Wanted: Dread or alive

The beginnings of this story are in a telephone call I received one morning. “Hey Gilder, I’ve just spoken to your editor and you’re interviewing me about my new show.”

No salutation. No how’s your father? No indication of who was on the other side.
Luckily Zebulon Dread’s sonorous baritone is unmistakable anywhere and dispensing with societal niceties his stock-in-trade, so there was no reason, much less time, to be surprised or offended. An arrangement was made for the following day.

Actually, an in-depth conversation with this self-appointed inquisitor of middle-class banality and political and racial prejudice was long overdue. We’ve come across each other fairly often of late, most recently at the Calabash restaurant in Grahamstown, where I was treated to a long and loudly eloquent dose of his personal brand of cultural terrorism. Amanda Strydom came over briefly to greet Zeb and to listen to his rant on the pitiful state of festival organisation.

At our arranged meeting in Observatory I discover I am to benefit from another tirade, this time on the state of stand-up comedy in the country. “Most of the so-called comics around at the moment are a bunch of trite, mediocre, middle-class fuck-wits,” intones our hero.

Having figured out Zeb’s modus operandi I wait for the more important piece of information that must surely follow this outburst. I am not disappointed. “Because of this I’ve decided to take my street comedy to the stage,” he tells me. “Becoming the Hotnotsgot is Zebulon Dread’s answer to the mediocrity of South African comedy — Banks, Lottering and Uys excepted,” he proclaims.

The show was given a shakedown run at Obz Café in June. “I had to fathom how to take the energy of performing on the street into the medium of formal theatre and I found that the material people liked most were the stories of being Zebulon on the streets of South Africa.”

In fact, the new show is the beginning of a three-stage attack on what Zeb perceives as the new South African lethargy in the arts, particularly the publishing industry. The second part of the programme will

be in the form of two new books, The Angst Quadrilogy (Honky Angst, Bushy Angst, Curried Coolie Angst and Darkie Angst), and his one-and-only Afrikaans work, ‘n Brak Kak in Waterkloof (both funded by the Dutch government).

The third wave will see the appearance of two new magazines, including Poes! with which he intends to “parody and flay the entire concept of womens’ magazines”, and the eighth edition of his notorious Hei Voetsek! His adoring public can expect Piel!, a parody of mens’ magazines, later in the year.

Zebulon interrupts our chat to fetch some of his work. In his absence and quite by chance Marthinus Basson strolls by our table. I ask him what he knows about my anarchist interviewee.

“I remember him when he was Elliot Joseph, a very bright coloured student from the Cape Flats”, says Basson. “As Zebulon he challenges preconceptions because he confronts people with their own prejudices. In fact, he looks just like their prejudice.”

The theatre director pauses, smiling. “I’m surprised he hasn’t been donered yet, considering how he carries on at the KKNK in Oudtshorn.”

Elliot Joseph aka Zebulon Dread returns with a copy of an earlier book, Memoirs of a Closet Guerrilla. A picture of the author gazes intensely from the cover, encapsulating in a way that words cannot, the essence of this Dread/Joseph dichotomy. Abundant dreadlocks are bound above his brow in a knot festooned with ganja leaves, while a miniature AK-47 hangs from a thick gold ring in his right ear. An emaciated Hindu guru sits at the centre of his forehead in place of his third eye. For many years he has been a Hare Krishna devote.

“Zebulon Dread is my therapy,” he says. “Without him Elliot Joseph is simply a dysfunction bushy who is very angry with the hand that life dealt him. Zebulon makes Elliot laugh. He shows people the pain of growing up as a coloured kid in Bonteheuwel, and the humour that coloured-dom exudes. By shoving racial prejudice in peoples’ faces he forces them to confront how they really think about each other”.

In his own words Zebulon is a comedic safety valve, a millennial court jester poking virulent fun at all and sundry, and expecting nothing less in return.

Two notions appear consistently throughout his writing and pepper his mostly blue discourse. First and foremost: I am! As in, “I am the messiah of South African street-humour!” or “I am an immortal soul dwelling in the fat, kaffir, bellicose body of Zebulon Dread, free from race and free from hate.”

Secondly: Aluta continua! These two are his personal touchstones. They sum up the man and the construct that Elliot Joseph has created for himself and for us. Like him or not he is an original, staying true to his own source of inspiration. And he is not going away — whatever anybody says.

Catch Zebulon Dread live in Becoming the Hotnotsgot at the Wharehouse in Greenpoint from September 2 to 15. Bookings at Computicket

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