JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—
This is Part Five of a five-part series on
South African comedians
Continue to Parts: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5
“Sit back and enjoy this rollercoaster ride of some of the races of South Africa! White people, try [to] ululate! Afrikaners, pretend it’s a rugby game! And blacks – I know you know how to make noise! So, make a lot of noise, and welcome on stage, the dark and lovely, the Ace of Race, Siv Ngeeeeesi!” bellows the announcer as one of South Africa’s top comedians prepares to perform his latest show, ‘Race Card,’ to an eager audience.
Ngesi sprints onto the stage to blaring music from the Star Wars
movies, heightening the sense of drama in the hall in Johannesburg.
“Well, let’s start; let’s begin!” Ngesi exclaims. “Let’s start with blacks! I’m going to speak about all races, so everyone will get a chance to be offended!”
And with that, the comic begins a systematic deconstruction of the different racial groups of South Africa, their idiosyncrasies, their prejudices and their clichés.
The comedian says he’s able to tell such risqué jokes because he has a special personality (Courtesy S. Ngesi)
Ngesi with his friend and mentor and fellow comedian, David Newton (Courtesy S. Ngesi)
Ngesi confronts race issues in South Africa with humor (Courtesy S. Ngesi)
Siv Ngesi … South Africa’s self-styled ‘Ace of Race’ (Courtesy S. Ngesi)
“Now the blacks in this country love their delicacies when it comes to food,” Ngesi told the crowd. “You know – sheep heads, intestines, sheep legs, chicken feet…. I do, too! But my white friends are always like, ‘Ah just get that away from me boet
(brother)! It bloody stinks; I’m going to vomit!’ But I’m the same when a white person gives me salad; I’m like, ‘Hayi
(no)! Get that away from me, man, before I vomit! I want chicken!’” he exclaimed.
Ngesi  was born in Cape Town and has been acting on stage and screen since he was a child. His most high profile role so far was on the hit American TV series 24,
where he appeared in an episode alongside the show’s star, Kiefer Sutherland.
However, he says the “greatest” role of his life so far was his performance at a birthday party for human rights icon Nelson Mandela. It was 1996. Mandela was president…and Ngesi was 10 years old.
“I remember him putting his hand on my shoulder and asking me to take a seat at his table!” said Ngesi, still excited by the memory.
But now he’s making his mark as a standup comedian.
Sinuses and Barbie dolls
At one point in ‘Race Card’ he makes fun of the habit of many black South Africans of loudly clearing their noses and throats in public. Their white compatriots consider this to be extremely rude. But Ngesi suggests it happens because black people don’t treat their sinus conditions.
“Blacks in this country don’t believe they suffer allergies at all; they say that’s a white thing. They say only white people have sinuses,” said Ngesi.
He continued by asking the audience, “How many white people have you ever heard doing this?” He then snorted loudly through his nose, cleared his throat repeatedly and shouted, “Sinuses, black people! Those are sinuses!”
Ngesi also satirized and parodied wealthy white South Africans who feel it’s perfectly fine to give their kids’ broken toys to the poor children of their black domestic helpers.
“With all these broken toys in the townships, a lot of black kids grew up thinking that Barbie was a half-blind paraplegic doll! Now you have these black girls [saying], ‘Ah, shame, poor Barbie! Poor white girls, man!’”
Then he turned his wit on South Africa’s white Afrikaners.
“Afrikaners will complain about everything and blame everything on blacks. “Potholes – ‘It’s the blacks!’ No rain – ‘It’s the bloody blacks!’ Racial quotas in sports – ‘It’s the blacks’ fault, man!’”
Addressing Afrikaners in the audience and in an exaggerated Afrikaner accent he suggested that they have no dress sense and are almost always overweight.
“You always seem to be walking around in two-tone shirts…chest out…stomach out!”
No race group was spared Ngesi’s sharp tongue. Of South Africa’s mixed race people, known as coloreds, he joked about their stereotypical penchant for wine.
“They love buying wine in boxes, because of that plastic bladder inside. When they’re drunk on the wine, they blow up the bladder and use it as a pillow when they pass out,” Ngesi laughed.
‘Being black helps me’
In an interview with VOA after the show, Ngesi maintained, “I believe that I have a gift to present race issues and insults and so on in a comic way that doesn’t offend people.”
He insisted that his audiences trust him.
“If I say something that’s extreme and ludicrous, people will be like, ‘Hah; it’s just Siv; it’s just Siv.’ My show is not a show that anyone can do. Race is my thing; I am the Ace of Race. And you can’t just pick up my script and try to do the same thing because a lot of people will fail. There are people out there who can do it but it’s a certain kind of je ne sais quoi [special, mysterious quality] that you need to have.”
He acknowledged that a white South African comedian would find it very difficult to “pull off” ‘Race Card’ without being branded a racist.
“Me being black does help me, but white people can tell the same jokes – but they have to tread lightly. By tread lightly I mean they must show a certain level of respect and must tell the jokes not in an aggressive, angry way.”
Ngesi added, “I learnt that from David [Newton; a leading white South African comedian]. David says things about race that other white comedians would never have the [nerve] to say. But he puts on a smile and delivers his material in a way that somehow doesn’t offend people. It’s all about personality.”
And what he termed “relate-ability” – making jokes that people of all races, cultures and religions can relate to.
“Truth, relate-ability, and just being able to laugh and chuckle [are important elements of my work]. I’m not the funniest; I’m not the most talented. But I can tell you one thing – I know how to put the two together with hard work,” said Ngesi.
Declaration of war
While some South African entertainers avoid race issues, given their country’s apartheid past, Ngesi steers directly into those waters. He said he’s comfortable doing this partly because he grew up in a multiracial area.
“So I got to experience white people, black people; all different shades of people. I witnessed that we are [all] the same – but we’re still very different and we need to celebrate those differences. In my show I want people to laugh, not just at other people, but they must laugh at themselves.”
‘Race Card’ is both a declaration of war on political correctness and a celebration of racial and cultural differences in South Africa.
“I have a mission and my mission is to take racism down, man!” said Ngesi. He added, “The only time there’ll be no racism is when we’re all coloreds [people of mixed race], from interbreeding. And I can’t wait that long. I have to do my bit now to make people realize that we’re all basically same, no matter what our skin color says. We all want to be happy in life, and to have food and shelter and safety and security.”
Racism not about skin color
Ngesi insisted that racism is far more complex than someone hating another person based on skin color.
“I’ve met [white] racists who get along with me because they have seen that I’m ‘different’ [than] the other blacks; [the different] in inverted commas…. It shows you that it’s not about the color of your skin. It’s got a lot to do with background and upbringing and beliefs…. It’s a cultural thing, or even a class thing.”
To explain his reasoning, the comedian referred to the sport of rugby, which is adored by most of South Africa’s white Afrikaans population.
“A lot of Afrikaans people love me because I love rugby and we have something in common. So if you can find a link with someone, a common purpose, that’s the most important thing…. Then skin color is insignificant,” said Ngesi. “So, simply because I love rugby, white people who profess not to like black people, like me. This shows that their dislike of black people isn’t based on skin color. It’s based on cultural differences.”
When he is onstage, he’s not black – he’s a South African with the job of making people laugh, Ngesi insisted, saying, “I want people to leave my show feeling proud to be South African and knowing that in South Africa the only thing that should be separated by color is the laundry.”
Listen to profile of South African comedian Siv Ngesi