South Africa


Kuli Roberts — a child of democracy and other such problems

Kuli Roberts — a child of democracy and other such problems
Kuli Roberts during the "Siren" book launch by Kuli Roberts at Mall of Africa on November 12, 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Roberts's debut novel is filled with sex, drugs, alcohol and tabloid scandals. (Photo by Gallo Images/Papi Morake)

A reflection on the well-known celebrity and journalist personality who, in the battle for black female visibility, never let us forget she was also always a person.

Kuli Roberts, a celebrated South African public figure passed away suddenly at the age of 49 earlier this month. While it is clear that at such an age her life has been shockingly cut short, it is also quite extraordinary to note what a layered and accomplished life she managed to have. Political activist, writer, tabloid journalist and editor, gossip columnist, social commentator, TV presenter, radio DJ and professional celebrity, were all roles and/or professions she occupied in a 30 year period that almost perfectly mirrored the ambivalence of the often contradictory Age of Democracy we are still living through in SA. 

To say then that a brazenly outspoken single black mother was a child of her time as a sharp social commentator would be stating the obvious. It is however worth serious reflection, for in this distinct historical moment, Kuli Roberts came to inhabit a unique and often groundbreaking place in the modern journey of this country. 

She was firstly one of the first young black women of the post-apartheid period to speak openly on topics such as sex and the anxieties of modern relationships, as well as being frank about the stress of social animosity that permanently occupied the country. More critically she always tried to do so in a language that her audience could relate to; she was determined that the language and raw attitude of the townships would find a place in the national debate, and that recognising this reality, as unsettling as it was for many in the media, was an inescapable fact about the kind of country we were, let alone the one we were becoming.

She was often alone in this regard, championing the tabloid and the gossip column as a political forum, especially at the beginning of her career.

While there is much to be discussed as to the value this legacy has brought, it was undeniably critical in vocalising the obstacles this significant sector of young black township women faced in being made visible; an opposition that came to the new emerging establishment, as well as from the pre-existing elites. Kuli drew fire from a whole number of fronts by merely being a young and articulate black female, but she never wavered from engaging with the many terrible contradictions that this status and demand actually meant. 

She paid the price for being impetuous and annoyingly without nuance, but her battles were as often as mind-blowingly basic as the right to be heard, or for the licence to be justifiably angry at the hypocrisies and unfulfilled promises of the new era. She was also one of the first to always find good reason to celebrate at the time, the often derided endeavours of a new wave of township entrepreneurs, many of which today are established businessmen and women. She knew that there were no straight roads on the long walk to whatever it is freedom had become.

At the same time, she often appeared to simultaneously undermine the very role she seemed to have purposely chosen for herself as if it had somehow been bestowed upon her inadvertently. In fact, it was this very zone of often startling contradiction that most came to represent everything powerful about herself — in accepting the terrible exposure and unnatural responsibility that celebrity brought a person who sought it, she made herself a role model for fallibility. Her capacity to throw her hands up and admit she’d made a mistake was often overlooked in the frenzy to hold her feet to the fire.

Kuli’s greatest gift to both fans and non invested observers alike may have been to bring a human face to the often traumatic reality of having to live an emotionally naked public life. One may believe that in chosing to be a public figure, one ‘buys the ticket and takes the ride’ and no one would have accepted that maxim more than her, but there really wasn’t anything like a school for celebrity when she first emerged in the mid-’90s, along with a number of young talented black personalities, who were all as a friend once said, “just trying themselves on…”

Kuli Roberts during the Truelove Night of Style at The Galleria on August 15, 2019 in Sandton, South Africa. The glamorous event, held in partnership with Mazda, is an annual fashion and beauty extravaganza where local A-listers showcase their opulence and style. (Photo by Gallo Images/Oupa Bopape)

If it’s not yet clear, let me openly state that I’m hardly an innocent bystander here, for when it came to Kuli I always had a dog in the race. In the court of public opinion, I was generally in favour of the accused, your honour, for she was my old and dear friend, and for over 30 years, she and I lovingly dipped in and out of each other’s lives. She was, to begin with, one of my first good friends at university, and as a result a very important figure in my own understanding of young black life in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa. Her generosity of spirit in a time when I wore my ignorance like a piece of cheap ethnic jewellery has given her an endless series of free passes in the various indiscretions I saw and felt her commit. 

“Oh god, you understand almost nothing”, she would so often admonish me in those first engagements, sitting on the steps of the very austere institution that was UCT in 1991, often followed by the more clearly mocking, “But shame, at least you try!” which was invariably followed by that gorgeously seductive growl-like laugh she reserved for when she most amused herself. I was never quite certain which of those comments cut deepest, and I’m sure she felt both ignorance and patronage were worth calling out, but it was always accompanied by a generosity of spirit that before I’d even heard the word, embodied the (now shamelessly co-opted) concept of ubuntu.

Despite this clear prejudice I have then, I would still like to reflect in some intimate detail on the experience I had of knowing her and what I found to be both the person behind the mask and the person I often saw exist beyond it. I have chosen to address it directly to her, for while I have an almost pathological fear of any kind of public life, which she often revelled in taking advantage of, I feel that nothing could befit her memory more than to talk openly of my feelings for her in the forum in which she most brilliantly existed.

My dearest Kuli, 

Of course, now that I need them I can’t find any of them. 

Our photographs; the images of you and I together, newly-made friends at 17. Fresh out of school, nothing much more than children, washing up together on the shores of a new and old country… 

There’s firstly the silly young drama student one — me in eyeliner and a gold lame suit doing my very best to sully the ghost of Elvis and you with a smile as big as a beach, dressed in your unique version of what we came to call “Crazy Lady Clown”. Beautiful young fools, in ways that only the youth can be — unintentionally vital and unashamedly prone to possibility.

It’s actually the other one though, sent to me not many years after the first, of you holding your newborn, India, that resonates with me most right now. You are sitting holding her with an inscrutability that completely encapsulated the person I was coming to know. There is of course a smile, faint but careful, pulling enigmatically at your furrowed brow, that hint of ever-present concern that I can see from the baby pictures posted in the wake of your passing, was with you from the very start. Seems that an intense ambiguity was the strange birthright a face as naturally beautiful as yours was asked to carry.

I was overseas when the photo somehow found me. 

I came home one freezing English evening to an envelope pushed under my door, and a great surprise. 

“Hey, I’m a mom now! Can you believe it? Miss you. Come visit us,” It said, or words to such effect, scribbled on the back, and flourished with a ‘xx Kuli’, that already had the intent of someone who expected to be signing their name for strangers for the rest of her life.

I suppose that’s how we found out about things then. A piece of paper under a door, things carried by hand. We came together in a space still operating within the mechanics of a world 100 years back, and you leave a world reaching for a humanity that’s still 100 years ahead. We met, and lived and loved each other in a very unique time. The early 1990s seem much like a suddenly thrown up bridge, where so much so often we were all asked to stretch ourselves across a great, often thinning span of history where, as the song goes, those ‘not busy being born were busy dying…’. It was terrifying and terrific, mad and amazing. Not unlike you, I suppose.

So, we met in Drama class and from there went forward into a world of drama. 

It was only years later did it occur to me that while unlike the others in those classes who were hard at work at the conventions of acting and performance, you were scheming on how to bake a legend. Immersing yourself in what I called “the dark arts of winning at being a celebrity”, you began to draft the early architecture of a personal artifice, the intricate design of a whole other version of yourself, a kind of made-for-presentation personality, a character built not for one or a few performances, but for a lifetime. 

I didn’t really think or want to believe then that one could be a celebrity just by basically being one, but soon it was clear from the many cultural thermometers of the time that the ‘90s was the beginning of all that. Of course, you had seen it from way off, and I never really stopped admiring the sheer brass balls and deviant chutzpah it took to pretty much snatch it out of thin air. Now everyone tries to fake it to make it, shake it to take it, tries their luck and counts the likes, but really very few understand how hard it is to be comfortable in another version of yourself. You dabbled in almost everything, but if there was one thing you always held down with immense skill, it was the job of being You.

So then, in that second life we had as friends in our thirties, I met you as a single mother and a celebrity. I always spoke of wanting to put that experience on film after a story you once told me about spending a day that nearly broke you. Both you and your child sick as hounds, a broken car, the trauma of the accident having been compounded by you being mugged immediately after on the side of a highway, the subsequent trouble with the insurance company. All this and trying to find the strength to nurture your child through a very painful night. And then, as the sun rose, as you said, with not much more than a few hours sleep, “I did my make-up, got into a cab, and went to interview Will Smith….”. 

What grabbed me about this — besides the casual rendition of having to go work with an international superstar while juggling an almost feral commitment to your family’s survival and well-being, was your remarkable ability to sometimes just step aside from your life and let it get on without you.

Kuli Roberts during the 9th Savanna Comics’ Choice Awards at Gold Reef City on September 07, 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The awards offer every professional comedian in the country the opportunity to vote for their favourite comedian in each of the twelve award categories, while celebrating and recognising funny talent throughout the country and the African continent. (Photo by Gallo Images/Oupa Bopape)

Talking of other-selves, do you remember how my brother and his friends named one of their two goldfish after you? The other they had called Sid, after the rock star, Sid Vicious from the Sex Pistols. Then they came home one day to find the fish had had a fight, and Kuli had eaten Sid!

Seems even then, at 19, they had figured you for a celebrity, and even then as someone who could hold her own in the fishbowl.

I remember calling you the Messerschmidt, because you came swooping into conversations all rat-tat-tat-tat, shots fired, while everywhere people dived and ducked for cover. Despite this, you almost always had something interesting to say. Hanging around at a party, now in our 40s, watching a whole other generation from the relative safety of the VIP bar; new music, new fashion, new faces, you turned to me and said, “We were the lab rats of the New South Africa, Larry. It wasn’t always such fun.”

That was the kind of sage street wisdom I remember the most, the kind not merely dispensed from the relative safety of a newspaper column, but one you engendered in your very being — that this place and all of us in it were just an ongoing freak show, that you were doing nothing more or less than embracing that with a genuine purpose. That you were our mirror, both dirty and sweet.  On that I know we could always agree.

Maybe your true legacy will be how you wholeheartedly celebrated everything marginal; not just queerness, but the whole freakishness of life and love in this place.

You also said some fucking stupid things, things we had terrible fights about, things at the time I felt were unforgivable, but when you got taken to task, I think you mostly owned up to needing to be better.  You were a vivacious, charming contrarian, a beaming, bright and intelligent female force of the craziest kind. You were, like all of the best, never just one thing. I’m not even sure everything you did, both good or bad, you intended to. I think you often just wanted to shake the water, to agitate the staid ways that seemed to hold us all back, and in that wild egotistical endeavour, said and did a lot of things that were difficult for you and everyone around you to contend with.

I often wished you just hadn’t said that or hadn’t done this, but fire burns with its own volition. Sometimes it was all some of us could do but to stand to one side and watch, hoping it would run out of air or things to burn.

Like fire, you were stubborn, sad, and surprisingly helpful. 

You were everything a human fire should and could be, full of the capacity for self-destruction and self-invention, and like fire, you were always going to be here, until you were not. 

Which brings me to that horrendous night: the infamous Steve Hofmeyer Roast. I was already trepidatious about the whole thing when you asked me as a friend to come along and “hold your hand because I think it might get nasty”. It was exactly the kind of badly thought-through event South African corporate media so often get wrong. In their desperate falling over themselves to imitate some global trend, there is often a complete lack of understanding of the purpose of such concepts. The idea of a roast is to actually celebrate (in an ironic way obviously), a well-loved local personality. Steve Hofmeyer was not that person, and he hadn’t been for a number of years. The mistake in choosing him is now well-documented, from his Trump-like surliness to the generally poor spirit in which he responded to being ragged. The most notorious being the incredibly violent reaction he took to John Vlismas’s jokes (Grabbing his script and shoving it into his mouth! — big up to John for not reacting with any similar childishness.)

But it was the endless and increasingly unfunny nastiness of the jokes thrown at Kuli from all sides that unfortunately came to define the night. Jokes that all the other comics seemed to make with a relish and lack of subtlety that really sullied the entire experience for so many. I remember one particularly idiotic one about the size of her vagina that made me realise how stupid most of the people who are considered famous in this country really are. I guess being genuinely funny wasn’t as important to a lot of people that night as enjoying a literal hitting below the belt. I don’t think of myself as squeamish when it comes to humour, but the whole thing had a terribly South African odour of blatant misogyny.

And so in an evening in which we were supposed to speak truth to power — where an old white reactionary race-baiter was supposed to be pulled up for reaching peak asshole, we instead descended into a vile, uncomfortable feeding frenzy of destroying the image of a sexually emancipated and courageous black woman — essentially, supposedly progressive humour gave way to a basic and sexist slut shaming. I remember clearly feeling like there weren’t any adults left in the room — something, unfortunately, I often feel about the whole country right now.

But this leads me to your finest aspect, which was that you always forgave. You truly had a heart as big as the Eastern Cape. You could hold a grudge forever, but forget it in a minute. You were, in the best possible way, always wanting things to move forward.

You were hard to define, difficult to truly know. 

Kuli Roberts during the Giyani Land of Blood cast at Shepstone Gardens on June 6, 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images/Oupa Bopape)

Trying to hold you down was like trying to put a nail in smoke. When I look at the homogenisation and fear that dictates how so many young people conduct themselves today, the endless caution and patent plainness of being, I can only thank the stars that I was part of a time when people like you were busy trying themselves on. It was in that endless sense of figuring ourselves out that so much that was beautiful emerged to the putrid surface and sat above it.

You have taught us that we are never just one thing, that truly we contain multitudes. That we are complicated. That we are here to be truthful and honest and still be good to each other.

Can you believe that the last time I saw you I was having lunch with an actress, ironically discussing with her the idea of a script based on you? Although the actress didn’t know that it was you, I wanted to base the story on my working title that was “Will the real Ms Roberts please stand up?”. Then, as if the universe wanted to make sure I didn’t forget the intensity of my source material, you walked past the window! You looked in at me, then swung round to our table, grabbed my shoulder and whispered, “Hello darling, I can’t remember which one of you I’m supposed to be having a fight with, so I’m moving on…” and disappeared in a cloud of throaty laughter.

And who indeed were you?

A young girl from Langa, who told me stories of a young barefoot Brenda Fassie coming to buy sweets at your parents’ spaza shop? I never actually bothered to find out if any of that was true. I was just always enthralled enough to hope it was. In over 30 years I don’t think I ever wanted to be changed from that.

So, here’s to you, the lab rat who refused to accept that the experiment was over just because the money had run out and the experts had abandoned the building. 

The heart is a muscle, and Kuli was a strident tug at the muscle that pumped the broader body politic of our county, whether we liked it or not. She sacrificed a lot of herself so that young black women today could feel okay about being upset about being mistreated or even just misunderstood, and felt they had the absolute right to hang it out there.

She was a genuine star that fizzed its way through the dark night of an often heavy sky. What is light anyway, if not the sharp, harsh unrelenting thrust of heat and desire to pierce through? Nothing more than a magical chemical process that once released, reveals the truth of all that it magically, often harshly, falls upon. As ever, when I trawl through the hundreds and thousands of tweets singing you up, a trail of gorgeous swollen hearts and plastic social debris clatters in your wake, I keep coming back to that clip of you being asked what you’d like to be remembered for. Quick as a flash, you answer back, “Nothing. I don’t want to be remembered. I just want you all to take care of yourselves…”

Bet you Steve Hofmeyer will never say anything that selfless about himself.

God Bless you, kid. You were a helluva thing. DM


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