Kuli Roberts: Naked at the feast

Cause how many times can you wake up in this comic book and plant flowers?

Cause, Rodriguez

Has time arisen for those of us still here, God knows for how long, to seriously ponder the question of our morbid age: How should we mourn the dead? Not that we are not “the dead” as well, considering death has now fully assumed a life metaphor all its own. Is the art of obituary still sufficient a gesture in these die-stopian climes? It struck me not as a cynical thought that, soon enough, we’ll arrive at a moment in our collective existence when news of a famous person’s passing will be greeted with “Oh really, who is not dead yet?” And yet with all the prayers, fortitude, active resistance, deep empathy for each other and a spirit of community and individual stealth, foolish optimism, we must resist death. As we go on about such an act of resistance, mainly by taking care of each other and not only theorising about “self-care”, we need to actively resist the crass idolatry of the dead. Perhaps we must leave the dead alone to “die” in peace.  

Who you calling a punk?

Not long after the announcement of South Africa’s erstwhile media superstar Kuli Roberts’s passing hit the hot digital ether, some folks took to referring to her as a “diva”. Kuli was punk — period. Kuli was RuPaul punk, Paula Yates punk and, ultimately, the human totemic spirit she channelled over everyone was MaBrrr. 

Kuli was Brenda Fassie punk, Brenda Fassie chic and Brenda Fassie fierce. She was the singer’s true alter-negro, or, as she would have admonished me, “‘alter-Negress’, bhut wam’ su bhanxeka.”

And yet, because she was such a hard-working baller, she could have also sprung from both Truman Capote’s Black & White Masked Ball circa 1966, as much as from the author’s novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Everyone has their own Kuli fable. However, one story that’s not told enough is of her capacious love, over and above filial and romantic intimacy. Kuli loved and loved deep. She loved Black folks, the poor, underdogs of all kinds, her daughter Thembela (India), and son, Leaun (Themba). 

In a prophetic interview with potty-mouthed pod-king MacG — a sitting still shocking for its unalloyed rawness — Kuli tells a story about how she came to use Uber and other modes of public transport. “When I lost my television job as a presenter I had to make a choice between a woman losing her job and letting go of a car. I made the choice to let go of the car.” 

Upon the interviewer’s query about the make of her car, she dropped a blob of acid in boiling fat: “A Porsche!” You could hear the pin hitting the floor in the usually frenzied studio. Kuli’s domestic worker, who has been with her family for 15 years, suddenly faced job loss as a result of her boss losing hers. In her telling, that was a no-brainer. Hot wheels guss to go. The take-away from this? Do unto others what might have been denied to you. 

By the time she passed on, Kuli Roberts was trying her hand at civic politics, an issue she has been passionate about, it seems, all her life. And yet who Kuli was behind the permanent Naomi Campbell wig, rouge lips, and a veritable sample of Miles Davis goggles, remains elusive.

Act 1: Enter Cynthia Makwela

Kuli Roberts was born Nomakula Makwela in the sweltering heat of December 1972, KwaLanga, Cape Town. Simply known as “Langa”, the township is named after King Langalibalele, a Hlubi king who was detained on Robben Island for his anticolonial resistance to the European settlers. Per land mass, KwaLanga can fit in your back pocket. 

Not unlike Dube in Soweto, it is the font of some of Cape Town and South Africa’s artistic traditions and characters who dared dream big. Its place in the historiography of jazz, in music per se, is assured. It is the home of the famous Ngcukana music family, the Fassies, the Ntshokos, and so forth. 

In 1960 a teenager born in Makapanstad, Hammanskraal, Philip Kgosana, then a student at the University of Cape Town, led more than 30 000 anti-pass protestors from KwaLanga right into the heart of the liberal city. The famous free jazz drummer Makhaya Ntshoko, Kuli’s blood relative now settled in Switzerland, learnt the thump-thumping boom-dum-dum art of modern African drumming from the streets of KwaLanga. 

It is from this volatile and exuberant township that Kuli’s maternal grandparents, the Nabe-Makwela family, an entrepreneurial clan that owned grocery stores around the Cape Flats, hails. Locals from the area remember Kuli, who has three siblings (Hlubi, Siyanda and Thabi), growing up at her grandmother Lawukazi Makwela’s house. Lawukazi, which loosely translates as “Coloured lass”, is known to elder denizens of KwaLanga as “Lawu-Lawu.” 

Her mother, Nothemba, is one of the great Lawukazi’s daughters; the man who raised her as his own, Mzobane Mboya, a former flyhalf in the Border region and an academic at the University of Cape Town, hailed from Uitenhage. 

It is Lawukazi, however, who seemed to occupy a fond place as a radicalising spirit in the soul of the young woman. Like the great Harlem underground hero Bumpy Johnson, Lawukazi is remembered for, among other community gestures, parcelling out groceries as an annual thanksgiving exercise for older and infirm people. 

Those who knew Kuli intimately connect the dots of her big heart and generosity to her maternal DNA. Says childhood friend, Della Ngwane: “Her strict granny would send us young girls home, but we’d steal into Mcedi store and buy a two-litre ice cream to indulge on our way home. Nomakula would have two to three spoons and come with the story that she’s watching her weight!” 

A former colleague of hers at the Sunday World, Madala Thepa, remembers simply, “The Kuli I know was way too kind. The type who would not ask for something openly, even if she needed something badly.” Too proud to ask? “No, I always felt she was a bit circumspect about people. I felt like she was wary of putting herself in a vulnerable space.” 

Yet another childhood friend, Sasa Simetu, recalls a life of high teas and library books. “We were neighbours on Washington Drive. Even though Nomakula and her sisters came from a well-to-do family of supermarkets, you could not tell just by the manner they behaved among children from impoverished families. Oh, I used to enjoy the teas! 

“A helper by the name of Rati, who worked at their home,” Simetu recalls, “Would bake scones and Nomakula would host tea parties for the neighbourhood children. It became a thing: 3pm tea parties, even midweek.” 

Later on, in her teens, the dark-skinned lass with pronounced Asiatic features — Kuli used to tell me she’s of Tamil ancestry and I never knew if she were joking — arrived at the then Grahamstown’s Diocesan School for Girls as a high school pupil. She entered the prestigious school during the last years of apartheid. 

Right away, she stood out for both her singular features, husky musical vocal intonations, and self-assuredness. Friends of all hues gravitated towards to her. She was one of the few chocolate girls in a school awash with privileged scions of English, Dutch and German settlers. 

Hlumi Kondile, currently the school’s foundation and alumni manager, was more than happy to retrieve Kuli’s school file for me. “She was going by the name of Cynthia Makwela.” The Granddaughter clearly inherited her grandparents’ name. 

In an outpouring of correspondence to Kondile, one of Kuli’s cohorts remembers her as a girl bursting with life. “[She was remembered as] Loud, funny, selfless and quite generous with her opinions of what she loved, what she would tolerate and what she wouldn’t,” Kondile says. Don’t fuck with Kuli.

Photos her fellow boarders at Espin house shared introduce the viewer to a young woman, square shouldered and visibly shorter than all the other girls in all frames. Her head is crowned with a 1970s pitch-black Afro that almost tumbles beyond her hairline.

She never laughs haha, although when she does, it’s only through her eyes and dancing dimples that never quite announce their presence. Her posture is of an alert teenager, but never rigid. Young Cynthia Makwela matriculated in 1990, and immediately fixed her gaze on the big league.

A woman of many names, Kuli Roberts also excelled in various fields, from print to broadcast media and acting. (Photo: Gallo Images)

Act 2: Enter Nomakula Mboya

1991

Nelson Mandela had just been released. Cape Town, where Mandela addressed the world from a balcony in the City Hall currently housing the republic’s parliament, is ecstatic. 

The city is whipped into a state of delirious victory and multiracial unity; a multicultural unity embroidered with motifs of an inherent, yet fragile Black Consciousness at a community level. This was a politics that wove Africans, coloureds and “slams” into a struggle-scarred yet jubilant quilt, if only for a historical moment; a moment marked by audacious hope and, even then, disbelief. 

Around this time a young woman now known as Nomakula Mboya, as witnessed by Sidwell Ndlovu, then a third-year student on campus, arrives at the University of Cape Town. “She arrived chauffeured in a state-of-the-art Mercedes Benz. Boy oh boy, the minute she arrived, time seemed to stand rapt in attention to her presence. That girl had an immediate retinue of hangers on from the day she set foot on campus. I have never seen anything like that.”  

Although whiffs of stardom and preternatural force were already etched in her DNA, the story’s linear track becomes disjointed at exactly those crucial biographical points. 

A few years later, Kuli entered what portended to be her life-defining phase and, ostensibly, her third act. She resurfaces in the late, still-transforming country scraping for its new ID. She’s an intern, then a full-time staffer at Fair Lady magazine. 

My first meeting with the young dream chaser was in the late 1990s at a (television) industry soiree in Sandton. We were both young, of the same generation and outlandishly ambitious. Surprisingly, in situations like that, there was a marked lack of rivalry inherent in the neon-lit big media metro spaces’ social fabric. We all interacted as though family. 

Even that late in the decade, mainstream media was still virgin territory, especially for hordes of raw, young Black talent that came into its own in the post-1994 milieu. She stepped into the space with a laser focus: those beautiful saucers for eyes firmly trained on the goal. 

Soon after her wedding to Beyers Roberts, a UK expat and musician, Nomakula was ready for rebranding. Connecting the dots to her often quirky personal and career moves, it is apparent that identity and naming mattered deeply to her. As with Dolly Rathebe and other previous performers, she would not think twice of remixing names and identities as she went on. 

She met necessity head on, and laughed a deep, throaty laughter at it, no matter how harrowing the challenges it wrought. She had already successfully remixed “Nomakula”, a name derived from a complex racial slur, at once a Xhosa appropriation of “coolie”, an colonial epithet to Indian indentured labourers, only to repurpose it as a township sobriquet.

Like a character ripped from the pages of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City or, perhaps even better, Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero, Kuli Roberts was ready to seize the fabled Sin City.

Act 3: Enter Kuli Roberts

By the time we brushed elbows on the beat, she was already carving herself as a future magazine editor, long before she crawled what the former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter referred to as “the seven rooms to the top” in Toby Young’s How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. Armed with several university degrees and an insatiable appetite for fun, and sleaze, Young, a scion of an English Lord, penned a memoir of a young journalist’s chess move from London with the aim of “taking Manhattan”. 

I had just left print and was settling into a job as a politics talkshow producer by night, and lifestyle producer by day at Metro FM. Kuli Roberts was prepared to “take” Johannesburg while a lot of us were still trying, flailing in the dark. Our second encounter was on the page. She had just landed a job as the editor-in-chief of Pace magazine in the late summer of 2002. It would prove to be a brief but dramatic stint.

Soon after she arrived she splashed R&B chanteuse TK, then fully expectant, on the cover. It was all bitter chocolate, dark skin gleaming with the stylist’s applied baby oil, hair extensions shimmering under the studio lights. She lasted about six months and, soon after her departure, or leap, the “book” closed shop after 30 years in the glossy trade. 

But Kuli Roberts’s own glossy career, albeit one toe-dipped in celebrity murk, was just about to take one giant leap. We were reunited, if for a shorter stint than her Pace magazine “step-in fit”, at the Sunday World. The Kuli Roberts who stepped into the newsroom was all hair, husky voice, dental set gleaming milk white, red stilettos, rouge lips, designer tote on her shoulder, a magazine cover girl-aura trailing her; her speech, a tenor hybrid of private school, Black Swan lilt, gum-blowing Cape Flats snarl and a gracious regional deportment that was refreshing for its lack of deference. 

Kuli Roberts would call you “Bhut’ wam” and add a barrage of expletives in the same line. The day she arrived, a colleague slipped me a note scribbled: “I know how an uncaged bird sings.” You don’t get bitchier than underpaid hacks. Within the first week, the newsroom burst alive. She was assigned a desk next to mine and for the rest of our time together there, I submitted my work way past the deadline. Kuli Roberts was a chatterbox, incredibly snappy and adroitly smart.

Gossip she told verged further into the fantastical with every telling. She was political, generous with contacts and always championing the underdogs. Kuli Roberts and I were colleagues for a mere three months. Looking back with tears — of joy at the memory, and a harrowing stab in the heart knowing we can never be colleagues again — it now feels like a century. Soon after I had jumped ship to a weekly broadsheet in the same stable, I was among the hordes of gossip addicts who relished her yellow pages Sunday cocktail of celebrity gossip.

Gilded age: A Mzansi Saga

Mid-2000s.

The loudly lauded post-Mandela social compact had started fraying, and yet an air of optimism hung over the body politic, a half-moon casting amber fire, still. The age belonged to the once pipe-smoking Afropolitan Thabo Mbeki’s first term in office. The man loomed large on the local, regional, continental and global stage as the Renaissance prophet the Black world has been waiting for. 

Talk of massive industrialisation and the creation of a broad-base class of billionaires coursed through the dinner circuit like a brand-new commodity on the stock market, at best. Everyone was on it. Not many were ethically as committed. It was a heady age of unbridled consumerism, which, of course, cultivated envy and tragic resentment within the hordes locked out of the gates. New Money in the Mbeki mid-2000s bubbled within a wondrous nouveau réalisme esprit quilted for the age. 

Kuli’s column Bitches Brew soon turned into the New Money generation’s samizdat. It was not by accident, therefore, that the highly connected Kuli was the scene’s gossip columnist du jour. Reading on the life and mishaps of the tres chic, and the inconsolably dumb social climbers enshrouded in La Vida Loca rendered our dreary lives somewhat bearable. 

Not long after, she parlayed all that immersion into a career in television and all electronic media’s nooks. Girlfriend had arrived. Seven rooms be damned. It was something of a guilty pleasure observing how she created a weekly column and developed into a gossip hack before riding the dream into a fast, giddy, if optically desperate hustle into a television career. 

On the box, she presented shows such as Real Goboza, Trending SA, What Not To Wear and acted in telenovelas such as The Queen, Angelina, Indaba

How she powered into television with a theatrical jingoism for show business not seen since the late 1980s halcyon days of Vinolia Mashego should be a media course on its own already. Nothing could hold her back. Now a stretched brand, she also dipped her rouge lips and hot tongue into a morning radio show via Kaya FM’s Breakfast with Bob Mabena. For a moment Kuli was on the way to becoming the Martha Stewart of South African media.

Exit stage left

What will the future generations of young creatives make of the legacy of Kuli and her cohort — our generation as it were, such that a “legacy” exists? It will, on one hand, depend on how they navigate late-style capitalism in the process of critiquing their place in it. 

I choose to remember hers as a story of an extraordinary woman in extraordinary times. Kuli was part of a specific hunting pack of tabloid journalists: smart, quick at smelling a story, to whom the debasement of old-school ethics in this society was their métier. She embodied the best and worst of this generation. Her life, personally and professionally, anticipated the country we have all inherited, remade, and watched as it began its slow leap from the cliff …

Bongani Madondo is the author of Hot Type, Sigh the Beloved Country, and editor of  I’m Not Your Weekend Special: Portraits on the Life/Style & Politics of Brenda Fassie.

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Bongani Madondo
Bongani Madondo
Author:Sigh The Beloved Country(Picador) Essays On Photography. Joburg Review. Essays NewYorker/Aperture/S'Times.

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