When bling is king

2009-09-07 00:00

MY grandmother, my father’s mother, died in 1941 at the age of 44. She left behind eight children, the youngest of whom — a second set of twins — were seven. My father, the second born, was 18.

So, it might seem that I never knew her. That would be a technical truth. In reality, though, Leah Silokazana Mzimba has been a constant presence in my life.

We grew up on stories about this woman. And not only the usual family stories about a mother.

How her reputation of academic prowess (she was the first African student to matriculate with a first-class pass) reached my grandfather, then working as an interpreter in Lusikisiki, in Pondoland.

How, when she was teaching in Kimberley, he started courting her by mail.

How, for a while, she made fun of “this correspondence without respondence”, before eventually succumbing to the charm coming through in his letters.

How my father arrived at Lovedale College in Alice, her alma mater, to be confronted by a standing record she had set more than 20 years before.

She had read 100 books in the library in one year, and he gamely attempted to match it over four years, but failed.

My grandmother had always been this colossus, and with the absence of her photographs (all of them burnt in a fire), the image of her in my mind was Amazonesque.

We were all grown by the time a photograph of her surfaced from a relative.

She was actually small in stature, and we joked that our handsome grandfather had not done our looks any favours by pursuing her, sight unseen.

Her qualities — academic achievement, industriousness, excellence and certain standards of behaviour, particularly modesty and respect, are qualities we were brought up to emulate.

Some might argue that you could only be famous for being smart in the old colonial days of my grandmother’s, but that would not be accurate.

In the seventies, deep into the Bantu Education era, a young man became famous for being “clever”, for being a wizard in mathematics.

That was Loyiso Nongxa, now vice chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand.

The reason he became famous was because as a nation we still valued excellence then, and children would be told about these achievers from far-off places so they could emulate them.

These are qualities that can be attributed to Professor Thamsanqa Wilkinson Kambule, who died recently.

Kambule’s reputation as a great mathematician and great teacher also reached many corners of this country.

It was for his many achievements that then president Thabo Mbeki, in 2002, conferred on Kambule the Order of the Baobab in gold, for “exceptional contribution to mathematics education, human development and community service”.

We don’t value any of that now. In the week that the great Kambule died, our media was full of stories about one William “King of Bling” Mbatha, who had been arrested in connection with an alleged house robbery, just a week after a court released him on R15 000 bail in a separate case.

From what one has read, Mbatha’s “achievements” can be summarised thus: he is the owner of several luxury vehicles and several posh homes, wears expensive clothes and jewellery and drinks expensive alcohol, will walk into a club he owns and throw R200 notes into the air.

There is no obvious source of income to sustain this lifestyle for the 36-year-old who dropped out of school after passing Grade 9. But this apparently has made him a figure of admiration, someone to be emulated.

Mbatha is a symbol of the new South Africa.

A South Africa where conspicuous consumption and crass materialism is king.

Where education is denigrated. Where owning a car worth a million — preferably at taxpayers’ expense — is valued more than earning a matric certificate from your own hard work.

It is a South Africa that, more and more, some of us feel alienated from.

• Lizeka Mda is deputy editor at City Press newspaper.

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