Impressive strides put black comedy in the spotlight

With their chests out, and shaking their heads arrogantly, white members of the audience exited the ThatSoFunny event held on October 10 at the University of Johannesburg’s Sanlam Auditorium with comedian Mashabela Galane on stage. 

Galane was the headline act in a line-up that included seasoned comedians Kagiso Lediga, Joey Rasdien, television puppet commentator Chester Missing and Nina Hastie. 

Galane was in his element ripping the house into shreds with laughter. The problem was that the main act does not deliver his comedy in English, but in Sepedi, and he would not be swayed by a small column of white people in the audience. After all, he was the big ticket and – unlike some of his peers in the comedy industry – refused to cater to the small section of the audience with English jokes.

The entitled few that left were probably incensed by Galane’s declaration at the beginning of his set that he would not be doing any material in English. “I’m sorry you guys [white people] are not my target market,” Galane said on stage. “You don’t see me going to a Steve Hofmeyr concert and ask him to sing songs in Sepedi or English.”

Galane is a well-sought after jester at the moment and around this time of year it is quite normal for him to be booked on each day of the week. This was a pipe dream years ago as the likes of Lediga and David Kau had to do their material in English presumably due to a lack of black audiences.

“We have been accommodating white audiences for a long time and it’s time we stopped doing that because they don’t care about us,” Galane says. 

“We are in the majority, and I don’t see a need to confuse ourselves with English and satisfy a small section of the audience. Jokes sound better when expressed in a language that we are fluent in. They resonate better with our audiences.”

Most South African comedians, Galane included, shy away from specific political affiliations but his sentiments come close to the activist slant that Richard Pryor and Paul Moony adopted in America during their time atop the comedy charts.

At a benefit for the gay liberation movement in 1977, Pryor protested about race-based societal inequality in America and predicated his exist from his set by saying, “kiss my rich black ass” to a largely white audience whom he felt were selective about which human rights they supported.

South Africa is bereft of socially astute comedians, save for the incessant ridiculing of politician’s accents. Although his material is not political, Galane’s linguistic policy sets him apart from his industry colleagues in terms of his direct stance on the racial divide.  

‘Racial inferiority’
South African industry old hand and Soweto International Comedy Festival producer, Kedibone Mulaudzi points to a racial inferiority complex, which is responsible for the lack of African language comedy in every nook and cranny of the South African stratosphere. 

“We looked down upon ourselves when it came to doing comedy in our mother tongues because the system taught us that anything that is black is bad, and that English is the way to go,” Mulaudzi explains.

“It was terrible for us a decade ago because we had to think like white people in order to make them laugh. When we started doing comedy in our mother tongues we struggled because we were thinking like white people. The amazing thing about doing comedy ngaTshivenda is that there are some jokes that you just cannot translate into English.”

Other bereavements that attend the comedy sector and further fuels the need for language specific comedy is the assumption by white comedians that black audiences possess an inferior intellectual capacity.  

At the same Galane gig, Hastie started a joke by asking if the audience knew what an alter ego was. Conrad Koch asked the audience if they knew who Mark Shuttleworth was before a joke about the tycoon’s recent court victory against the Reserve Bank.

Comedy events that are exclusively targeted at black audiences are few and far between, but “Stricly Vernac” and “Blacks Only” stand out over the past decade. More recently, “99% Zulu” comedy has taken hold and captured the comedic imagination. 

However, despite the huge market, black comedy events labour on without sponsorship. Kau sometimes runs “Blacks Only”, which is arguably South Africa’s only race-specific event without a sponsor. 

At an entrepreneurial motivational speaking session earlier this year, Kau joked with a degree of truth that he needed a white partner to set up “Blacks Only” 10 years ago. “I wanted to do a show with black comedians because I was often the only black guy doing stand-up comedy during those days,” Kau told the budding entrepreneurs. 

“And that was how ‘Blacks Only’ came about. So I approached my manager about the idea and we now own the event. I was the one with the jokes, and he was the white guy with the money to book the theatre, the sound and [to] talk to Computicket. It has been a successful event for 10 years, but it is not always easy to get a sponsor.” 

Mulaudzi has also faced similar challenges when doing his shows from the private sector. “In South Africa, white money circulates within white people,” Mulaudzi continues.  

“Nandos, Savannah and Graça sponsorship has only benefitted white comedy promoters. We did a proposal to Savannah a while ago, but we were told Savannah doesn’t sponsor comedy because their hands got burnt from comedy sponsorship, then the day after, they were sponsoring a comedy event.”

It appears that the struggle continues for black comedy practitioners although significant strides have been made over the years. The journey is far from over if such events are still labelled vernacular comedy this or black comedy that. Given the demographics of this country and 20 years deep into the new political dispensation, so-called black comedy should be the norm and labelled comedy without the racial prefixes. 

Kau concluded his presentation at the business seminar with this overarching message: “Black man, you are on your own”.

Kedibone Mulaudzi’s “Nubreed Comedy” will be staging the Limpopo Comedy Festival in Tshivhuyuni Village, Limpopo where comedy will only be performed in TshiVenda, Xitsonga and Sepedi. The event will take place from December 21 to 28 at the Tshivhuyuni Hall. Tickets cost R100 at Computicket.

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