South Africa’s mental health crisis is now acute. A comprehensive scientific study in 2021 revealed that 33% of South Africans were depressed, with 45% feeling fearful, and 29% facing loneliness. Anxiety from world-record violent crime, joblessness, and a pressure to secure one’s future in a failing country has not only tipped South Africa’s ordinary citizens on the edge but local celebrities too.
Fatal anxiety in South Africa’s celebrities’ circles came to the forefront in late January with South African actor Patrick Shai, star of the film adaptation of Cry the Beloved Country, suddenly recording a bizarre Twitter video challenging South Africa´s most famous hip-hop star, Caster Nyovest, to a round of boxing duels. A torrent of comments and memes followed.
In the morning, Mr. Shai committed suicide. Shai had dared to fight Nyovest, a wildly successful hip-hop star colloquially called “South Africa’s Drake.” Nyovest, who has 4 million Twitter fans, is 31 while the late Shai was 65.
In mid-February, Ricky Rick, 34, one of the most successful South African rappers of his generation, recorded a weird-looking Valentine’s Day Twitter video lavishing praise on his spouse. Waves of comments followed it and weeks later, on March 2, Ricky Rick left millions of his fans grieving after abruptly ending his life.
“It’s the classic collision of Twitter, toxic online fame and mental health breakdown that’s tearing apart South Africa’s celebrities,” Winnet Xulu, a psychologist in Johannesburg, South Africa’s commercial capital and where the country’s most famous celebrities live, told Paste.
Online bullying, excessive adulation, and sudden digital fame are driving South Africa’s celebrities to the brink. “They feel not a day must go without revealing an intimate aspect of their private lives or thoughts to millions of their Twitter fans,” said Xulu who, in her private practice, counsels quite a handful millennial hip-hop stars in South Africa.
But what’s unique about the architecture of Twitter fame in South Africa is, unlike the U.S., Twitter is still a relatively new novelty in South Africa. Though Twitter debuted in 2006, the app managed to gain real traction in South Africa around 2014, says Cuthbert Mona, a software designer in Johannesburg. “That’s because mobile broadband internet in South Africa gained serious adoption around 2013,” he said. Since then, South Africa rose to become Twitter’s largest market in Africa.
South Africa’s celebrities feel the need to the need to share more intimate details of their lives on social media partly because of the dwindling ability to secure one’s financial future in South Africa. As the country gradually becomes a failed state, competition in the entertainment sector has become fierce. The saucier the publicized details of one’s intimate life, the larger one’s social media clout and chances of monetizing one’s social media following for a consistent income grows.
Online fame and its earnings in South Africa are insurance against over-reliance on erratic offline artistry earnings. In South Africa, posting bizarre or scandalous details of your life on Twitter can get you 10,000 more followers in a week. In a financially ruined country like South Africa, such followers can be mined to the bone for money, sold merchandise and pawned for paid brand endorsements.
“Our celebrities, our society still don’t know how to act on Twitter because we are used to Facebook which is still the number one social media app; said Xulu.
“I got so many celebrity clients who ask me, ‘Should I splash photos of my fiancé’s pregnancy on Twitter even on a day I got nothing to say?’ ‘Shouldn’t I just post my baby’s bedroom on Twitter just to quench the daily curiosity of my followers?’”
This points to a swelling, undeclared mental health crisis engulfing the Twitter-led celebrity economy of South Africa, experts like Xulu point out. “It’s hard for a hip-hop star to come in for mental health rehabilitation and go silent on Twitter for a week. One’s one million Twitter followers demand a daily peek into your life. It’s catastrophic pressure,” Xulu said
That South Africa’s celebrities are taking out their lives after bizarre episodes on Twitter is reflective of the underbelly of a mental health crisis bedeviling South Africa to the extent that in 2020, a whopping 19% of insurance disability claims cited mental health. South Africa is officially the world’s most unequal country.
“I always tell my celebrity clients, please, please don’t be shy to switch off your Twitter account for a week and come in for therapy,” Xulu said. “It’s not worth dying for daily Twitter fame.”