In praise of the kasie heckler

The township comedian is the precursor of the David Kau, Kagiso Lediga, Trevor Noah and Skhumba Hlophe era of paid comedy

10 February 2019 - 00:00

The setting: Wozanazo Higher Primary School in Mpumalanga township, Hammarsdale. The year: 1983. The context: an Inkatha Yenkuleleko Yesizwe (IFP)-supporting neighbourhood and a staunchly IFP principal at the height of the tense border dispute between the KwaZulu self-governing territory and Swaziland, over the Ingwavuma territory.
The principal is in his element, whipping us into a bloodthirsty frenzy against those belligerent Swazis. He's yelling slogans in a shrill voice: "Inkatha!", to which we're meant to respond with the refrain, "Eyethu!" (Is ours!) at the top of our voices.
Next, he yells, "Izwe!" (The land!), to which we're supposed to respond, "Elethu!" (Is ours!). As our voices die down, a disinterested drawl is heard at the back of the assembly formation: "Elakho nonyoko ms**u kanyoko!" (The land is yours and your mother, jou ma se *beep*!")
I will not traumatise you with the details of the witch hunt to identify the purveyor of such insolence and the savage beatings to weed out the 12- and 13-year-old amaphekulazikhuni (terrorists) in our "pure" section of the township.
The reason I'm sharing this is to pay homage to a very specific group of individuals who were the forebears of the current upsurge in home-brewed comedians.
Anyone who grew up in any township in this country can identify with this. Your mom would send you to KwaSishi Shopping Centre to get a litre of Mello Yellow or Fresca fizzy drink, a slab of Holsum and R5's worth of mince meat. (If you were anything like me, you'd purchase R4.90 of mince at Mjambo Diamond Butchery and utilise the 10 cents change to get yourself Zulu Mottoes sweets. But I digress.)
In the corner by the laundry and the pub there was always a group of young men in their late teens/early 20s crouching, playing dice for money. Almost without fail there'd be a fellow in that crowd, standing there and yelling out one-liners, followed by raucous laughter.
He wasn't there to bet on the dice. His job was to act as the unofficial entertainment - without any pay except maybe a slice of listeriosis and some bread from whoever won the stake. He was the precursor of the David Kau, Kagiso Lediga, Trevor Noah and Skhumba Hlophe era of paid comedy. The township raconteur.
In my hood we had a chunky behemoth of a human specimen called Gugwana. He was a permanent resident of the bus terminal-cum-taxi rank and his brand of humour was heavily steeped in the township culture of ukujovana (ribbing). The worst crime any passerby could commit was to snigger at his jokes because, as quickly as you can say, "You're it!", he'd switch victims.
The first time I witnessed this vicious practice was against a fellow who'd just disembarked a bus from Pinetown while munching on a maize cob. By the time he disappeared from view his knock-kneed walk had been described in fine detail, down to how it was reminiscent of the action of the teeth of a Singer sewing machine. From that day onward, the kids in my neighbourhood referred to him as Manitha behind his back - the one whose knees knit.
Other informal township comedians didn't even wait for a crowd to gather around them to dispense their brand of humour. There was one called Ntibane who seemed to always be passing outside my Catholic parish church whenever we were chanting the Confiteor during Holy Mass. No sooner would we confess that we had sinned "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault" than he would yell through the window, "Hambani esihogweni phela!" (Off to hell with you lot, then!).
But spare a thought for one Sipho Mlaba and Meshack Hadebe, the IFP and ANC leaders who were credited with brokering the peace in my violent Mpumalanga Township joint rally.
On the morning of the joint peace rally to celebrate the peace accord between the two warring parties, a picture of the two leaders shaking hands was splashed on most local newspaper front pages. When they rose to face the crowd, arm-in-arm, a fellow to my left yelled, "Hawu, nampa laba ebengishidaba ngobuso babo namhlanje ekuseni!" (But these are the faces on the newspaper I used to wipe my bum this morning!).

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