First remove the Louis Vuitton from your own mind's eye

2013-05-05 10:00

Oh, may the heavens fall upon us! Adelaide Tambo loved shopping and was a crass materialist who enjoyed a certain standard of living! Shocking! Sies! A betrayal of the struggle!


Just to recap, last week, newspapers ran the headline “Adelaide Tambo was a scammer”. It was a story cobbled together based on struggle stalwart Amina Cachalia’s recently published autobiography, When Hope and History Rhyme.

Of course, no story about “lavish” lifestyles is complete without a sprinkling of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who was fingered in the same book for asking Nthato Motlana (a doctor and activist) to cough up for an expensive car she wanted.

It was the 1980s and Winnie, as we all know by now, had been hounded, displaced and harassed by the apartheid state.

It takes an unusual individual possessed of admirable self-control not to succumb to the seductions of a crassly materialist, capitalist society. Look around.

White South Africans have, for years, taken such a lifestyle for granted. “Braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet” – all paid for by the accumulated wealth of advantage and, of course, credit cards.

In 2000, the iconic Afrikaans actress, Hermien Dommisse, usually referred to as a “doyenne” in theatrical circles, was deservedly awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards.

The ceremony took place at the cavernous Rotunda in Camps Bay, Cape Town. About halfway through the lunch, Govan Mbeki shuffled in. He was already in his nineties. Few of those gathered to honour and blow hot air up each other’s fundaments noticed him, in spite of the fact that he was one of few black people seated at a table and not serving.

The enraptured audience sat silent while Dommisse thanked all who had walked the path of success with her. As she spoke, I thought about the different roads these two elder South Africans had trod.

Both of them were victims of circumstance, but circumstances we must be forced to examine and confront.

Dommisse could enjoy an illustrious and successful career because she was a white, Afrikaans actress working inside a system that allowed her to shine, to accumulate a certain amount of wealth (a home and a pension fund from the old arts councils, no doubt).

Govan Mbeki spent 24 years on Robben Island accumulating a huge amount of struggle cred, but not very much wealth.

And herein lies the conundrum. ANC members in exile viewed the party as a family. And, in most cases, the party took care of its very large family, banished from their homeland. The ANC fed, clothed, educated and provided food and accommodation for all those in exile.

We should not be shocked or surprised that some of the biggest and most revered names in the ANC expected the organisation to foot personal bills.

And we should not feign horror when we learn that many of our “icons” were or are just human and deeply susceptible to the material comforts of life.

We all are, whether we can afford them or not.

Of course, the crunch comes when our heroes get home and are given well-paid jobs in government or elsewhere. When these generous salary packages are “not enough”, and we find our liberators with their grubby fingers inside the public purse, then we can, and may, speak out, call them to account, shame them for their greed or their wonky ethical compasses.

Until then, let’s remove the Louis Vuitton from our own mind’s eye before we remove the Gucci, Versace or Hermes from our sisters’ or brothers’.

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