BONANG FROM A TO B
South African businesswoman and radio and TV personality Bonang Matheba’s popularity is unmatched. In this extract from her new book, she gives her fans some insight into the evolution of the industry and compares it to what it was like when she first ent
Icame into this industry at a different time. Saying that makes it seem like it was decades ago – but sometimes that really is what it feels like. When I look at the evolution of social media, as well as what it has done for and against the entertainment industry, I am constantly shocked at what there was when I arrived and what exists now.
In the early 2000s, when South Africans met me, social media hadn’t taken off like it has now. Back then, we mainly had Facebook and a limping Myspace. Now, the possibilities, extent and reach seem like a completely new world with all we have going on.
Everything seems closer, bigger and easier. I remember a time when things moved slower, without the many live and multimedia features – it was Twitter with just 140 characters, no gifs, no Periscope that allowed you to go “live” on Twitter; you had to download gifs on to your phone – and that’s if your phone could even support gifs. You also couldn’t really hope that YouTube could get you noticed – maybe in the US, but not in South Africa.
In the early 2000s, if you wanted to “break out”, you had to enter a VJ or presenting competition, which is how presenter, producer and businessman Sizwe Dhlomo got his big break – through the first MTV Base VJ search.
The fallacy of social media is that it makes things seem and feel instant. One of my most important lessons from this industry is that you simply have to put in the time and invest in your work. Many people look at me now and imagine my journey has been easy, and that it was instant and that I had things handed to me. But I have known since I was 14 what I wanted, and have been working at it since then. Even when I wasn’t visible, I was always somewhere working my ass off, waiting and hoping for a chance.
Nothing teaches you the value of time and patience like working in TV and radio; or rather trying to get into the space. In these industries, things move at their own pace; a glacial pace. As I learnt early on in my career, it can take years to get in. Once you’re in, it takes years to build something worthwhile – at least it did when I was starting out. It seems so old school to keep talking about careers taking time to build, but it’s true. This is not true just for me, but for many of our idols. The Beyoncé you see now, that incredible force who can trend for days from just one Instagram post, who has inspired so many girls and women like me, started out in 1997. So when she dropped Lemonade, her incredible visual album with a feature film in 2016, she’d been at it since she was a teenager. DJ Fresh, world-famous club DJ, businessman and all-round radio god, started out in 1992 – before hosting breakfast shows on YFM, 5FM and Metro FM.
I know that it seems, when we speak about the value of time, that we want to discourage younger, fresher talent from entering the game, but we aren’t. I am certainly not, but it really is how the game continues to work, even in this age of social media. Do some people get in quickly? Yes. Do some people get in without “merit”? Maybe, often, yes, but what is merit?
That said, I do not want to seem to be taking away from the fact that the advancement of social media has helped some of the new faces get access to the eyes and ears of people they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. Bloggers, Instagrammers and people on Twitter have been spotted and picked up by brands, others even becoming collaborators and ambassadors for certain brands, which is an amazing and exciting opportunity for young people. It opens up the entertainment industry in many ways, and that can only ever be a great thing.
What I genuinely worry about, though, is that social media and the internet have eroded the value of taking time to build something that has true, lasting value, because it gives the impression that trending or a social- media moment is making it, or that your CharlizeTheron-in-the-bank-moment must happen here and now.
Charlize Theron did, essentially, perform in public to get noticed; the story of Charlize Theron’s discovery goes that she got involved in a screaming match with a bank teller on Hollywood Boulevard. They refused to cash a cheque her mum had sent her to help pay her rent because she needed the money while trying to break into acting in Los Angeles. While Charlize was doing all this shouting, a talent agent was in the queue behind her and gave her his business card, and he went on to introduce her to casting agents and an acting school. It took another three years for her to get her first big Hollywood movie, and her Oscar came a whole decade after that important moment in the bank.
Am I being preachy? Perhaps a little, but if you get anything from this sermon, let it be this: nothing is as instant as the world wants us to believe. In the times of instant gratification, it is important to note that worthwhile careers and/or brands still need some of that traditional slow cooking.
My big break is undeniably bagging Live on SABC1, but before that came along, I was at the University of Johannesburg (then known as Rand Afrikaans University). While I was still in high school, my father accepted a lecturing post at UJ and moved to Johannesburg and that is what eventually informed my decision to study there.
The University of Johannesburg, like many universities in big cities, was a previously whites-only institution that opened its doors to all students once the country became democratic, and it began its awkward progression towards shedding its Afrikaner culture and finding a way to be a home to the multitudes of people that make up the country and their changing student body. It’s a big institution, in the South African context anyway, and boasts more than 27 000 students over numerous campuses, one of which is the old Vista Technikon campus in Soweto, not too far from the home in Pimville that I once shared with my family.
The central campus in Auckland Park is a few kilometres from the SABC twin buildings that can be seen on the Joburg skyline, right next to the Sentech/Brixton tower. When they came into view, I would look up at the SABC towers and imagine them being my place of work some day. I would imagine myself entering the SABC and discovering the immense world of television and radio hidden inside it. It was like my North, and while I waited for something that would take me in its direction, I was content with being down the road at UJ.
That I would go to university was always a given; I come from a home where both sides of the family have received some kind of formal tertiary training. I was also excited to use university to discover what I wanted to do with my life (in addition to TV). I was considering a BA in marketing communications, which I chose because I thought it could help me get into marketing for a children’s product or brand. I went through the motions of student life – I was there and present, but a part of me was very restless. My TV career had hit a plateau. At that point, the only TV work I had done was kids’ TV, so unless you watched those programmes, you wouldn’t have seen me.