Coconut Kelz’s funny bone

Through seat-of-her-pants observational comedy, satirist Lesego Tlhabi’s character brings to life the anti-black attitudes that pepper South African politics and popular culture.

“I’m not trying to anger the nation. I’m just trying to laugh at the shit people say!” says satirist Lesego Tlhabi, with a twinge of naughtiness in her grin. “My aim is more to make people think and then laugh or laugh and then think, rather than just think.”

Tlhabi is most commonly associated with her digital persona and character, Coconut Kelz. Coconut Kelz or just Kelz as Tlhabi affectionately refers to her, is an offbeat audaciously controversial political pundit. Kitted out with the video function of her smartphone, pursed lips and the occasional eye roll, Kelz provides hilarious commentary on South African politics and popular culture from the driving seat of her car.

Coconut Kelz speaks with the kind of overly nasal drawl that has her slurring all her vowels in a kind of vocal fry that has become synonymous with American reality stars and the standard Model C accent associated with schools formerly only for white learners under apartheid. When Kelz does venture into anything identifiably “black” – like speaking any Nguni languages – she speaks in a broken dialect of Zulu called sfana ka lo shouting “azikho izimali” (the moneys aren’t here) to the threatening car guards outside her car. Through the creation of Coconut Kelz, Tlhabi is finessing a satirical hot take on the trappings of aspirational whiteness in the postapartheid context, and how it shapes people.

To Kelz, all black people are crooks or “sgebengas”, the Democratic Alliance is her party of choice and her internalised racism allows her to reason that all corruption in the private sector or any kind of corruption initiated by white people can be written off as “accounting irregularities”. Kelz is, as Marianne Thamm suggests, “mirroring – on a public platform – absurdity, bigotry, ignorance, venality and insult back to those responsible for it”.

Race has always been a cornerstone in South African comedy. Television in the 1990s was filled with sitcoms like Going Up, Suburban Bliss and Madam & Eve that revealed some of the contradictions of a democratically “unified” country that still had to deal with wounds of segregation and apartheid in awkward and comical ways.

Exploiting the multiple fissures in the myth of South African rainbowism by using absurd exaggeration and generalisation, Tlhabi has eked out a kind of brand of observational comedy that has placed her in conversation with the comedic stylings of Pieter Dirk Uys and Chester Missing.

How Coconut Kelz was born

After a six-month stint at Wits University for a BCom degree in 2010, Tlhabi pursued a career in the arts.

She graduated from Brunel University in London in 2014, and completed short courses in musical theatre and writing for television at the New York Film Academy and Columbia University. “I come from a family of doctors, economists and lawyers. I’m literally the first artist to come out of this family, and nobody really understood the whole thing,” she says.

Tlhabi came back to the country and worked at V Entertainment and All Access Mzansi in content production and script writing. Toward the end of 2017, Tlhabi quit her job and spent 2018 trying to polish and establish Kelz as a character and digital persona.

“Kelz is a character, and she really started off as a joke between me and my friends,” Tlhabi says. “I started doing this on my own private Instagram account with my friends to laugh at the ridiculous things some of the people around us said.”

Tlhabi first introduced the world to Kelz through Twitter and Instagram. In short video clips she comments, with woeful ignorance, on a range of issues, often leading to a tongue-in-cheek defence of whiteness and racism. Kelz has commented on everything from the now-infamous Adam Catzavelos video to the #ZumaMustFall marches in 2017 with a brazen ditziness and obliviousness that has become the basis of her persona.

She speaks fondly of Kelz and reasons with Kelz’s outrageous sentiments, delighted at how ridiculous and incensing she can be. “People often think I’m parodying a white woman, but Kelz is black and, to be honest, I know a lot of black people who are exactly like Kelz and I was probably a lot like Kelz in primary school until someone said the ‘K-word’ to me, and I was like hold on.” She clutches imaginary pearls, eyes widening. “I realised that a separation exists, no matter if we all go to the same schools or talk the same.”

Backlash against satire

Tlhabi’s career has not always been easy. She received criticism and social media backlash over her eNCA interview with Jane Dutton in which Kelz gave her typical controversial take on the state of the nation address and Eskom-mandated power outages.

“The backlash has been surprising because it’s been mostly been from black people,” Tlhabi says. “People haven’t got that this is satire. What I’ve been doing has been misconstrued as making fun of the black plight … I’m making fun of white apathy. I am making fun of upper-middle-class apathy towards issues faced by most South Africans.”

But satire is often misunderstood, as Justin Smith writes in the New York Times, “Satire is a species of humour that works through impersonation: taking on the voices of others, saying the sort of things they would say, using one’s own voice while not speaking in one’s own name. It is not surprising that this craft is so often misunderstood, for when satirists do their job convincingly, when they get too close to their target, it is easy to hear them not just as the channelers of the views expressed in the satire, but as defenders of these views as well. It is at such moments that critics like to exclaim that a satirist has ‘gone too far’, while it would be more correct to say that the satirist has only done [their] job too well.”

Tlhabi credits her mother for pushing her to continue with her craft. “My mom was just like, do you know how many comedians and satirists in this space wished for a viral moment like this, wished to make some sort of impact, even if you deem it negative.”

But some of the criticism she has experienced has gone well outside the confines of her comedy. Tlhabi has encountered internet trolls who have called her a “stupid little fat bitch”. “That’s just how misogyny and fat-phobia works, and I can’t really stop people from saying what they want to say, but I can control my reaction to it. I can’t cry every time I post a video,” she says. “Look, for every one person who has something negative to say, there is honestly 50 people saying something positive and about 10 converts every week.”

After starring in a BET Election Special, Tlhabi is looking to the future where she hopes to produce and star in more Kelz-related content. She is currently a regular feature as both Lesego and Kelz on MTV’s Guy Code. “I have a lot that I can’t necessarily speak about at the moment, but from my lips to God’s ears, there should be a podcast and more TV opportunities on the way.”

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