Forget Black Panther — Africa’s homegrown superheroes

A young man tries to get Loyiso Mkize’s attention. Once he finally succeeds in pulling the man away from the throng, he introduces himself: “My name is Mohau”

At the edge of recognition, Mkize is pulled away again.

The young man, a university student and writer, tells me that his name is Mohau — like one of the characters in Mkize’s comic book Kwezi. He says he’s here because he wants to ask Mkize how he knows him, how he was able to write his life without ever having met him.

He tried to reach out to Mkize over Instagram, but it didn’t work so now he’s here — at a discussion held at Bridge Books, in a burrow of the trendy Maboneng Precinct in downtown Johannesburg.

Mohau pulls out his ID book to drive home that he is indeed Mohau. When he gets Mkize’s attention again, he pulls out his phone to show the comic book creator a photograph of him wearing a Sesotho blanket, hat and holding a staff — just like Mohau, who Mkize calls the Morpheus of a squad of superheroes, rounded out by Kwezi, Azania and Khoi.

“You are stealing his identity,” Mohale Mashigo, Kwezi’s writer, laughs.

Later Mashigo will make another reference to Mohau’s Sesotho regalia, this time in relation to it being worn by characters in the record-smashing film Black Panther, which premiered in South Africa last week.

With the success of the Marvel film — and it being met with such jubilant acclaim across the continent — and the announcement that ComicCon will be coming to South Africa in September, Mashigo says that this superhero moment is testament to the fact that people want to see the best of themselves reflected back at them.

The comic book, she says, is “a great device to show us the best of who we are and what we have. I saw that in how people reacted to Black Panther — them using the Basotho blanket, even though Mohau’s been doing it for a minute.”

Nineteen-year-old antihero Kwezi — modelled after Mkize’s cousin Siphe Nxasana — first came into being back in 2014, when the comic book creator was working as an illustrator for the long-running Supa Strikas soccer series.

A comic book fan from a young age, Mkize says that he’s always just expected that a South African superhero existed.

“Surely it’s not just Peter Parker [Spider-Man]. Surely there’s a superhero out there that I can read about, who maybe speaks my language. And he wasn’t there,” he says.

Mkize says that he wanted to create a comic book filled with superheroes that would allow South African readers to identify with its subject without having to go outside their own territory — and find stories that are relevant to them.

Set in Gold City, a proxy for Johannesburg, Kwezi creates a familiar universe for its superheroes — peppering its narrative, as Mashigo puts it, with small nyana words from the South African vocabulary.

Mkize and Mashigo say that what makes Kwezi special is the fact that, in the comic’s creation, they get to draw from the cultural terrain of South Africa; Azania wears isicholo, representing her Zulu heritage and Khoi wields a bow and arrow — a nod to his Khoisan identity.

“We really just wanted to take from what is already ours, so that South Africans could see it and say: ‘I get that. I like that,’” Mashigo says.

Mkize insists that the reason he created Kwezi was to make something that speaks to young people — without them having to look towards influences so far outside themselves: “It will colour their lives. It will inform their perspective and how they see themselves.”

He emphasises the difficulty that comes with trying to publish and distribute something like Kwezi. Ultimately, he says, the people who he wants the comic book to reach — young people not necessarily living in urban centres — are still unable to access his work.

“It’s a work in progress,” he says — reiterating the importance of pushing for representation within the publishing industry.

The pair say that the worst thing would be for Kwezi to be the last South African comic book, insisting that their job is to pass the tradition of superhero-making on to future creators. 

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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