The poster generation
'There's just too much pressure to be the voice of the blacks, too much pressure to be deep!" a talented opinion-writer tells me as we sip cold cocktails in rainy Camps Bay.
"Ja, it's like every time you pick up a pen you carry the hopes, dreams and opinions of a whole generation, when you just want to write. We can't all be Steve Biko. Or Khaya Dlanga."
The next morning, I happen upon Phylicia Oppelt's biting review of Khanyi Mbau's biography, Bitch Please, I'm Khanyi Mbau in the Sunday Times and my heart sinks further. It's not that Oppelt dislikes the book, but the reasons that she gives sadden me. "My irritation, and in a sense, sheer astonishment, lie in the fact that Mbau is cast as the poster child for post-apartheid South Africa where bling and avarice supercede just about every moral value to which most ordinary beings subscribe," Oppelt writes. Ouch.
Oppelt states that she sees nothing wrong with a young woman wanting more, insisting on equality and sexual liberation, but draws a line at sexuality exchanged for goods. "Mbau," she says, "is no feminist trailblazer who has contributed to the rise of self-assurance and self-worth of the country's women." Geesh!
In the early and mid-1990s there was a lot of counting of the "first blacks", and black people wore that tag "first black" proudly. Being the first black to do anything was seen as some sort of achievement; you didn't have to be good at it.
We counted the first black to attend a school, the first black person to be in a school's swimming team, the first black to take higher grade maths. That book of the first blacks grew to include a list of the first black professionals, accountants, actuaries, and then billionaires.
Although the counting of blacks was meant to be aspirational, it led to us counting what didn't really count, and forcing everyone to count when not all young black people aspired to count. In addition, the pressure grew for young black people to count in only "the right ways", a way defined by everyone else but themselves. Now we've taught society that every prominent black must count.
This is the unofficial expectation on young black people, especially those under any kind of spotlight: to lead exemplary lives that represent the highest aspirations of younger generations queuing behind; and to make older generations proud. The pressure!
Being the "voice of blackness" is terribly exhausting, especially if it's not what you signed up for. Society won't let us just live.
Mbau's reality is a valid representation of the spectrum of realities and aspirations that are available to anyone who is truly born free. These Jersey Shore plastic-personality types are the consequences of a society that sees money as a value above most. Khanyi has chosen to own the financial spoils of being a commodity. Other young people, such as my talented friend, have chosen to carve out a career based on their talents and hard work. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in jail so that coming generations could choose greatness, rather than having it forced upon them because they are black. And anyway, that's racist.
I love Khanyi Mbau (okay, I tolerate her) not because of what she represents, but for what she doesn't - another template for black women. Khanyi wants to be on the poster, she doesn't want to be the feminist. There's another Khanyi that I adore. Khanyi Dlomo, who is that "feminist trailblazer who has contributed to the rise of self-assurance and self-worth of the country's women" that Oppelt is looking for. That's the point of a free country; the ability to carve out unique and personal realisms. Khanyi Mbau is a poster child for post-apartheid South Africa, she just happens to be one of many.