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

You May Like

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

Photogallery Belgian Security Measures Foreshadow New Normal for Europe

Rising threat of terrorism, disaffected Muslim populations and open borders, along with refugee, migrant crisis, are creating perfect storm for Europe, which some analysts fear continent is ill-suited to weather

Americans Think About Strange Stuff at Thanksgiving

Tattoos, hookah bars and doughnuts? Google Maps lays out what people really have on their minds during the holiday

This forum has been closed.
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.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs