her lover, the owner of a mansion in a gated community full of millionaires just like him.

An emotional yo-yo
And so 2013 tumbled on like a rolling stone with no direction home. Not only was this a tabloid year; it was an emotionally yo-yo year, too.

We swung from high-stakes gossip, frowned upon bedroom snippets of the super-rich, sunk to our lowest levels as blood spills oozed – and still we stomached it all. As soon as something dazzled our collective nerves, something seismic rolled under us again.

Take the April news of the sudden death of broadcaster and Morning Live star Vuyo Mbuli. Among others, SAFM's morning news reported he had died of a "pulmonary embolism".

The public outpouring of grief heightened to a death-of-Mother-Teresa scale. But, like me and you, Vuyo was no saint. And if by any chance we'd been hit by collective amnesia, Mbuli's widow, Savita, was there to remind us.

"He cheated on me with about 18 women," she let rip. Among the harem of 18, she told City Press reporter Ngoako Malatji (possibly the most dogged and talented of all tabloid reporters in the country), was the controversy-courting socialite Kuli Roberts.

Bipolar nation
The Mbuli tale showed up vintage South Africa at its best. We cry hard while laughing even harder. We spit in the face of truth while seeking its more unbearable secrets. Welcome to the bipolar nation.

What shocked me silly in our tabloid nation was not the actual numbers game Vuyo is reported to have run with the opposite sex. I am not that squeamish about these things. I grew up, like Vuyo, in the township culture where having multiple women hanging on your arms is a display of honour and power.

Vuyo's harem? Big deal. Serve me something stronger. Which is exactly what Mbuli's widow did.

Clad in a David Tlale get-up of ankle length lace dress, a Great Gatsby-inspired head piece made of silk roses and ostrich feathers, straight out of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, Savita did not attend the funeral so much as "appeared" at it.

Not only did she catch us off guard, she also endeared herself to the pappz at that one occasion she was expected to be at her most forlorn.

Here was the African Jackie O with all but the whiff of political power clinging to her.

Chic mourning
Looking at the photos of her and the biker-jacket costumed children at the funeral, something gnaws at me. I just can't get to grips with how a plump, shrug'able beauty trans-glammed herself into this theatrical, classy and ravishing milf – and at that moment?

Look, let's not be churlish about this. Seeing Savita in that très chic, all-black, designer outfit at the funeral was to witness something new in our midst. The rise of the chic chief mourner.

What does this public relations businesswoman's "image relaunch" at her hubby's funeral say about us?

One thing: the contemporary black woman has truly found her niche, for better or worse. And it also tells us that New Money culture can't be bothered with old Calvinistic expectations.

Those in the know, those who have tales to tell about small-time shoe-shop-owning brothers in the 1990s – Rajesh, Atul and Ajay, from Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, India – like to remind us that the Guptas have been in South Africa since the mid-1990s. Sure. But in 2013 they descended on us.

Straight from India in a jet, Vega Gupta's Big Fat Indian Wedding to her beau Aakash Jahajgarhia banged on to the scene complete with the sort of laugh-out-loud moments a political romp-com of its nature demands.

Code name: Number One
Who in their right mind lets private individuals with no diplomatic status land on one of their national key point airstrips? Came the reply: a mysterious figure code-named Number One.

Were it not for the tjatjarag media, Number One would, to this day, remain a mythical Keyser Söze figure.

Yet it was just as we were reeling from the embarrassment at Waterkloof, mid-year of 2013 – specifically its coldest month of July – morphed into the much-clichéd winter of discontent, thanks to Zwelinzima Vavi.

The story – of how a junior staffer and the fiery though politically vulnerable workers' champion, the only man who could tell Number One where to jump off, bonked during office hours at the workers' head office – shocked the country.

Really, it was less the sex than Vavi's place in this drama that rocked us.

How was this thing even possible?

Here's Vavi, an intensely marked man, already investigated for undervaluing the old headquarters of trade union federation Cosatu, and reportedly costing the organisation millions. Clearly, Vavi should have known his ass was exposed, no?

But wait.

Sex or extortion
Was this a case of rape? Sexual misconduct? Or a case of extortion, enabled by the uncontrollable pelvic urges of a man who believed he was invincible? Or was this the delivery of the symbolic warm klap (hot smack) long hinted at by Number One's sidekicks?

True to its cloak-and-daggers genre, the Vavi tale is riddled with gaping holes.

It also means we are living in an age when fact and fiction have coalesced into one slimy whole.

Enter Thuli Madonsela. When the public protector with a Beatlemania hairdo finalised the preliminary findings of her investigation into the R200-million presidential digs in rural KwaZulu-Natal, the dykes broke.

Or, as they say, hell suddenly felt as though it has been hit by snow. Events moved at the speed of light.

One day, the security cluster ministers are ganging up on her, taking her to court; the next, Luthuli House tsar Gwede Mantashe thunders to her to release it: What are you waiting for?

Thuli's brass balls
But even Mantashe knows this is a woman who doesn't take kak from anyone. To her, no one is above the law. From the very moment she walked into that office, all Thuli has done is to show a gigantic pair of brass balls.

Still, even her staunchest supporters are wondering: Will she survive this one? Will she survive this office itself? At the height of the Beatles's fame, John Lennon said the group was more popular than Jesus.

Not that Number One is godly. On the contrary, it looks as if political prowess and charms are on the wane, the ceremonial booing at our beloved past president's memorial service notwithstanding.

Madonsela, though, her praises have been sung by the people. Tired of being fed a diet of corruption; she is at the top of her game.

Still, President Jacob Zuma has shown himself to be the most dangerous and most skilled political survivor since the advent of democracy almost 20 years ago.

And yet, the drama surrounding Nkandla poses its questions: Does Thuli imagine she can outrun Number One?

Even the Beatles called it quits at the peak of their popularity, victims of their own success. Will she?

Bongani Madondo's next books, I'm Not Your Weekend Special: Portraits on Life+Style & Politics of Brenda Fassie (Picador Africa) and Sigh the Beloved Country (Jonathan Ball) are due in 2014.