THE BLESSED GIRL by Angela Makholwa (Pan Macmillan)
The phenomenon of “blessers” has provoked mixed responses in South Africa, especially this year.
With the growing discourse on agency and feminism on social media, perspectives have shifted in the direction of the acceptance of such transactional arrangements, with many viewing them in a similar light as business contracts.
The lifestyle, whether viewed as subversive or otherwise, is adequately captured by Angela Makholwa in The Blessed Girl.
The novel confronts the realities of what it means to be on the receiving end of a transactional relationship. Although not a uniform representation of the mindset of all blessees, The Blessed Girl is an interesting delve into the intricacies involved in this unsaid partnership of transactional sex.
The protagonist, Bontle Tau, is a self-professed snob who is obsessed with keeping up appearances.
Although Bontle is insistent about her lack of book smarts, the reader cannot help but notice her unconventional, underlying intelligence.
She reaffirms the controversial role models that mould her, figures that instruct her technique in “MENcology: A PhD in conning men”.
Not only does Bontle display that beauty can be used as an asset, but she also shows us it requires constant maintenance and revamping to remain a strong contender in the industry of blessings.
Stereotypes are captured satirically in this outrageous novel, with Bontle acting as a mirror and sharing the sentiments often seen on social media.
Makholwa tackles these tidbits with mischief and humour, from the “generous endowments” men from certain regions in the continent possess to the mannerisms of BEE “fat cats”.
The Blessed Girl succinctly captures what it means to be a young woman bitten by the consumerism and social media bug in contemporary South Africa.
Although the initial tone of the book resonates as playful and superficial — highlighting Bontle’s nonchalant and materialistic mindset — the themes that arise cannot be dismissed as the mindless ramblings of a young girl concerned only with acquiring excessive wealth through the commodification of her body.
There exists a constant friction between Bontle and her blackness, especially in the not-so-subtle reminder of her “coloured” lineage, which nonetheless pushes her to turn to skin bleaching and the rejection of her natural hair.
Her actions reflect the preoccupation with lightness as the pinnacle of beauty and desire, which is further propelled by the comments that her blessers make about her skin lightening treatments.
She projects her abhorrence for being black by attacking stereotypically black features (such as a flat nose), but simultaneously celebrates features that have been commercialised and have gained ascendency through social media — such as snatched waists and butt implants.
Of her dark-skinned friend, Bontle has the following to say: “I’ve always been a bit wary of girls who possess this type of beauty. Growing up, I used to deliberately call them ugly because I just didn’t understand how a girl could be dark-skinned and still be beautiful.”
The preoccupation with “snatched” waists, imported wigs and light skin has permeated the media on all platforms, most notably on reality television. But Bontle flippantly dismisses the debate on natural hair versus weaves, while cleverly name-dropping the controversial positions of famous black men who dictate how women should present themselves in a manner that is acceptable to them.
Ironically, Bontle seems to mistake her access to money through these older men as a liberating experience, not realising that keeping up appearances and the chaos of having multiple lovers have chained her to an identity that has never belonged to her.
In her mind, Bontle has escaped what she deems to be the humiliation of being a shebeen queen’s daughter, a stigma she carried into an upper-middle-class school. But she recklessly lives hand-to-mouth, with her expenses elevated and in a constant space of anxiousness because somebody has to pay for this lifestyle — preferably the married men she hopes to manipulate.
While affirming her desirability as power, it is friable. We see how the character becomes a marionette doll who believes she possesses free will, but ultimately must perform for her men satisfactorily to guarantee a car payment, a bottle of Moët or a new bag for her to post on social media.
Her invincibility turns out to be a silk cloak that can easily be torn, and the rupture signals her total destruction.
Bontle’s frivolous way of dealing with devastating matters such as rape and mental illness reveals a callous, ingrained and deeply damaged sense of self.
She deals with her mental illness by posting archived photos to keep appearances, highlighting the harrowing effects of social media.
Bontle is a performer, whether it is for the multiple men for whom she constantly has to look flawless, or for the township kids that need to see her driving a German car.
Her preoccupation with “optics” keeps her chained to the lifestyle.
But Bontle slowly evolves from being carefree and flippant to someone who comes to the chilling realisation of the dangers involved in the business of swindling.
The life of a blessee, as presented by the writer, is a race to acquire substantial wealth through destruction. Through the dramatic events that accelerate throughout the book, it was bound to end in a collision.