Sign of the times when celebs, not luminaries, are prime influencers

There was a time when an influencer was someone who helped to mould opinions in society through her views or actions. Nowadays an influencer is someone with a few thousand Instagram followers who endorses fashion accessories or designer drinks.

I found myself thinking about this when South Africa hosted the Global Citizens concert, with everyone going crazy over the celebrities when it should’ve been more about easing poverty and less about glitz and glamour.

Maybe it is an indication of where we are as a society. Don’t get me wrong; I like a celebrities, but I’d never take life-changing decisions based on their recommendations.

I’d rather be guided in important decisions by people like Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Mendi Msimang or Alex Boraine - all in the news this week. On Wednesday, it was the fifth anniversary of the death of Mandela, an event still vivid in my memory. I remember where I was when I heard the news, as I’m sure most people do.


This year would have been the centenary of Madiba, something celebrated throughout the world with the Global Citizens concert a highlight. I suppose to most people, Mandela is still an influencer and he’ll probably influence the world for years to come.

On Wednesday, the news also broke that Alex Boraine, the former vice-chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had died at 87. During much of the apartheid era, Boraine realised politicians needed to embrace all if our country was to have any hope of success.

Former ANC treasurer and South African diplomat Mendi Msimang died on Monday, aged 89. Described as “a beautiful human being”, he would have turned 90 today.

Another who played a significant role in our liberation and probably one of the biggest influencers in his prime was Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, the late president of the PAC.

Sobukwe, who would’ve turned 94 on Wednesday, was so popular that the apartheid government detained him in solitary confinement on Robben Island for fear he might influence the others.

He died in virtual obscurity in 1978 in Kimberley after being subjected to banning orders after his release.

His anti-colonialism views should find more resonance with the youth, but maybe many of them support his views without knowing it.

The problem with celebrity culture is that young people do not follow history and do not learn from the past.

We’d do well to do so.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 8 December 2018)