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Bassie invites the nation to indulge in its beauty but not shy away from its ugliness

For over 30 years, South Africa has watched Basetsana Kumalo become a pop culture and television juggernaut, activist and national treasure, Lesley Mofokeng looks at her journey
Author: Lesley Mofokeng
Fri, Sep 11, 2020

In 1990 a bright-eyed energetic teen from Soweto named Julia Makgalemele showed great promise as a presenter of the youth show called Thakaneng. It was her dazzling smile and effervescent personality that set the simple girl from Meadowlands who sold peanuts and sandwiches at school, from the pack.

She had the proverbial twinkle in the eye and when she stepped on the Miss Soweto stage, she wowed the judges and clinched the tiara. A few months later she took on the Miss Black South Africa contest where she slayed competition and she was transformed into the flag bearer of black beauty in townships and villages.

She emerged again in 1994, this time as Basetsana Makgalemele. She was a third year teaching student at University of Venda and a finalist in the now inclusive Miss South Africa. She wore the sash as a representative of Northern Transvaal province (now Limpopo) and the sparkle was still evident. After slugging it out with other provincial winners at the Sun City Superbowl, it was she who took the teary winner’s walk and royal wave to Prince’s The Most Beautiful Girl in the World. And so she was thrust into a bigger platform that would yield an exceptionally colourful career.

Her reign, chaperoned by the diligent Doreen Morris who owned the pageant, coincided with a watershed moment in the history of South Africa. The great national reconciliation project was underway championed by the newly elected President Nelson Mandela. Basetsana would become the poster-girl of the new South Africa and her bond with Mandela as her mentor deepened as they embarked on joint efforts to sow national reconciliation and the dreamy rainbow nation. She came second to Indian beauty Aishwarya Rai in the Miss World finals held in Sun City.

Looking back, she calls it ‘a definitive time’ in the nation’s history. ‘The 90s were a decade of change, a revolutionary decade, a decade of hope. I still have very fond memory of the snaking queues of 1994 when we went to cast our first ballots. The early 90s turning point towards becoming a people we wanted to be. Black people knew they could be whatever they set their minds to. We could tell our stories, and own our narrative. We had great positive role models that led the way and we could be what we saw in them,’ says Basetsana.

The end of her reign saw the unleashing of a powerhouse. Starting off as a presenter and producer in the cool and aspirational Top Billing took her all over the world. She sampled scrumptious cuisines from the east to the west, and nibbled on the upper crust of fine living in exotic locations. She was ushered into a glitzy world of A-list celebrity as she interviewed the biggest names in film and television from Hollywood and all over the world such as Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Alfre Woodard, Quincy Jones, Luther Vandross, Gloria Estefan, Wesley Snipes.

By the time she was married to broadcaster Romeo Kumalo her name and face were bankable. As the ‘it’ girl of her time, she endorsed brands and represented worthy causes.

As co-founder of Tswelopele Productions with her partner Patience Stevens, Basetsana lay the foundation for a media empire. The production house is responsible for a few lifestyle shows produced in different languages across platforms. Today, Basetsana is behind top entertainment shows such as Date My Family and Our Perfect Wedding that keep South Africans tickled and enthralled on Sunday nights on Mzansi Magic. These are produced by her outfit, Connect TV, which specialises in the genre of reality.

With clever investing and meticulous career planning, she spread her influence to sectors like mining, travel and property entrenching her as an achiever worthy of the ‘role model’ status.

Basetsana grew up in a generation of young black girls who could finally not be stifled by apartheid and segregation. Her crowing at a time of euphoria and the height of beauty pageant popularity in South Africa, set her up on a path to greatness.

She tells me: ‘The 90s were a definitive time, 1994 catapulted me and changed the trajectory of my life. As a 20-year-old, I dared to dream and took risks. It was a bold move that for the first time a Miss SA was a TV host. Doreen (Morris) got a lot of flak for allowing a national ambassador to be on TV, but being a TV host herself, she understood the opportunity and the power of TV and how it can transform one’s life.’

Today she has carved a space for herself as an activist against Gender Based Violence and racism. Her name is always held up in defence of beauty pageants. She is singled out as the queen that went on to live her fairytale all thanks to a beauty contest. But there is more to glean from Basetsana’s life, the tenacity, street smarts, humility and timeless beauty make her accessible and a big sister to many. She is now a mother of three, a bestselling author and sits comfortably as part of our local television heritage.

Standing together

Telling the 1990s story of television heritage would be incomplete without mentioning Felicia Mabuza-Suttle. She transformed the landscape of with the talk genre she imported from American television made popular by the likes of Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey. At a time when South Africans were getting to know each other better following a negotiated settlement and the end of apartheid, Mabuza-Suttle with her microphone on Felicia Mabuza-Suttle Show (FMS) brought the nation closer together. She was misunderstood in certain quarters and often criticised for her American perspectives, but she preserved like a pioneer who was ahead of her time. Her show not only got viewers talking, but also shone some spotlight on South African talent and beauty. At its height, it became one of the most watched programmes and made her one of the most talked about hosts on television. We will always remember the sophisticated Escada-loving and vivacious Felicia Mabuza-Suttle as an influential player of the 1990s.