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The rise of bling: What is the artist’s role in society

There’s a trend of new multi-millionaires who throw mega-weddings for public recognition. Tenderpreneurs like Robert Gumede from Mpumalanga, Shauwn Mpisane from KwaZulu-Natal, Fikile Bili from the Orange Free State and recently Limpopo property mogul David Mabilu.

The thinking behind this is to make a statement that says “ses’fikile — we have arrived”.

Depending on how you look at it the extravagance is a celebration of super-achievement against all odds or just sheer waste of taxpayers’ money. Also, it can be a public expression of a deep-seated complex, if you like.

In fact, it will always be controversial to decide which category these lavish wedding celebrations fall into.

Mabilu’s life, for instance, is the predictable rags-to-riches story of apartheid-bludgeoned black people who have raised themselves by their bootstraps to become part of the moneyed classes through government tenders.

His life story is, of course, the stuff that legends are made of. He easily qualifies as an example of a black man who has transcended not only his poor background but shows that where you come from is less important than your dreams and where you’re going. He has made a serious statement that apartheid is not an excuse for failure in life.

There is concern about the “bling bling” that characterised his wedding. Wedding planning is a personal choice but it also reveals a corruptive cultural influence and vulgar modes of how black people use material things for their presence to be felt.

It is a serious indictment of artists — from the event organiser, stylist, fashion designer, chef, barman, musicians and photographers — who are at the forefront of upholding and celebrating this contagious culture of conspicuous consumption.

Artists are, presumably, the carriers of a nation’s soul. They are or should be people of character, integrity and principles. They will or should always concern themselves with the significance and implications of what they do and the message they send to society. How do you become the voice of conscience when you sup with the very people who indulge in wasteful expenditure? It would seem that artists are artists just for bling bling’s sake.

Thus it is ironic and curious, for instance, that leading and influential figures in the creative sector should be at the forefront of promoting and entrenching the “bling bling culture” amid poverty, unemployment, disease and increasing hopelessness. At the risk of promoting patriotism, national artists should be concerned about the “state of the soul of the nation”.

Without being prescriptive, artists should be on the cutting edge of pricking the conscience of this nation. They should be last in the queue of those who are trying to cash in from the vulgar fruits of tenderpreneurship.

Perhaps we need to understand where artists stand vis-à-vis the erosion of conscience, integrity and morals in a society that is perceived to be degenerating into a lack of principle and morals.

This country can still give the world what Steve Biko called a “human face”.

There is absolutely nothing one can do to tell the moneyed class how to spend their lucre but artists must take a stand? What, exactly, does it mean to be an artist in SA today?

If we want to understand where this nation is going, we should take a critical look at the role of the artist in society.


  • Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic, columnist and civil servant. He lives in Midrand.