The Covid-19-enforced lockdown that destabilised Musa Masajar’s music career, his main source of income, pushed him to focus on his other passion: animation. “My music was doing great and I’d have performances, like, every month. I have my music videos on TV and I have a very good fan base,” says the Afropop singer and producer.
The initial strict lockdown that President Cyril Ramaphosa introduced in March last year meant the 32-year-old from Ngodini in Mpumalanga couldn’t perform and forced him to utilise a skill he had previously ignored.
“I made a 30-seconds animation video [comedy skit] of a Swati-speaking character called Mhlonishwa. I uploaded it on WhatsApp status, people loved the video and my circle of contacts kept on sharing it with me. I did not tell them I am the one who created it,” Masajar says, adding that when he created another one, it “became even more popular than the first one”.
Masajar didn’t go to school to learn animation. “Everything I know, I got it from YouTube and a little bit of research.”
Given the warm reception his initial animations got, he created Simelane in June. This character speaks Fanakalo, a lingua franca said to have originated within a European-African contact setting in the historical setting of colonisation. This pidgin to some degree is still used by Black labourers, mainly in the mining industries in South Africa and other African countries such as Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“A lot of people are interested in Simelane and he’s become one of the biggest characters. He draws the most attention when we attend [live] shows,” says 31-year-old Bheki Mathebula, who plays the character of Simelane.
Audiences became interested in the content quickly. They had more than 30 000 followers on Facebook within a week of creating social media pages. “I then took it seriously and even stopped dating,” he says jokingly.
Since then, they have added two more characters: Mgalafawa and Ngobe. The former is played by 26-year-old Future Samukelo Mngomana. Mgalafawa seemingly draws inspiration from Cebolenkosi Mthembu, who plays favourite cop Nyawo with his extensive vocabulary in the television drama Uzalo.
Ngobe is played by Masajar’s 27-year-old younger brother, Mthombisi Mlombo. This always tipsy character has become increasingly loved, too. “We know that in our set of characters there are a lot of alcohol lovers that were left out and we wanted someone who wouldn’t be pretentious,” explains Masajar. “I really like alcohol and it is nice acting as a drunk person. And besides, water does not do justice,” Mlombo says coyly.
Making money from his passion
Part of the reason why his siSwati cartoons have received so much attention is because, says Masajar, “a lot of animations are in Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi and a little bit of other languages. I wanted to be unique and to be the first, although I am not a perfect Swati speaker. But I am learning every day to perfect the language to be like the original siSwati from eSwatini.”
Their Facebook page now boasts more than 600 000 followers, including an overwhelming number of subscriptions on YouTube. “We can say now that this is a form of employment and we’ve managed to survive through lockdown and people come to advertise their businesses,” Masajar says. “When we were doing this thing we never ever thought of it as a business, until someone said, ‘Guys, I can see you have a lot of followers and can you say something about my business? I will pay you.’ People loved the video and forgot that it was an advert and other companies came through. Now we take it as a business.”
Even though they make money from this, their families still don’t view it as employment. “Our parents think we are mad, and they never take us seriously. There was a day when I gave my mom some money to treat herself and she asked me where I got money. I said cartoons. She was baffled with disbelief,” Masajar says. “Our partners also trouble us when we say we are busy with cartoons. They usually say, ‘Now I have to tell your kid that you can’t see him because you’re busy with cartoons?’”
They’ve received a number of requests to perform gigs, but have kept them to a minimum to stay focused on creating content for their online audience. Government officials have also come on board.
“When we got calls from the government that they wanted to advertise with us, we were excited, and this showed us that our work is being valued … We really enjoyed working with the government because it gives our work value and legitimacy,” says Masajar. Every fortnight, some of their animations are aired on Ligwalagwala FM, a public broadcasting radio station in Mbombela.
Because of this recognition, they say, some fans and potential advertisers assume they’re wealthy. The consequence of them not “looking the part” has led to clients wanting to pay less because they didn’t think they deserved a higher rate.
‘This thing is comedy’
Their audience do not know their actual identities as they wear their character’s masks when they perform their skits. They do this simply because they want their audiences to fall in love with their characters, not them. Also, some of South Africa’s big celebrities have contacted them to acknowledge their craft. “This thing is comedy. Our sole mandate is just to make people happy and entertained,” says Mathebula.
But for some fans, this has been more than comedy. It has been a tonic and a form of companionship during a time of adversity.
“My son is a child with special needs and suffers from chronic disease: heart failure, lung disease and loss of hearing … One day he was sitting in his bedroom and I heard him laughing and I wondered what he was laughing at. He told me that he’s amused by Mhlonishwa, Simelane and Mgalafawa. Then one day I asked to see what he was talking about. Yoh! I laughed so hard. I would like to encourage you guys to keep doing an amazing job of entertaining the nation … Now I make sure that he has data so that I can hear his voice and laughter,” commented one grateful mother on Facebook.