I have heard people who watch too much TV and listen to the radio ask: What is a celebrity? What makes Pearl Thusi, Kuli Roberts, DJ Sbu, Khanyi Mbau, Kenny Kunene or Phat Joe, for example, a celebrity?

I do not have answers to these questions but it would be helpful to look back to the 1970s and 1980s to see how this false notion of being a celebrity sprouted. You see, with far too few opportunities for Africans to do a radio jingle, appear on TV or even host a show on radio or write for newspapers, everyone whose job automatically gave him a media profile was mistaken for a celebrity.

As recently as 2006, I was mistaken for a celebrity simply because I wrote a provocative and hard-hitting socio-cultural and political column for the Sunday World newspaper that made people take me for some powerful and influential person.

In fact, many journalists and other people who work in the media, generally, think they are celebrities simply because they have picture by-lines and access to people with high profiles.

In the past, if you worked for Bop Radio, Swazi Radio, Radio Metro, or acted in a TV drama that made Africans look stupid, you were the subject of township talk and perhaps made it to some superficial story in a black newspaper or magazine like the World, City Press, Pace, Bona or Tribute magazine. Anyone who had appeared in a publication or TV show or had a “voice” on radio was instantly recognisable and elevated to celebrity status.

Many people in South Africa — both black and white — confuse media popularity with being a celebrity. Over the years, I have come across many people who will work hard just to have some story about them appear in the media. When you watch TV, you even find people are given the empty title of “socialite”. And they love it!

It is not my business to define what a celebrity is but there are, at least, two important things that should characterise a celebrity. The first is that being a celebrity is not inherited. What this means is that just because you are a DJ who rocks a 50 000-strong crowd at a festival, or some radio personality with more than 500 000 listeners, or a glitterati who appears in magazines and on TV shows does not make you a celebrity. You do not inherit a celebrity status but must earn it.

I would go on to venture that a celebrity is someone who is productive: writes books, presents radio or TV shows with substance, creates music that is memorable, recites soul-nourishing poetry. In fact, whatever a celebrity does, unavoidably, has a positive impact on society and contributes to the soul of the community or nourishes the mind of society and, largely, inspires and motivates others to be active citizens who want to play a role in the development and progress of society. Their lives and work define social problems and are examples of active mobilisation to encourage society, especially passive African people, to be part of the solution. You are an example of an active citizen — a change agent.

These media-created individuals often have no connection to the community they come from. In this case, the question should be asked: Who celebrates what you do? Is it the media that, mostly, presents a superficial story?

Much is given to individuals who appear in the media and thus much must be expected by society. They must use their faces and names to be “voices” that articulate a concern in society in such a way that people are moved or motivated to do something. Many post on Facebook, for instance, and think this makes them activists. They are just arm-chair celebrities.

My second point is that to be a celebrity, a community or society must acknowledge and recognise your work and how it contributes to development and progress. You could be a DJ or TV actor that imparts information, knowledge and skills to young people who want to follow in your footsteps. Or you could be writer who holds workshops for aspirant authors. True celebrities are celebrated by the communities they make positive and significant contributions in.



Sandile Memela

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

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