News / Africa

    ‘Irreverence Rules’ for S. African Comedy Queen

    Darren Taylor
    
    This is Part Three of a five-part series on 
    South African comedians
    Continue to Parts: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 

    Up until a few years ago, the woman known as one of the few “queens of comedy” in Africa was a primary school teacher in East London, on South Africa’s southeast coast.  
     
    Khanyisa Bunu is convinced that her former career “set the tone” for her pursuit of comedy as a way to make a living.

    • The former schoolteacher is now one of South Africa’s leading female comedians  (Photo Courtesy of Tarryn Liddell)
    • Bunu often populates her comedy shows with a variety of interesting characters
      (Photo Courtesy Tarryn Liddell)
    • A fan poses for a photograph with Bunu after a recent show in Johannesburg [Photo: Darren Taylor]
    • Bunu is not afraid to makes jokes about controversial subjects.(Courtesy T. Liddell)
    • The comedian poses with another of her many fans (Courtesy K. Bunu)
    • Bunu is a huge fan, and is in contact with, US standup comedian Erin Jackson (Courtesy K. Bunu)

     
    “A school is a serious place but it’s also a place where there is much laughter, always something funny happening,” said Bunu.
     
    By way of illustrating her statement, she recalled one of the incidents that sparked her decision to abandon teaching.   
     
    “There was a lady who would come to our home and my mother and her would fix clothes together. One day they sewed some nice pants for me. It was a brown jean. I was very excited when this lady told me she was going to make my jean look very special…”
     
    Bunu said the seamstress then splashed bleach, known as jik in South Africa, on her pants “to make patterns like a leopard print.”
     
    Bunu was so impressed that she wore the pants to school the next morning...with hilarious results. 
     
    “As I was standing there in front of the kids conducting the morning prayers I could see the damage that was done by the jik. I could see my panties. I could see that there were holes in that pants and the holes were growing! And I could see [the kids] were all smiling, some giggling behind [me]. I dropped the Bible; I put it down and left the morning session!” she explained, laughing.
     
    However, after overcoming “shock and embarrassment,” Bunu said she began to realize “something profound.”
     
    “I stood there in the cloakroom phoning a friend to bring me another pants and I just burst out laughing at how absurd the situation was. I started thinking, ‘Khanyisa, you actually enjoyed having all those kids laugh at you; you’ve always enjoyed making people laugh…’”  
     
    A few months later, Bunu quit her teaching job and departed for Johannesburg, where she was determined to “make it” as a comedian. 
     
    “I enjoyed my time as a school teacher even though I could feel that I didn’t belong there. The space for me, it was too small,” she said. “I wanted a bigger space where I can be comfortable and relaxed and express myself the way I want to express myself. You know when you are a teacher there are rules, there are things you can say and things you can’t say. But when you are a comedian life is what you want it to be…”
     
    Courageous comedy
     
    But, as she battled for recognition as a standup comic in an unforgiving city, life wasn’t initially what Bunu wanted it to be.
     
    “The main challenge was that I didn’t know how to begin a career as a comedian. I would see all these funny people up on stage and I would say, ‘I am sure I can do that.’ But I didn’t know how to launch myself.”
     
    Then some comedians in Johannesburg advised her to start performing at open mic evenings at certain venues in the city.
     
    “I did this and then I would wait for someone to call me after a performance but no one ever did,” she stated. “But I kept on pushing, kept on pushing, until today when I sit down and see an email – there’s a booking and I have to go and perform somewhere…”  
     
    And perform Bunu most certainly does – relentlessly, and not afraid to crack jokes about subjects others mostly avoid.
     
    At a recent appearance in a stronghold of the ruling African National Congress, the ANC, she turned her tongue on the party’s secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe.      
     
    “You know Gwede would walk in here and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen! I’m going to kill all of you – not directly, but through hunger, unemployment and corruption!’ Yay! Gwede! Yay!” shouted Bunu.   
     
    She was satirizing the fickleness of many South Africans who complain about the “incompetence and corruption” of the ANC government…yet vote en masse for it during elections.  
     
    No taboos
     
    In an interview with VOA following a recent show Bunu agreed that there are “few, if any” subjects that she considers taboo. “Irreverence rules,” she said, smiling broadly.
     
    “What is this ‘other?’” Bunu asked the audience during her performance. “Like when you are filling in forms, they ask your name and then they go like, ‘Male’, ‘Female’ … and ‘Other…’ And you start wondering, what is the ‘Other’? And sometimes out of curiosity you cross the ‘Other’ … And imagine the person reading it [thinking], ‘Could this be another Caster Semenya?’”
     
    South African athlete Semenya won gold in the women’s 800 meters at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. But controversy followed when the International Association of Athletics Federations compelled her to undergo a gender test, after questions were raised about the muscular athlete’s gender.
     
    Semenya was subsequently cleared to compete internationally as a female athlete.
     
    Bunu went on to tell her audience, “There’s also this belief that blacks are incapable of learning how to swim. Is it true or false that we can’t swim?”
     
    The crowd, which consisted almost exclusively of black South Africans, responded with cries of “False!”
     
    Bunu replied, “It’s false? I didn’t believe it myself until I heard that Whitney Houston drowned in a bathtub.”
     
    Houston, the legendary American vocalist, was found dead in a bath in a Beverly Hills hotel room in February last year. Toxicology reports said she’d accidentally drowned due to the effects of cocaine use and heart disease.
     
    Then Bunu turned her attention to people and groups who frequently predict that the end of the world is “just around the corner.”  
     
    “Because of [the ancient South American people] the Mayans, I gave my life to Jesus in December last year. Those Mayans predicted the world would end on 21 December 2012,” she told her audience.  
     
    “All I wanted was to go to heaven on 21 December. I told my friends, ‘I am no longer concerned with the things of this world, and you unbelievers are the things of this world.’ So I lost all my friends. I changed the way I dressed and the way I spoke. I became respectful. I started spending all my time indoors, reading my Bible. I only left the house to walk to church.”
     
    Then, Bunu continued, 21 December arrived.
     
    “I was indoors not wearing anything but a sheet. I bought a white sheet so that when they take me, I already look like an angel, carrying a Bible. [I was] looking at the clock [the whole day]. But the day went by. The next thing it was 22 December and I was still around…I started calling my friends, apologizing…”
     
    Xhosa comedy
     
    Bunu is from South Africa’s Xhosa ethnic group, and she often tells jokes that resonate with Xhosas.
     
    “Us Xhosas, we love secrets. But a white couple will be walking in the mall and someone will say, ‘Hey, your child is beautiful,’ and the white man will reply, ‘It’s not mine, it’s my wife’s.’ They are so honest! But if a Xhosa man had to say that, it would be divorce time!” she laughed. “If you are a Xhosa, you must tell lies! Lies are part of our culture!” 
     
    Bunu acknowledged that the strong Xhosa elements of some of her shows are “tricky.”
     
    “I suppose they do run the risk of me being labeled a Xhosa comedian and then I could be isolated as a performer, because other South Africans may not come to my shows,” she said.
     
    But, as ever, Bunu isn’t afraid of taking chances.
     
    “There are some things that are funny only if you say them in Xhosa; no matter how you try to say them in English they won’t be as funny as to say them in Xhosa because they have that Xhosa background…”
     
    To purposely break the flow of her comedy, Bunu often injects parts of traditional Xhosa life into her shows. Like when she recently enlisted the help of a Xhosa poet, who took to the stage to vigorously and lyrically praise his clan and his ancestors. 
     
    “I met him before a show and my car had just broken down and we were both stranded and we became friends. He helped me distribute flyers for my show. We began speaking a lot and I found out he was a poet. I said to him, ‘Won’t you do a few lines for me now?’ He said, ‘No, I’ll only do it if you allow me to recite one of my poems during your show.’ I agreed, because I like to help fellow artists…”
     
    ‘That female comedian…’
     
    Bunu is convinced that being a woman has helped her to break into South Africa’s standup comedy scene.
     
    “For me, it works, because there are so many comedians and it’s so hard to stand out. But if you are a woman you’ve got the first advantage because there’s few of us. So people can always remember, ‘That female comedian – yeah, she was good,’” she commented, and then hastily added, “But that doesn’t mean that as a female comedian you can relax and think, ‘Oh, they’ll give me a chance because I am a woman.’ If you get a chance to perform, you need to grab that chance and you need to make people laugh until their teeth fall out.”
     
    As for the near future, Bunu said, “Hey, I would love to be an international comedian, not just perform over here but go overseas…”
     
    To this end she’s in regular contact with American comedian Erin Jackson, who has performed on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and Comedy Central’s “Live at Gotham.”
     
    “I also saw her in a competition called ‘Last Comic Standing.’ So I just saw this lady who was so powerful [as a comedian],” said Bunu. “We’re in contact now and we share ideas. I’ve told her I’d love to perform in America and she must come and perform in South Africa.”
     
    But, regardless of whether she eventually achieves her ambition of performing internationally, Bunu said she’ll remain dedicated to raising laughs in her native South Africa … As long as it doesn’t involve bleached jeans and public displays of her panties.

    Listen to report on South African comedienne Khanyisa Bunu
    Listen to report on South African comedienne Khanyisa Bunui
    || 0:00:00
    ...    
     
    X

    You May Like

    Video Rubio Looks to Surge in New Hampshire

    Republican presidential candidate has moved into second place in several recent surveys and appears to be gaining ground on longtime frontrunner Donald Trump

    UN Calls for Global Ban on Female Genital Mutilation

    Recent UNICEF report finds at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in 30 countries

    UN Pilots New Peace Approach in CAR

    Approach launched in northern town of Kaga Bandoro, where former combatants of mainly Muslim Seleka armed group and Christian and animist anti-Balaka movement are being paid to do community work

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibiti
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 05, 2016 4:30 PM
    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video Former Drug CEO Martin Shkreli Angers US Lawmakers

    A former U.S. pharmaceutical business executive has angered lawmakers by refusing to explain why he raised the price of a life-saving pill by 5,000 percent. Martin Shkreli was removed from a congressional hearing on Thursday after citing his Fifth Amendment right to stay silent. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Super Bowl TV Commercials are Super Business for Advertisers

    The Super Bowl, the championship clash between the two top teams in American Football, is the most-watched sporting event of the year, and advertisers are lining up and paying big bucks to get their commercials on the air. In fact, the TV commercials during the Super Bowl have become one of the most anticipated and popular features of the event. VOA's Brian Allen has a sneak peek of what you can expect to see when the big game goes to commercial break, and the real entertainment begins.
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Solar Innovation Provides Cheap, Clean Energy to Kenya Residents

    In Kenya, a company called M-Kopa Solar is providing clean energy to more than 300,000 homes across East Africa by allowing customers to "pay-as-you-go" via their cell phones. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from Kangemi, customers pay a small deposit for a solar unit and then pay less than a dollar a day to get clean energy to light up their homes or businesses.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Apprenticeships Put Americans on Path Back to Work

    Trying to get more people into the U.S. workforce, the Obama administration last year announced $175 million in grants towards apprenticeship programs. VOA White House correspondent Aru Pande went inside one training center outside of Washington that has gained national recognition for helping put people on the path to employment.
    Video

    Video New Material May Reduce Concussion Effects

    As the 2016 National Football League season reaches its summit at the Super Bowl this coming Sunday (2/7), scientists are trying to learn how to more effectively protect football players from dangerous and damaging concussions. Researchers at Cardiff and Cambridge Universities say their origami-based material may solve the problem. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Saudi Arabian Women's Sports Chip Away at Stereotypes

    Saudi Arabian female athletes say that sports are on the front line of busting traditions that quash women’s voices, both locally and internationally. In their hometown of Jeddah, a group of basketball players say that by connecting sports to health issues, they are encouraging women and girls to get out of their homes and participate in public life. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
    Video

    Video A Year Later, Fortunes Mixed for Syrians Forging New Lives in Berlin

    In April of last year, VOA followed the progress of six young Syrian refugees -- four brothers and their two friends -- as they made their way from Libya to Italy by boat, and eventually to Germany. Reporter Henry Ridgwell caught up with the refugees again in Berlin, as they struggle to forge new lives amid the turmoil of Europe's refugee crisis.
    Video

    Video Zika Virus May be Hard to Stop

    With the Zika virus spreading rapidly, the World Health Organization Monday declared Zika a global health emergency. As Alberto Pimienta reports, for many governments and experts, the worst is yet to come.