… celebrity a razor in the body …*

My sister was a famous model and in that capacity was invited to judge the Miss World competition at Sun City in 1995.

She asked me to accompany her as her official partner for a whole weekend of glitzy celebration and judging.

My famous and beautiful sister Josie Borain who was the first major contract model with Calvin Klein























The event was interesting to me for a number of different reasons but the only aspect that might apply to a column on politics and investment risk is the astonishing effect that being treated as a celebrity can have on one’s moral and intellectual soul.

I had been living alone on a farm in the Southern Cape for 5 years when Josie invited me to accompany her to the competition.

I had spent the 1980’s involved in “the struggle” in various capacities. By 1990 I’d had enough and I left politics and my myriad comrades and friends as they got on with the business of negotiating the peace and then running the country.

Of course I had some contact from afar with previous friends, but those who had  moved into the ethereal realms of Mandela’s first cabinet seemed to have been lifted body and soul out of the social networks they had previously occupied .

I would only meet again those of my old friends who had become senior politicians in government a year and a half after the Miss World competition when I returned to ‘civilisation’ to become a father and take up a permanent position as a political analyst for a Cape Town based investment broker.

At the Miss World competition we stayed in the The Palace of the Lost City at Sun City (a big step for me because we had spent the 1980’s promoting the boycott of the resort that was built in the then bantustan of Bophuthatswana).

The point I wanted to make about all of this is that from early morning to late at night the organisers of the event and the hotel treated me as if I was a celebrity. It was a peculiar but not altogether unpleasant experience. I couldn’t walk out of my room without a dapper assistant type person reaching for my arm to accompany me to waiting  vehicles or parties of fabulously beautiful women sipping at drinks.

Every second of the day there was someone right beside me nodding with interest at everything I said and did. Everything was paid for. It was like being in a dream where the lights swirl around you and you are the centre of the attention of some vast organisation of doormen, waiters and compliant and beautiful people.

An air-conditioned limousine (there really is such a thing – it is not just a cliché in bad spy novels) delivered me to Jan Smuts airport for my trip back to the farm after the celebrations were finally over.

What I remember most vividly about the whole weekend was standing alone with my bag just in the entrance to the airport.

“Hello!” I might have thought shrilly to myself . “Excuse me? I’m here – where the hell is everybody?”

Two years later I met again, mostly in their formal capacities, my previous friends who had become ministers and deputy ministers, ambassadors and persons of similar august standing in society.

I was never shocked and surprised at the grandiosity and extraordinary pomposity most of them came to exhibit.

I have since sat around tables with men I had previously watched fight Apartheid police with their fists and feet and watched as they lean back from the table, eyes closed, their voices drawling as their massive new brains formulate positions that keep all of those present silent as the great man speaks.

I have sat with ambassadors at formal dinners where the guest are subjected to a reading by the said ambassador of  her extremely bad poetry. We all sit in silence and most nod in awed approval.

This is a different world they inhabit.

Their whole lives, every moment of the waking day, is spent surrounded by a system that takes them extremely seriously. They travel first class and they are met at the plane by luxury vehicles driven by people trained to give the impression that this is the most precious cargo they have ever carried.

Everyone they interact with confirms the lived reality that they are, in fact, a different kind of person: cleverer, more interesting and more valuable.

There is often a faux gentleness and compassion that goes along with this kind of celebrity. When someone with whom you might once have thrown stones at the police as you dodged through billowing clouds of tear gas puts her hand on your arm and looks into your eyes and says “we really appreciate the work you are doing” you don’t screw up your face and ask “what work?” You just nod.

I believe there is something intrinsically harmful to ourselves and our society in the way we elevate our politicians. I recommend taking every opportunity to deflate the individuals, prick the bubble that we have surrounded them with.

I do not think it is inevitable that politicians, ministers or even super models become pompous wind bags but I can name very few who have escaped the corroding effects of celebrity and power.

I still see Jeremy Cronin flying with real people on the plane and chatting like a normal human being (what will we do if that stalwart ever goes over to the dark side?)

And my lovely sister Josie seems to have escaped with her humility and charm intact – although I rather suspect that is because even as whole restaurants full of New Yorkers would break into spontaneous applause as she entered in the 1980’s she never quite lost the sense that there had been some huge and embarrassing mistake – one she was just too polite and sweet to correct.

*from the poem: Heron Rex by Michael Ondaatje in  The Cinnamon Peeler – Selected Poems – 1989 … my long time favourite collection of poetry.

8 thoughts on “… celebrity a razor in the body …*

  1. A Universal truth : Pigs rule

    Penguin Books -1951

    Animal Farm
    by George Orwell

    IN this good-natured satire upon dictatorship, George Onvell makes use of the technique perfected by Swift in The Tale of a Tub. It is the history* of a revolution that went wrong — and of the excellent excuses that were forthcoming at every step for each perversion of the original doctrine.
    The animals on a farm drive out their master and take over and administer the farm for themselves. The experiment is entirely success¬ful, except for the unfortunate fact that some-one has to take the deposed farmer’s place. Leadership devolves almost automatically upon the pigs, who are on a higher intellectual level than the rest of the animals. Unhappily their character is not equal to their intelligence, and out of this fact springs the main development of the story. The last chapter brings a dramatic change, which, as soon as it has happened, is seen to have been inevitable from the start.

    ‘A very amusing and intrinsically wise book.’ -Manchester Guardian

    ‘ This little book, about as long as Candide, may fairly be compared with it as a searching commentary on the dominant philosophy of the age ‘ – Punch

  2. Winter 1997 – a tense land struggle at a Wild Coast nature reserve demanded then Land Affairs minister Derek Hanekom’s direct intervention. Unseasonal floods torpedoed the meeting, but Hanekom kept himself available on stand-by at other engagements in the Eastern Cape until the last moment. It took some time – given the reality of a ministerial diary, and Hanekom’s own tight fiscal oversight on his budget for helicopter flights, which was a necessity at the time, before the meeting actually came about.
    At some point I commented that it was nice to see that some ministers still had a sense of their past history as comrades. (He didn’t know me.) He replied that he’d like to think that he’s at least trying to keep a grip on that reality.

    Three other moments stood out for me: the way he cut through the bureaucratic crap and made it clear the claim was simple and achievable, and defined the conditions therefore; his irreverent photographing of a local dog (while he himself went down on all fours); and his longing for a break in that place, which clearly provided simplicity and isolation that he yearned for.

    Unfortunately Derek already had a reputation as Minister Promises – the claim eventually did get settled, in a spectacular ceremony in 2001 presided over by then Deputy-President Zuma and then Land Affairs Minister Didiza (Zuma was down-to-earth but quite sexist in his speech to an adoring rural audience; other ministers, MECs and senior officials by-and-large displayed arrogance and a going-through-the-motions attitude).

    To this date no element of the agreement, be it transfer of the title deed or the release of millions in compensation, has been effected. I learnt that ministers were by-and-large passive puppets in issues that did not deeply draw on their political skills repertoire; and that real pompousness, arrogance and indifference – not to mention a disdainful attitude towards rural people that see them as perpetual minors – presided with a critical mass of government officials. I also learnt to deeply distrust journalists, for much the same reason.

    1. These things do seem to have, for me anyway, a sense of inevitability about them. Some exceptional individuals can survive but no-one can come through the mill of celebrity and formal senior political/government office unscathed. It does feel like a bit of a hopeless formulation if all I have got to say is: “all politicians are pompous windbags” … perhaps I should say: “our politics is such a process that only pompous windbags can survive there”, alternatively: “only pompous windbags aspire to be politicians” … but I know that is not true … many of these people were wonderful, humble, normal …. I remember meeting Derek in a semi-social situation in the mid-80’s .. lovely Young Christian Student type, strong and humble … it was the effects of dealing in power and selling themselves daily and being surrounded by sycophants in their offices, in the state, in their party and in society that seem to have pushed previously normal people into the sense of grandiosity …

  3. Politicians are the employees of the voters. Voters decide who gets employed and voters pay the salaries through Taxes (PAYE, VAT etc.)

    The way to bring these pompous beings to heel is:

    1. introduce referendum so that the voters may reject or modify legislation
    2. initiative so that the voters may raise their own legislation
    3. constituency based system so that the voters may be recall the politicians (fire them)
    4. top up system so that those small parties who do not have sufficient votes will have proportional seats so that the overall wish of the voters are reflected

  4. Oh Nic, I DO love this line… “I have since sat around tables with men I had previously watched fight Apartheid police with their fists and feet and watched as they lean back from the table, eyes closed, their voices drawling as their massive new brains formulate positions that keep all of those present silent as the great man speaks.”

    Funny, human nature – I do hate affected gravitas… An insidious self-belief seems to creep into the pointlessly celebrated.

    Well, clearly a slim week politically, but a lovely tribute to your sis…

    1. Thanks Richard … I suppose I should be all over the New Growth Path and the budget … but I can’t seem to summon the enthusiasm … maybe get onto that tonight … good to hear from you again

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