“They will never touch him again.”
She was referring to the previously acclaimed writer and columnist Darrel Bristow-Bovey. “But he was so immensely talented.” I caught myself speaking of Darrel in the past tense, as if he were dead already.
I cannot remember the person I had this discussion with. It happened a few years ago, shortly after a few paragraphs in a very successful book by Bristow-Bovey were found to have been copied from the published work of another author.
At the time, his excuse was that his notes had become deurmekaar and that the plagiarism happened by accident.
Two things made Darrel’s defence plausible. A writer of his immense talent did not need to deliberately copy the words of another author. Besides, the paragraphs in question were not at all the best part of his book. His book did not need that text. It was good enough already.
Secondly, at the time this mistake happened, Darrel was clearly overworked. He had become such a popular columnist that he practically had to produce a column a day to stick to his deadlines. He was under such pressure that he accidentally sent off the same column to two different publications. It’s the kind of thing that would typically happen to me. Being a columnist myself, even not nearly as prolific as he was at the height of his success, I can imagine how much stress this man must have experienced.
I still see Darrel’s columns here and there, but they are few and far between. His career has not completely stalled. He has published another book, with some mediocre success. He still writes, but his career is greatly diminished. Gone are those glory days when we could not wait to rush out to buy Sunday Independent every weekend just for his hilarious TV reviews.
His virtual absence from the South African literary scene has left a gaping hole. It is a tragedy one can hardly wrap one’s head around. This guy should have been world-famous by now. He should have had international best-sellers. He was still young when this skandaal happened to him. He should have been a household name like Trevor Noah. It sickens me to think of such a huge talent lying dormant, not being used, not receiving the praise it deserves.
We all know of celebrities who end up being “untouchable” overnight. Many of them deserve it. Personally, I would be happy never to see another photograph of Prince Andrew in my news feed. And we all know of famous people – especially politicians – who should have become untouchable long ago, but who simply refused to “step aside”. Ace, it hurts to even think of those…
However, this quite recent occurrence of famous people becoming infamous overnight raises some hard questions.
Seldom was the paradox of this phenomenon illustrated with such stark clarity as in the sudden amputation of the public career of the TV personality Katlego Maboe.
Have the powers-that-be gone too far? Have the South African Film and Television Awards (Safta) organisers made a decision they will live to regret? They clearly did not expect the reaction on Twitter that they got when they rescinded his nomination in the category of Best TV Presenter.
Katlego, for those who haven’t heard of him yet, was, for a number of years, a flamboyant and well-loved presence on early morning TV. Later, he became an even more recognisable face when he starred in a series of really funny, really effective OUTsurance commercials. Because of him, the phrase “change daai deng” became a South African meme.
Then he was immersed in some embarrassing and painful domestic scandals. By his own admission, at least some of the accusations – cheating on his partner – were true. There were also other, much more serious accusations and rumours of abuse. These accusations, though unproven, sounded serious enough for the powers-that-be to drop Katlego like a hot potato. He went from being an up-and-coming celebrity to being untouchable in literally one day.
A few years ago, I briefly shared a house with Katlego when we were co-singers in a musical show at the Oudtshoorn festival (yes, Katlego can sing, too). I spent a lot of time with him during that week, and yes, I became aware, quite early in our friendship, that Katlego was not without flaws. But as with Darrel Bristow-Bovey, I soon fell absolutely under the spell of the immense talent of this man.
Put Katlego in front of a TV camera, or invite him on to a stage, and he is simply magnificent. He can ad-lib, he thinks on his feet, and he has a brain that works at lightning speed. He is also a very good listener with a wonderful sense of humour. Quite frankly, he is one of the most dazzling, gifted people I had ever met in my whole life.
And now, his career is on ice. For all practical purposes, Katlego, the brand, is dead. And apparently not even his fans on Twitter can save him from the judgment of the establishment.
Does he deserve such treatment? The decision by OUTsurance to drop him from its ad campaign certainly made sense at the time. They had to axe him. But it was probably a difficult decision, especially since all the ad campaigns they’ve made since then really suck. Katlego was OUTsurance, and he was irreplaceable.
Should we reject Katlego Maboe for ever and ever, until he is old and grey, because of things he did as a relatively young man? Will he never, ever get a chance to redeem himself?
Such a life sentence feels like an awfully cruel judgment, terrifying in its finality, for the public to pass on a fellow human being. What is that parable about casting the first stone?
When I grew up as a young Afrikaner – and yes, don’t worry, I’ve had therapy since then – one of the things the dominees and onderwysers really scared me with was the fear of hell. They were quite adamant that such a place actually existed, and that I was destined to end up there if I did not conform to the standards of Calvinism. Hell was a place where you ended up if you were a sinner, and once you ended up there, there was no escape. You will be tortured every day, and every night, in the flames of that dreadful fire, all eternity. Letterlik vir altyd. Ek was skytbang vir die hel. (Literally forever. I was shit scared of hell.)
When I got older, I asked myself: “How can a loving God tolerate the existence of a place such as hell?”
I asked myself a lot of things as I got older. As I threw aside the misinformation of my upbringing, I discovered many flaws in my own character. Some of these flaws, if they happened to trip me up at the wrong place and time, were potentially bad enough to wreck my public career in the same way that Katlego’s was wrecked. In fact, I sometimes think it is a miracle I’m still around at all.
That is the main reason I am reluctant to judge people like Katlego too harshly. And that is why I must admit that few things would give me greater joy than to see his name in lights again, or to hear the phrase “change daai deng” on TV once again.
Does hell exist? Yes, it does. But now I know that hell is on earth. There are many forms of hell. I am sure that the shadowy existence of permanently disgraced public persona is probably one form of hell.
This was harshly illustrated to me the other day when I attended a brief public appearance by disgraced Afrikaans stand-up comedian Nico Nel. Nico’s career was brought to an abrupt halt some time ago when some financial scandals came to light.
He has not performed for three years, but he is now doing small shows again. People still love him, and he is funnier than ever before. He is a bit older now, though, and he admitted on stage that these three years had been tough on him.
“We all know that a good comedy act depends on timing,” he said. “You need some spaces of silence in between jokes.” Then he added: “But a silence of three years is simply too long.”
This is my question: should we ban truly talented people to an eternity out of the limelight? At what stage can we dare to allow them back into our lives and our hearts? Instead of banning these people to their personal hell forever, should we not dare to invite them back, after they have had time to reflect and hopefully learn from their mistakes?
I honestly do not know the answer.