JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - 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.View full gallery
Khanyisa Bunu is convinced that her former career “set the tone” for her pursuit of comedy as a way to make a living.
“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…”
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.
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…”
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