/ 1 March 2018

The millennial satirist: ​Lesego Tlhabi

Lesego Tlhabi: "Coconut Kelz is becoming an entity on her own
Lesego Tlhabi: "Coconut Kelz is becoming an entity on her own
Screenwriter and YouTuber

To know Lesego Tlhabi is to know a number of very distinct characters. During her nine-to-five, she is a screenwriter and content producer. After hours, on YouTube, the 26-year-old becomes Coconut Kelz, a satirical character who hilariously lets us into a well-off black girl’s coconutty views of South Africa’s racial and political landscape.

After studying theatre at Brunel University in London, and completing short courses in musical theatre and writing for television at the New York Film Academy and Columbia University, Tlhabi has returned home to acquaint herself with South Africa’s arts and entertainment landscape.

“I’m a scriptwriter for television as my nine-to-five but I have also started DJing on the side [under the stage name Dame the DJ], so that’s what keeps me busy most of the time. I do a lot, but the plan is to go for everything.”

The reason she wants “to go for everything” stems from the need to create content that speaks to women like herself. At the top of that list is comedic content.

“I have always admired women like Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling, who saw a gap in the market and created shows for themselves that have gone on to do really well — in an industry that otherwise didn’t have leading ladies who looked like them or produced what they’ve gone on to produce. I’m about to start writing for a show that is still in the development phase, so — hopefully without sounding annoying — I can’t speak about that quite yet but I’m excited about it.”

Work and meaning

Although Tlhabi entered the television industry with the hope of producing work that is as entertaining as it is representative and thought-provoking, a YouTube channel was not her first bet. But her Coconut Kelz persona has unexpectedly afforded her that opportunity.

“I am very vocal on Facebook and Twitter about race relations. Having been in majority-white schools my whole life, I found I was dealing with the same comments from old school mates. The comments were honestly both hilarious but also quite concerning.

“I felt like I was in a space where people don’t quite get how ridiculous they sound, so I developed a character that was quite mocking of what I saw in the comments section [on social media platforms],” says Tlhabi.

Coconut Kelz takes these white anxieties and inverts them. The coconut character is armed with a wig that hides her naturally kinky hair, membership of the Democratic Alliance, a larney private-school accent, countless eye rolls and an effortless disregard for the not-so-good blacks, such as “that naughty, naughty sgebenga Patricia de Lille”.

By so doing, Tlhabi has been able to create a caricature of a self-loathing black person who hilariously articulates collective white anxieties in post-apartheid South Africa.

After the Economic Freedom Fighters protested at H&M stores, a dishevelled Coconut Kelz, after being caught in the shopping queue, had this to say: “H and fucking M was, like, freaking Pep today. You guys, that was, like, apartheid meets the Holocaust. Like, honestly, if Hector Pieterson and Anne Frank had a baby, and if … like, they were also … rich, and their baby, like, went to H&M, that baby would be me. I’m literally, like, Kelz Pieterson Frank. Can we just get over ‘monkey is racist’? Because it’s not. My dad used to call me little monkey all the time and he can’t be racist to me, so … hello!”

More recently, after former president Jacob Zuma’s resignation, Kelz posted a video showing her delight, saying: “Bye, Zuma! Zoom zoom away! Guys, how much better than even apartheid ending is this? Like, I’m sorry: whites are happy, blacks are happy. Even Indians are happy.”

Future plans

In her day job, Tlhabi is still writing scripts, but she also has her hands full training in the craft of broadcast media. “I see 2018 being the launch pad for the 2017 set-up. Coconut Kelz is becoming an entity on her own, so you can look out for bigger things on a bigger platform for the character.

“And for Lesego, more writing, creating and producing. I’ve since realised that I’ve created a bit of a business here and I’m going to pursue every opportunity ferociously and turn the character into a brand through which I can continue working on the kind of television I’ve always wanted to create. As the great Kylie Jenner said: ‘I see this being the year of realising things.’”