Coconut Kelz is not 'whiteface' comedy, says joker Lesego Tlhabi

Comedian Lesego Tlhabi has created a gormless black princess called Coconut Kelz in order to lampoon white delusions — leaving a trail of confusion in her wake, writes Carlos Amato

02 September 2018 - 00:00 By Carlos Amato
Lesego Tlhabi sips a juice at Tashas, just like her alter ego Coconut Kelz would. Tlhabi admits she once considered voting DA.
Lesego Tlhabi sips a juice at Tashas, just like her alter ego Coconut Kelz would. Tlhabi admits she once considered voting DA.
Image: Alaister Russell

Writer and comedian Lesego Tlhabi meets me for lunch at Tashas at Morningside shopping centre. We choose a table outside in the sun, surveying a parking lot full of smirking Porsches.

This scene is the natural habitat of Tlhabi's alter ego, Coconut Kelz, a hard-twanging DA Youth ditz with a weave and a raging apartheid-nostalgia problem.

Indeed, Kelz name-checked Tashas in a 2017 skit:

"It was during the Zuma Must Fall march and people were meeting at Tashas beforehand, with their helpers."

So what about pitching a sponsorship deal to the restaurant chain?

"I think brands are actually afraid of Kelz," says Tlhabi, who clearly savours this problem. "It's a bit tough to get brand work. But I wouldn't change her for anything."

Kelz is a double-barrelled satirical weapon. Her direct target is that tiny subset of privileged South African blacks who all but identify as white. There is delicious comedy to be mined from racial identity crises - for example, the Sacha Baron Cohen character Ali G's attempted blackness was essential to his preposterousness. But Tlhabi's main target is the sea of white South African dishonesties in which Kelz immerses herself.

IF ONLY THAT BEACH HAD BEEN IN THAILAND

In her latest video, Kelz offers a spiritedly inane defence of Adam Catzavelos, claiming the K-word scandal was all a big mix-up involving fruit. "It was just a family video, guys!" says Kelz.

"He was saying to his parents: 'The sun is out, the water's nice, but there are no kaffir limes for him to pick for the sauce. So if you don't even know the context of the video, and you just go and judge, how you gonna know what people are talking about? Kaffir limes! It's a fruit, guys! Google it!"

WATCH | Coconut Kelz defends Adam Catzavelos

During her weekly studio guest appearance on 702, Kelz added more detail to the Catzavelos case. "I know Catzos! He has two black friends - and that's, like, the maximum. Also, he's apologised. He said 'I'm sorry that you think I said this word.' And racist people don't apologise."

Tlhabi's ear for Kelz's hilarious dialect is so acute, and her occupation of the character so convincing, that some 702 listeners have been fooled into thinking she's a real person.

"We've had some very angry blacks commenting about this poor, lost, unwoke black girl who's on 702 - and saying they can't believe they gave her a platform," says Tlhabi. "But we can't tell you every time that it's satire. Because half the joke lies in the fact that some people don't get it. I try to make my videos more and more ridiculous, but some people still don't see it."

LISTEN | Coconut Kelz chats to 702's Aubrey Masango about Trump, Adam Catzavelos and Black Twitter

One white listener called in to complain to Kelz about a City of Johannesburg service issue. "He said he's been waiting 90 days for a response from the DA administration, and what are we doing about it? Because Kelz is a DA Youth member. So I said, just go to our website."

LEARNING TO LOVE COCONUTS

Tlhabi, who is 30, says Kelz's accent is partly a send-up of millennial white South African speech - featuring the ubiquitous vocal fry and a mix of languidly bendy vowels and pancake-flat ones. (For example, the millennial "no" is the complex "nwoaauhh" , whereas "guys" is just "gaaaz".)

But Kelz-speak is also an exaggerated version of Tlhabi's own accent and she admits that Kelz's attitudes are partly a reconstruction of her teenage outlook. Tlhabi's parents are both doctors. While they had their doubts about sending her into the cultural vortex of private-school education, they did so anyway.

"Because of the schools we went to," says Tlhabi, "our parents thought we would become like this. And maybe we did, to be honest. I think I was Coconut Kelz in high school. And this was our parents' worst nightmare. We're sending her to Redhill, or St Anne's, or wherever, and therefore she's going to be obnoxious."

I think I was Coconut Kelz in high school. And this was our parents' worst nightmare
Lesego Tlhabi on attending private school

In her videos, Kelz loves to describes her political arguments with her "reverse-racist dad".

"He sort of represents black people's thoughts," says Tlhabi. "Black Twitter, black people. Me."

Tlhabi is a born-almost-free. "My sister was born in 1992, and I was born in 1988, and I feel that we're totally different generations. We still remember what it was like to be the first black at the school, or to still be ostracised and excluded.

"There is so much that the born-frees don't know. They are just used to being born free. There was this weird period when even though I was quite young, I was othered as the first, the only. There were only two black girls in my grade in junior school, and at St Anne's in Maritzburg there were nine or 12 black girls in total, out of 300-plus."

Many of her white classmates were farmers' daughters, and some brought an armour of racist paranoia to school. "We had some tensions. I felt black for the first time when I joined St Anne's. It was quite a shock. It was like, ohhh! I'm black! OK.

WATCH | Coconut Kelz on colonialism and Cyril Ramaphosa

"Somebody told me: 'You're only here because of BEE.' That was when I became politicised, and started to think about what my blackness means. I thought: 'Just because I'm here doesn't mean I can't include myself with other blacks. And if I have this voice and this proximity to white people, then I have a duty to say stuff.'

"It was up and down. I loved it for social reasons, for sport, and it was a great school. But it was a shock to learn that it wasn't all kumbaya everywhere."

FUNNY TO THE NTH DEGREE

After school, Tlhabi made a brief and doomed attempt to do a BCom at Wits University. "After six months, I said, just jokes, this isn't working." Next came a BA at the University of Cape Town, but the urge to act wouldn't go away.

"I'd been performing my whole life. As a kid, I was like: 'Sit down, everyone, I want to do a show now!' Eventually, Tlhabi's mother decided that if her daughter insisted on a life in showbiz, she might as well study it properly.

"She heard about a theatre degree at Brunel University and sent me to audition." She got in, her parents paid the bills, and her three years in London were a revelation.

"People are not afraid there," she says. "They do things. I saw people using YouTube and Facebook for the first time as a creative platform. And I got affirming feedback: I got good marks and knew that I can do what I think I can do - and do it well.

I know what I do is decent, and there's going to some negativity, but I can do this thing. Everybody has haters. Oprah has haters. Beyoncé has haters
Lesego Tlhabi

"It made me fearless, and gave me the confidence to come back in 2014 and say: 'F*** all of this, I'm going to put it out there.' I know what I do is decent, and there's going to some negativity, but I can do this thing. Everybody has haters. Oprah has haters. Beyoncé has haters."

To pay the bills, Tlhabi has been writing TV scripts for celebrity gossip shows. "I still do that, part-time," she says. "But I'd rather be writing my own show, like Tina Fey or Mindy Kaling do, instead of writing things like: 'Today Bonang got a new car! And broke up with this person!' It's so vapid. I can't talk about celebrities for the rest of my life. I really don't care."

The Kelz videos started out as an occasional amusement. "It became a thing I did very randomly, once every six months. But then a friend said: 'Why don't you put it on open social media - on Instagram or YouTube?' And I did that and it grew from there."

HELEN DOESN'T DO IRONY

Her parents are avid fans of Kelz - and deeply relieved that their daughter didn't become her.

"Around the time I voted in my first elections in 2009, I was talking about voting for the DA, because I was like: 'I can't believe the ANC.' I was fresh out of high school and my mom and dad almost died.

"They are very happy now, knowing that I have a black consciousness. I'm not necessarily ANC, but I'm definitely not DA. I'm not that person that they thought they were raising."

Tlhabi has received private notes of appreciation from black DA members who find Kelz hilarious. It is also probably fair to say that the Kelz videos unfairly stereotype black DA voters as the tools of white interests.

"There is a stereotype and I play up to that to a somewhat exaggerated degree. But the party to me is the embodiment of white privilege and the upholding thereof so it's bizarre that there are black people who find things to identify with.

"Helen Zille tweeted me once - but I think it's because she thought I was a real person. I tweeted something in support of her, and she tweeted a heart, I think. And I was like, awww! I don't want to tell her I'm joking."

WITH THE ACCENT ON HUMOUR

She is cautious about creating other identities. "I can do a British accent, and I can do what is probably an offensively exaggerated West African accent. They wouldn't love it.

"One white guy got angry with me, saying what I do was 'whiteface' comedy. But there are black people who talk like Kelz. So I think I should just stay in my lane. Even doing a typical black South African accent would come across as condescending."

In SA, comedians are theoretically free to mock the speech of other races or classes, provided the mockery doesn't veer into hate speech.

Tlhabi believes that in practice that freedom is qualified even further by the nature of your comedic intention.

WATCH | Coconut Kelz celebrates Patricia De Lille leaving the DA

"It depends on your personal politics. If it's coming from a place of mockery for mockery's sake, that's what people take offence at.

"For me, someone like Nik Rabinowitz gets the South African scope - he does his accents for a reason. He's saying something about an issue or a person. It's not just, 'Ha ha, black people talk funny, they can't speak English.'"

Tlhabi is working with a production company on a pilot for a Coconut Kelz show, so her workload is likely to increase. And being funny about the news is hard work when the news is bad.

"Sometimes it's a bit difficult. SA is ridiculous - a lot of things are happening," she says. "But I don't know how funny everything is."

Indeed. We just have to play it by ear.


COCONUT KELZ ON...

THE #BLACKHAIR SCHOOL PROTESTS

Guys, a code of conduct is a code of conduct. It’s there to keep all the girls neat and make us all look the same.

Now they want to do, like, braids? Do you know how dirty braids are? Like that girl who got arrested for putting drugs in her braids?

Like, that’s what they’re worried about, guys. They’re not worried because, like, what it looks like. They don’t want you to do drugs.

ASHWIN WILLEMSE

I’m sorry guys, but Nick and Naas are white, and Ashwin is coloured. And coloured people are, like, super aggressive.

There’s no such thing as the White Flats. It’s the Cape Flats. So let’s just think about that.

WHITE PRIVILEGE

There is no such thing as white privilege. I mean, my friend Natasha’s dad is like super dark-skinned. Like when he goes on holiday and comes back he’s like, “Oh my God, Kelz … twinsies!” So how can that be white privilege? Think about it.

THE EFF

(After fleeing EFF protesters in H&M Sandton)You guys, that was like apartheid meets the Holocaust! Like, if Hector Pieterson and Anne Frank had a baby, and they were also rich … because they were, like, poor … and then their baby went to H&M, that would be me. I mean like literally Kelz Pieterson-Frank.

SIYA KOLISI

Why do we need a black captain for a white sport? What now? Before games are we gonna be doing, like, gumboot dancing, or whatever? Or like Shaka Zulu? Hayi suka wena! I dunno about you, but I’m sick and tired of quotas. How about you do something good,and then get chosen on merit? (Pauses) I guess that’s what Kolisi did … But still!

And black Twitter is like, “Why weren’t black people chosen before ’94 if everything was fair?”And I’m like, hellooo!? Black people didn’t play rugby then! They were, like, playing shumpu or black mampatile or whatever it is.

And like they didn’t have degrees, so how do you expect them to be hired? Like, think about these things. Sometimes you’re just like, fight fight, strike strike … but sometimes you gotta think!


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