From doodles in a squat to mainstream TV, Mdu Ntuli has travelled a long road in his struggle to make it as a cartoonist, writes Percy Zvomuya.
Cartoonist Mdu Ntuli fits the template of the tortured computer nerd who, finding his studies suffocating and pointless, drops out of university to pursue a dream – and finds success.
To be sure, Ntuli's narrative of dropping out does not compare with that of billionaire Bill Gates. Unlike the Microsoft genius, Ntuli did not have the luxury of his parents' garage in which to invent stuff. (His mother, back in Witbank, where he was born, never got to know that her son was no longer at university. "She is still waiting for that degree," Ntuli chuckles). His work started in a student squat before blossoming in a Hillbrow hovel.
Ntuli enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand to study computer science in 2000 when he was about to turn 18.
In the middle of lectures, doodle images flitted across his mind. A classmate noticed one of the cartoons and suggested he take it to Wits Edge, an internal rag. "The editor immediately liked it."
He then started a cartoon strip, Bob and Queng, which for him was a "random way of expressing myself". At some point in those early days the cartoonist Rico (of Madam & Eve fame) became aware of the talented young artist and took him under his wing.
Still restless – by this time he had dropped out of university – Ntuli moved into video with help from the well-known South African animator Mike Scott. Learning animation took him about three months.
"Having a computer background is good. It helps if you want to branch into other things," he says. "But it was really hard making as little as R600 in two months.
"At some point I thought I had made the dumbest mistake of my life," he says of the period from 2004 to 2007 when he lived in Hillbrow designing logos, building websites and doing other geeky stuff.
Now he can afford to be philosophical about it: "It takes four years for a business to make a profit and I didn't know that." Around 2007 he joined the animated series Jozi Zoo as an assistant animator. From then on things eased and he was soon getting calls from various production companies needing graphic design.
Empire and conquest
Later that same year he started a cartoon called Zulu Boy and Rudolph, a dark story about empire and conquest.
It does not feature the hackneyed empire builders from Europe, but Mnaka and Gogo Mloyi, two nationalists from Lesotho and Swaziland, respectively, who want to take over the dominating giant South Africa that surrounds their little countries. It is left to Zuluboy and Rudolph, an extraterrestrial, to defend South Africa from the two invaders, one of whom employs juju in her imperialist quest to overrun the giant neighbour.
Ntuli pitched the idea to the SABC, which expressed no interest whatsoever. "I don't understand if there was no space, no money or people there [were scared], trying to protect their jobs."
He took the idea to commercial broadcaster e.tv, which was more receptive, but instead of snapping up the project that offered him a job.
But Ntuli did not want a job – he has never held a nine-to-five, except if one considers the computer lab assistant job he did for about two days at Wits University. "It was a nightmare; I couldn't do it."
By this time, he had a substantial portfolio and decided, as they say, to hit the road. With two banners on which he emblazoned logos about his work, a computer and DVDs, he set up a stall at the annual Rand Show.
"We sold 200 DVDs, making around R8 000," says Ntuli. This was proof that, out there, an audience was receptive to what he was about.
"The biggest mistake I made was to wait for money. Sure, money is needed but the idea is this: make something, put it out and the way people respond will tell you whether [it's worth pursuing]".
It was the success of the Izikhokho Show on You Tube, especially the episode "Jesus of the ANC", that brought him to the attention of the mainstream. The episode, by turns witty and subversive, could be the one that brought him to the attention of the Comedy Central channel, which invited him to show his works on its platform.
In these sensitive times, when the skins of those in power get thinner and the barbs from the satirists get sharper, is he not worried? "It's just made-up nonsense," Ntuli says. "If you become too nice, people will move away; if you poke someone too much, it's going to be dangerous. If I make fun of some of these people, I am going to lose business. Zuma is never going to outsource a job to Zapiro. He will never get Zapiro to draw a cartoon of his wife at his wedding."
In one of the Izikhokho episodes called "Bleach", in which he wades into the contentious politics of skin lightening, one of the characters, after immersing himself in a bathful of bleach, offers this throwaway line: "My whole body looks like Irvin Khoza's lips."
South Africa's second transition (or is it the second phase of transition?) will need entrepreneurs like Ntuli – creators of internet games and house beats and designers of websites: bold people who set out into the unknown, with no tenderpreneur millions as props.
The Izikhokho Show airs on Comedy Central (DStv channel 122).