What does it mean to blessed?
A “blesser” in South Africa is kind of like a sugar daddy. He's an older man who often has multiple girlfriends he lavishes with gifts, in exchange for sex and companionship.
The term “blesser" first emerged on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
In 2015, South African girls and women started posting photos of expensive shoes, clothes and stacks of cash while tagging the pictures #blessed. What they meant was that a man had given them the luxury items.
And those men became known as "blessers."
Yes, this kind of arrangement exists everywhere in the world. But here’s what’s different: 20 percent of the adult population in South Africa has HIV. New infections are mostly in girls and young women. So, young women having transactional sex with older men are contributing to a larger problem.
One of South Africa's most high-profile blessers is a man named Serge Cabonge.
Cabonge appeared in a television documentary called "MTV Shuga: In Real Life."
In the documentary, he shows off his lavish lifestyle and hams it up for the audience.
Cabonge sees himself as a celebrity here. He flaunts the fact that he’s a blesser — on TV, in newspapers and on social media. He says he has 10 or 11 girlfriends at a time.
Cabonge is a short, wiry man in his mid-40s. He shows up to a hotel bar for an interview wearing jeans, a leather jacket and Versace running shoes with giant gold angels attached to them. The shoes cost him $1,500, he says.
“OK, I grew up in a very rich family,” Cabonge explains. His mother, who recently passed away, was Congolese. His father is Angolan. Cabonge was born into a wealthy lifestyle. And he likes sharing it with women he calls his “blessees.”
“I can’t just date any ugly girl,” he explains. “I need a hot girl. I’m sure you understand what I mean by hot. It’s like big hips.” Cabonge is straightforward about what he expects from women. “Let money come for you. Give me attention. Show me you are the person that I want.”
What he gives in return depends on the girl. He says there are different levels.
“Level one is the students. The young ones.” But Cabonge clarifies that he never sleeps with underage girls. He buys the younger women cellphone data and gives them money.
Cabonge’s levels go up to five. If you are a five, you might get to go to Paris or Los Angeles. “For you to reach that level, really you need to do a lot on that level. You need to prove yourself.”
Cabonge hasn’t invented anything new here. This type of arrangement is ancient and happens everywhere. But in a country grappling with an HIV epidemic, it’s a big problem for young women. Suppose you’re a student, and you really need that money. Or maybe you really like nice things you couldn’t afford growing up. This guy comes along and offers it all to you. Are you really in any position to ask him to wear a condom?
Cabonge says yes.
And he says he gets tested for HIV often. “I do it a couple of times. I’m free you know, I’m very free. I protect myself.”
The blessee who accompanies Cabonge on this evening is a woman named Gao. She's 26 and doesn’t want to be identified by her last name.
Gao says she met Cabonge a year ago, at a bar. "A waiter came to me and said somebody wanted to buy me champagne so I was like, 'A glass of champagne?' "No, he actually says you can order as much as you want.""
Gao is the epitome of grace. She’s statuesque, gorgeous, wearing this stunning, modest jumpsuit. When her blesser steps away to chat with his friends, she opens up about their relationship.
“Behind closed doors, when we are in the car driving, he’s a fun person. We laugh, we dance and he cracks jokes. People don’t believe me, but he does. But he does do that you know? He’s much more of a cooler guy.”
She says that the financial arrangement isn’t a structured weekly payment. It’s a more ad hoc agreement. “If I see something I like right now, I’d call him and say, ‘Hey, I’m at a certain place, please help me out, I have to buy certain things — makeup, whatever — please help me out,’ and he would.”
Gao is soft-spoken, but she does want to clarify that she practices safe sex. “We have to use protection,” she says, because Cabonge has multiple partners. She says they both get tested, and they’re both negative.
But the relationship of the blesser/blessee is one in which the power is skewed.
“The blessers are high, high-risk men, because these are men who are probably married, and they’ve got multiple partners,” says sex therapist Dr. Marlene Wasserman. “You know young girls are young girls, and now today with social media, they want to be Kim Kardashian.”
To obtain that aspirational lifestyle, they may have to compromise their principles when it comes to having safe sex.
Anthropology student Lebohang Masango studies blesser culture. She says that even if some may see the blesser/blessee relationship as exploitative of women, she says many young women being blessed are educated and ambitious and see their time as being valuable. She says that for them, this is a form of female empowerment.
“They understand the risk of HIV, they understand the risk of multiple concurrent partnerships, but there’s this postfeminist sensibility that’s beginning to be entrenched especially among young women of the middle class where they are choosing to do this, even against all of the other stigmas that exist.”
Back at the upscale bar in Johannesburg, Gao says she and Cabonge talk openly about things. She’s honest about the fact that this is, for the most part, a financial relationship. When asked if she loves him, she pauses for a long time.
“Here’s the thing — he makes me happy. I don’t really know how to say I’m [in] love, or what. I do care a lot about him,” she says.