ON THE BOX
To binge or not to binge on Netflix’s ‘Young, Famous & African’
Throughout the show’s seven-episode season, the cameras manage to avoid even the slightest hint of anything that might be considered ‘third world’. A remarkable feat.
These Joburg streets have no taxis, in fact, the traffic is minimal. The pavements have no pedestrians, no street corner vendors, no beggars, and no homeless people. The city’s affluent inhabitants dart through these clean empty streets in Ferraris and Porsches. Their friends fly into the city on private planes and step out onto literal red carpets flanked by velvet ropes, and straight into Ferraris parked next to the planes. On slow days they might hire a helicopter and fly over the city to nearby parks, for an open-air heart-to-heart chat about their relationship woes.
“We’re a group of friends living the African Dream. Living the lifestyle you want to, honey,” a voiceover lets us know. “Cheers to the bling-bling!” another exclaims; and this all within the first 60 seconds of Young, Famous & African, Netflix’s new hit reality series; let’s call it YFA for short. Later in the episode, one of the show’s stars will host a “ball” at the Rand Club, in the heart of Joburg. She will speechify; she will tell her guests: “This is a flex night. And I think that it’s time that we, as black, young Africans; we stand together and we stand up and we say to the world, ‘we’re not a third world that the world thinks we are.’” And indeed, throughout the show’s seven-episode season, the cameras manage to avoid even the slightest hint of anything that might be considered “third world”. A remarkable feat.
Most of this blinged-up version of the “African Dream” is set in Sandton. Its cast of 10 consists of mostly accomplished entertainers, real-life celebrities representing a handful of African countries. From East Africa, we have the 32-year-old Tanzanian singer and songwriter Diamond Platnumz, who is sure he has at least four kids, but “maybe six or five.” There’s his ex-wife with whom he has two of those children, the Joburg-based Ugandan businesswoman, Zari “The Boss Lady” Hassan, who, by the fourth episode, which is titled Bye Bitch!, drops this gem of a line: “Fuck you and your silly marriage. I’m a fucking billionaire. I don’t need to secure a man.” Between the two of them, the pair have more than 24 million Instagram followers; 14,3 million for Mr Platnumz and 10,4 million for The Boss Lady.
“My first child is his fifth. And I met him before everybody.”
From West Africa, we have another couple with a complicated relationship; the Best of Nollywood Awards-nominated Nigerian actress and model, Annie Macaulay-Idibia, and her husband, the MTV Europe Award-winning Nigerian singer and songwriter, 2Baba, previously known as 2Face Idibia. They’ve been together for two decades and married for 10. Theirs is the season’s central romance, and we get a taste of their troubles towards the end of the first episode when an emotional and teary Annie confides to her cast members, a couple of hours after meeting them: “My first child is his fifth. And I met him before everybody.”
To be clear, he had his first four children with other women while he and Annie were already together. He was her first love, and as the show begins, they are still very much a couple. Later in another episode, Annie will tell us, “But today, somehow, I’m grateful because you see all of these things… all the things that happened, and all of the children, kind of mould him to be the good man he is today.”
Then there’s the flamboyant Nigerian celebrity stylist, Jeremiah Ogbodo, who goes by the name Swanky Jerry. He serves the show’s best and flashiest looks. The show is worth watching just for his outfits. He is also the friend everyone goes to with their relationship issues. We don’t hear much about his personal life. Some light Googling reveals speculation over his sexuality, with homophobic overtones, which is no small matter in his home country, where homosexuality remains illegal. Still, the always-ready-to-lend-an-ear-and-shoulder-to-cry-on role he has been cast into here hearkens back to the dated television trope of the ‘gay best friend’, whose own romantic longings, relationship issues and sexual desires are never given screen time, possibly to appease the homophobic sensibilities of viewers.
South Africa gets the bulk of the characters. There’s the Zimbabwe-born Johannesburg-based rapper, Nadia Nakai; there’s presenter and TV producer, Andile Ncube; there’s Metro FM’s Naked DJ and his pro-soccer player girlfriend, Kayleigh Schwark. Their romantic longings, relationship issues and sexual desires get a fair amount of screen time.
Lastly, there’s my favourite love-to-hate character, the soul of this show, and possibly a reflection of everything that is wrong and right about the show, Khanyi Mbau, who is also responsible for the aforementioned “we’re not a third world that the world thinks we are” speech. Outside of this production, the 36-year-old Mbau is a controversial and occasionally polarising figure who has been on local screens for two decades, as much for her professional work as an actress as for the details of her personal life.
Just as well she doesn’t live in a third-world country where corruption and crime have and continue to ruin the lives of millions of South Africans.
She quickly brings the many Netflix viewers who might not be familiar with her up to speed: “I’m a South African actress, producer, life coach… just a winner in general… I currently live in Sandton, Johannesburg, the richest square mile in Africa. What is Mbau without Sandton? … Being a gold-digger, well I earned the name when I had a baby with my baby daddy. He [Mandla Mthembu] was 31 years older than me and people said, ‘it can’t be love, she’s definitely there for his money, she’s a gold-digger.’”
The pair famously drove matching yellow Lamborghinis and were married for a little over two years before their divorce in 2009. It also came out that all wasn’t well with Mthembu’s finances. By 2010, he was reportedly broke and the Lamborghinis were gone. “I thought I’d be a sugar baby all my life, but now I’m a cougar. I’m dating a 28-year-old, and I’m 35,” Mbau tells us on YFA. The 28-year-old boyfriend she refers to is Zimbabwean businessman Kudzai Mushonga.
“Is Kudzi a bad boy? Yes. He’s got a crazy life. ‘Alleged[ly]’ stole money,” Mbau tells us, referring to allegations of fraud that have followed her boyfriend. “I don’t know why I seem to attract them. My baby daddy also had a scandal about how he got his money. I don’t know, maybe I’m a gangster chick. So if he is one, I literally don’t care,” she tells us with a straight face. Just as well she doesn’t live in a third-world country where corruption and crime continue to ruin the lives of millions of its citizens. Next door to her Sandton apartment, is her 15-year-old daughter’s apartment; a fact that leads to an interesting conversation about what the right age is for a child to be given her own apartment.
It would be naïve to view Mbau strictly through the lens of the ‘unscrupulous Queen of Bling’ character she has presented to South Africans since the noughties. She is an entertainer through and through, one seemingly never out of character, a superstar in both the classic and contemporary sense, who, even at her most scandalous, keeps the country enthralled. Case in point; a few years ago she began her “skin lightening journey”, and eventually went on to share tips on Instagram about skin lightening. Even as the practice is generally shunned on South African public platforms, the actress got more popular, and there are no signs that South Africans love her any less. That contradiction in itself is a topic deserving of its own article. And now, with a hit Netflix show under her Gucci belt, her star is sure to sure to shine brighter.
In the interest of total transparency, I must admit that I’m not a fan of the ‘reality TV’ genre. I’ve tried a couple of times to watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians, or the Real Housewives, thinking to myself, I must be missing something. Still, I could never suspend disbelief long enough to get past a single episode of a show.
Yet, I found myself binge-watching this show a couple of hours after it was released, and thoroughly enjoying it. It has been a week since the show debuted, a week as the No 1 watched show on Netflix’s local charts. I am still trying to figure out what it is about the show that had me glued. It has all the things I hate about reality TV. There’s the actual shortage of reality, there’s the histrionics, there are the contrived plot devices, where each cast member gets an episode to host a party that eventually leads to more drama and makes you shout at the TV: “If y’all hate each other so much why do you hang out together and share intimate details of y’all’s lives with each other? WTF?”. Then there’s the distasteful displays of affluence, and Mbau’s ‘I literally don’t care’ about the possibility of benefiting from crime. All in the name of entertainment.
I should hate this show, but I don’t. I loved it! Perhaps it’s the star power of the actual celebrities in the show, their real-life backstories and troubled relationships, or maybe it’s the outfits; which are showbiz gold. Or perhaps, stranger-than-fiction South African reality has finally got too much, and the sanitized Joburg of YFA is the escapist dose of ‘ag, fuck it’ one needs from time to time.
Either way, I’m sure the obnoxious self-righteous smart-ass reality-TV hating version of me is judging thoroughly entertained ‘YFA fandom me’, while stewing in third-world misery as he reads yet another article about corruption, inflation, 42% unemployment and failed service delivery. DM/ML