Joanne: I know why the caged bird scams

While we were stuck in traffic on Joe Slovo Drive, one of the most notorious roads for smash-and-grabs in Jo’burg, a friend who was in the passenger seat of my car had the window half open and was on his phone. “I wouldn’t do that if I was you,’’ I said to him, knowing what I’ve seen happen to unsuspecting drivers with cellphones on that road. 

He scoffed and told me that he was born in Alexandra and has lived everywhere in Jo’burg and that, in fact, I should leave my window slightly open because the porcelain that smash-and-grabbers use to break car windows doesn’t work on slightly open windows. “How do you know that?’’ I asked.
“Mili, how do you think black people have survived?” He sneered. “By the  time I was 13, I could break into any car with a tennis ball and it wasn’t because I needed to, but because people just knew that kind of stuff. 

“Who makes those BMWs outside Pretoria and the VWs and Benzes there in the Eastern Cape? Who installs the locks and alarm systems? Who guards everything from property to children? Who built everything around us? Is this not the labour of black people?” 

This made me think of the many ways black people have learned to survive in a brutal economic system — one that they have done the most to contribute to with their labour (the bottom lines of slavery, colonialism and apartheid were the extraction of free and cheap labour for economic gain), both in the domestic and public spheres, yet have received little in return. 
“Hey girl, I just wanna let you girls know that I’m a messy bitch. A liar. A scammer. I love robbery and fraud. I’m a messy bitch who loves drama.” “Just sold two brand new iPhones for $300 but … the iClouds were locked … hahahaha … Gotcha.” “Entered myself into a spoken word competition with a Maya Angelou poem. Still I scam.”

These are the shrewdly constructed, pantomimic sentences of Joanne the Scammer — the shot-calling, wig-wearing, fur coat-clad drag queen of petty pilfering who aspires to live “just like a Caucasian’’. Joanne Prada, better known as Joanne the Scammer, is the genius creation of 25-year-old aspiring comedian Branden Miller. 

She spreads her felonious gospel on Instagram and Twitter to a growing fan base who are mesmerised by Miller’s ability to fuse theatre, gender issues, classism, capitalism, comedy and crime into 30-second bursts of a new genre of digital self-performance and black cultural production. 

The clips of Miller putting on a wig, make-up and taking on the persona of a woman scorned and determined to scam have earned Joanne advertising deals, hosting opportunities, interviews by magazines such as Paper and Fader and celebrity endorsement by the likes of Amber Rose, Blac Chyna and Solange Knowles. 

I know scamming has been trending lately but what’s really going on here? 

On the one hand, I watch Joanne because it’s escapist and funny as fuck, but on the other, a young black man trying to survive is in a bizarre embrace with the capitalist system that is likely the cause of his scamming. And fans are rooting for him. Why? 

When four gun-wielding criminals hijacked my car last year, I wasn’t angry about it. I saw it as a brutal transaction of a brutal system that was built and protected with laws that suit the people they have always suited best — the rich, who have been scamming and killing people for much bigger things than credit cards and cars for centuries. 

I’ve never stolen anything but a few R5 coins and wine gums from my father’s jacket pockets when I was a child. For what it is worth, those coins brightened my break times but the habit stopped being cute as I grew to realise the wrongs of taking something that doesn’t belong to you. Beyond that, I never had to steal because my parents met all my needs.

I really want to get mad at my relative who for years has been scam-buying plane tickets, hotel rooms and clothing but, unlike him, I didn’t learn to crawl in one of the most notorious and gang-ridden townships in the Eastern Cape. 

I agree that it is wrong for the drivers of a bread delivery truck to steal a few loaves to sell on the side, but isn’t it worse to have lived in a country where the law said that you could only be a truck driver because you were denied the right to have formal education? 

Humans are messy and I’m certainly not calling for people to steal. I’m just saying that in an era when we are realising that capitalism is one super-duper scam against most humans, these are the roosting chickens of a system that is built on theft, lies, robbery, fraud and violence.  The biggest smoke and mirrors in modern society are the laws that govern our “united nations’’ and the assumption that justice exists within its bounds. 

Iimbali, a regular column by Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela, is a space for stories and other narrative-based social analysis.

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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