Big fat South African weddings

2013-05-21 09:30

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Rumoured to be the priciest wedding South Africa has ever seen, the recent R70 million Gupta nuptials at Sun City set a new standard of excess. Does this mean the big wedding is back?

Fireworks displays, knights on horseback, a tented reception on a fake beach, exotic dancers, private jets … It had all the elements of an epic Bollywood musical, but this was the real-life wedding of 23-year-old Vega Gupta (niece of the controversial Gupta brothers, who own The New Age newspaper and Sahara Computers).

Estimated to have cost around R70 million, it has raised the stakes in the luxury wedding game.

Johnny Hamman, creative director wedding coordination consultancy the Aleit Group, agrees that while this has ‘blown the mark on the amount of money spent in the history of wedding planning,’ nuptials of this magnitude are not unusual in South Africa.

Aleit and a handful of other luxury wedding planning outifts have produced some ‘magnificent high-end weddings’ where money has certainly been no object.

Johnny says he is currently working on a wedding that will be the ‘second best wedding in South Africa this year’: A 10-course meal for 200 guests, hot-air balloons, local acts, exceptional lighting, and complete exclusivity at a wine farm for an entire weekend – ‘you name it, we’ll have it’.

It’s not just the Guptas who are proving that more is more when it comes to saying

‘I do’. It seems the days of the discreet, low-key exchange of rings is gone for now.And in most cases, ‘new money’ is doing the talking. Walking down the aisle provides the ultimate excuse to show off the bling.

Over the past few years, South Africans have witnessed some jaw-dropping wedding spectacles.

In February this year, police minister Nathi Mthethwa married businesswoman Philisiwe Buthelezi in a French-inspired affair in Franschhoek. The event was a tribute to Parisian elegance, with chandeliers and fresh rose and orchid lampshades to dazzle the 600 guests.

According to Wedding Concepts MD Christina Holt, the wedding took eight months to plan.

The bride wore Carolina Herrera, menus were handmade, and one of the references was that ‘it needed to look like the Élysée Palace’.

The bride had lived in France and studied at the Sorbonne.

And then there was the Indian Ocean island cash splash that was the marriage of Limpopo-based property developer David Mabilu to his long-time sweetheart Phala Mokgophi.

Estimated to have cost R10-15 million, Mabilu booked out the entire Long Beach resort in Mauritius. Around 300 guests attended the three-day celebration, which included flights and accommodation.

Johnny believes that while opulence is in, this is also driven by culture and ‘how influential and important you are’.

Former police commissioner Bheki Cele’s wedding showed off the who’s who of Mzansi, including president Jacob Zuma.

Johnny adds that there are a few reasons why high-profile people have big weddings.

‘Weddings are an opportunity to invite friends and family to share something momentous, to treat them for a while and make them feel special.’

But influential people need to nurture their relationships with other influential people. It would be unacceptable for them to not invite them to a family wedding, he says.

‘A lot of the time the bride will tell me, “I can’t stand that guy, but he had to come to the wedding!”’

Generations actress, businesswoman and wedding planner Sophie Ndaba (organiser of the Mabilu nuptials), agrees that big weddings are definitely in – for those who can afford them.

‘Not everyone can,’ she says. ‘It’s all about lifestyle. And just as someone would organise a three-day birthday bash if they could afford it, then they will do that with a wedding. The attitude is that “this is one event that I hopefully I will only do once in my life so it’s okay to have something big, fantastic, luxurious.”’

In South Africa, extravagant weddings have also become a way for people to let their hair down; to escape worries and the daily grind.

‘Weddings are becoming more about the parties and production than ever before,’ says Johnny. ‘Ceremonies are shorter; speeches are shorter… The bulk of budgets, for example, don’t go to flowers as much as they used to. They go to full-on staging, production, lighting and confetti bombs. People really want to throw a party, like in New York on New Year’s Eve.’

Kate Rawbone, senior project manager at Wedding Concepts, agrees. ‘There’s a big focus on what the reception will look like. There are lots of florals, suspensions, lifting things into the air…’

Vega Gupta and Aakash Jahajgarhia’s extravagant four-day wedding at Sun City cost millions.

Take IT billionaire Robert Gumede, who married Dr Portia Mkhize at the exclusive Nelspruit Golf Club three years ago. Robert spared no expense, rocking up in a black Rolls-Royce.

About 2 500 guests attended the three-day, cream, gold and vermilion-themed wedding, and the 100-strong KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra was flown in for the occasion.

Portia’s Gavin Rajah-designed wedding dress was a silk-duchess gown made of fabric imported from Paris, with a six-metre train decorated with hand-beaded roses.

Guests were treated to lunch served in over a dozen marquees, followed by dinner at Mbombela Stadium, which was covered with white drapery and gold-framed mirrors.

The cake was an eight-tier creation by a lavish boutique bakery.

And then there was top businessman Mikki Xayiya who married his bride, Nwabisa, at Webersburg Estate boutique winery in Stellenbosch in spectacular style.

The setup took a week, and more than 200 staff and suppliers turned the 900m2 marquee into a suitable masterpiece for the 370 guests. Some 35 000 roses formed the centrepieces, there were customised tables with organza covered tops, and a custom-made dance floor and stage for singer-songwriter Lindiwe Suttle.

This level of opulence isn’t uncommon, say wedding planners. But is there anything that can still shock and surprise them?

‘Definitely,’ says Sophie. ‘Like the couple who wanted a horse-drawn carriage through the streets of Soweto. When people were growing up, a horse and trap were used to carry coal. It’s just not appropriate. Or people who want stretch limos in Soweto. These are used for red carpet events! People really need to think about the appropriateness of what they want.’

Johnny thinks he may have seen it all, but even he was awed at a recent Aleit-coordinated wedding in Zambia where 45 000 fresh roses were flown in from Johannesburg, each of the 300 guests were ferried in S-Class Mercs, and the bride and groom arrived in a helicopter.

And then there was the wedding where the 270 guests were each given a post-wedding gift of an iPad with pre-loaded wedding snaps and video.

For Kate, people’s priorities still leave her speechless.

‘They will spend money on things that are especially important to them. For example, some South African photographers who are making a name for themselves can now charge up to R40 000 for eight hours work. Then there was the bride who stuck individual Swarovski crystals onto straws, which we thought was a bit OTT. Or the one who chose a wedding cake in the shape of a big shark…’

Weddings give people licence to make their wildest fantasies some true. Combine this with oodles of cash, and there’s no limit to the spectacle.

Tasteful or tacky, the statement wedding seems set to stay. We have long moved on from trays of soggy sausage rolls nestling in wilted lettuce and traditional wedding DJs in crumpled shirts – weddings have become grand productions to rival the most impressive stage shows.

The less kind may call these grandiose productions inappropriate in a country with such high levels of poverty and unemployment. Not fair, says Sophie. ‘People love to talk and gossip, but the truth is they would have these kinds of weddings if they could afford them. It’s

a personal choice. Let people do what they want. They are creating employment and empowerment by growing businesses, which adds value to the economy.’

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