Opinionista Marelise Van Der Merwe 18 February 2014

Let’s bring back the art of playing nicely

A few years ago, I saw Brian May of Queen fame sitting in a bar and everyone just politely smiled and left him alone, although it was obvious several people had recognised him. The same applied to Charlize Theron when I spotted her on Boulders Beach. Now, there’s a massive storm around Thandile Sunduza’s dress (why?!), locals are tittering over Reeva Steenkamp’s breakup with a former boyfriend, and a formerly respected columnist comes out and tells an activist all she wants is a gang bang. South Africans used to play nicely with those in the public eye – clearly not anymore. What’s going on?

I used to work for a tabloid as a celebrity reporter. All in all, it was a fairly gentle job. I was sometimes mean about Britney Spears (this was before Bieber Fever) and in between, did my best to build up awareness of our local talent.

This was a pretty standard procedure for most entertainment reporters, I think. It was an unspoken culture among us (all four of us, har har) that in our tiny, struggling industry in SA, there was no need to take our entertainers down a peg; it was far more necessary to build them up. Moreover, since most of South Africa’s entertainers are starving artists with three jobs, rather than billionaires on yachts, it hardly makes sense to gawk at their lavish lifestyles. They simply don’t have them.

So we worked, and we worked together, more or less. We didn’t have Twitter or Facebook or other social media in those days (Lord, I feel old). Truth be told, we didn’t even have a website. The closest we got was the good old phone: our phones would ring off the hook if we featured a competition with a local gospel star (our readers were big gospel fans) and occasionally I’d receive an email asking why I didn’t write more about so-and-so. But most of the interaction we got was enormous thanks if we gave exposure to someone who was battling to get ahead.

The industry was small, the newspaper was small, and I myself was small, a baby journalist in my first job, having a ball and judging karaoke competitions on the side (it was a lot of fun). Oddly, in this tiny little pool, I nonetheless met a lot of very famous people, most of whom were terribly nice to me, all except that strange chap from Michael Learns to Rock (who missed our interview, three times, because he was on the toilet, according to his publicist – winning the prize for worst excuse ever) and Martha Stewart, who is uniformly a big diva and never very nice to anyone, as I understand it – even though I still greatly admire her capacity for removing stains.

But my takeaway experience with everyone else was that everybody is human, with their vulnerabilities, their fears, and their stories to tell, and their struggles, and their need to connect. And the other thing I learnt was that many of the most impressive interviews I did – or the most memorable – were with some of the smallest names and, sadly, with some of the people who never made it, or who I looked out for over the years and never saw in the media again. And this experience of working for four years in a place where it was my job to connect with people great and small, famous and not famous, taught me the very valuable lesson that whether you are a big fish or a little fish, a confident fish or a scared fish, whatever your talents may or may not be, you are a person, and you probably need gentle handling, no matter how many or how few years you may have had in the spotlight.

Which is why I have felt so disturbed this week, reading the crazy, mean, horrible comments about Thandile Sunduza. When I look at her, what I see is a big, bright smile. I don’t want to wipe it off her face. I want it to stay there. I don’t care that she’s fat or who her baby’s daddy is. I just see a person with a big old smile and I want her to keep smiling. Call me a sentimental fool, go ahead. It breaks my heart that she was sitting down, collapsed, dazed and bewildered the next day, stripped of her confidence. In the pictures of her stepping onto the red carpet at SONA, she looks like a woman delighted with herself. Personally, I wish I felt that way about myself. And, regardless of what she does or doesn’t look like, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to take that away from her. I just keep wanting to ask: What’s it to you?

I thought the same when I read the comments on a story about Reeva Steenkamp’s ex-boyfriend, when he spoke about what he remembered about her. Naturally, a number of the comments asked, nastily: if she was such a great person, why did you dump her? A few others speculated that she had cheated on him or dumped him for Oscar. (LOL.) I can’t imagine the kind of stupidity that assumes you have to be a horrible person in order for a relationship not to work out. And I ask again: Besides all that, what’s it to you?

And I think about that other recent storm, namely David Bullard vs. Michelle Solomon, the punch-up I have (more or less) steered clear of so far. And I simply ask Bullard: What did it give you to say those things? What is it to you?

As our media industry in South Africa expands, unfortunately, we are losing our personal touch. We drift further away from each other. We get meaner. We get wittier, certainly. But we start thinking it’s more important to be witty than to be kind. We forget that there are real human beings behind the photographs, the Twitter accounts, the columns. As we get bigger, we also get smaller. And that makes me sad.

Technology is in all of our hands. We’re all journalists now. So maybe before we next Tweet, or make a comment on a story, or post on our blogs or our Facebook accounts, we should remember that there are real people reading it. Should we post what we wouldn’t say to their faces? What is it to us? DM

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