YES, IT’S YIZO YIZO
It’s the township TV show that shocked and rocked. Now a new book, Born to Kwaito, lifts the veil on the craze behind Yizo Yizo
IT’S a genre that’s distinctly South African – the music that gave rise to legends like TKZee, Boom Shaka, Trompies, Mashamplani and Thebe. Every song can be linked to a memory and every December is assigned its own hit. Kwaito also had a major effect on the Mzansi entertainment industry and helped give notorious 1990s TV series Yizo Yizo its edge. It’s a culture of its own and in a new book, Born to Kwaito, authors Esinako Ndabeni and Sihle Mthembu explore the rise of this home-grown wonder. In this extract Sihle delves into the phenomenon that was Yizo Yizo.
Ekasi we don’t wear gloves when we do the dishes,” she says before breaking into laughter, like she just opened the door into a secret inside joke for which only she has the keys. Thembi Seete is a South African cannon bomb.
She’s one of the last survivors of the kwaito-era cool at its peak. The last woman standing from an entire generation of leather-wearing, Chuck Taylor-stomping sonic insurgents. Right now, however, she isn’t her commanding Boom Shaka tour-de-force self. Not the Thembi we know from pre-Y2K videos as the Thelma to Lebo Mathosa’s Louise. She is seated in her Jozi home, reclined, taking it easy and talking about one of the projects that has defined her almost two-decade-long career.
“It’s a silly thing to think you can have a show about the township where you have the characters washing the dishes wearing gloves. Our show was a game changer in that it took away silly little things like that. He brought us in and we got into the details and knocked it out of the park every week,” she says, a hint of seriousness breaking through the humorous demeanour she had just a second ago.
The show in question is Yizo Yizo, that once- in- ageneration flagbearer for a surprisingly South African form of nihilism.
The cinematic invasion that, for three seasons dominated our small screens and offered a rare, unfiltered view into the rape, crime, slang and the various template characters that were the bedrock of townships around the country. The man Thembi is speaking about and the silent puppeteer behind this show’s rock ’n’ roll journey is Angus Gibson, a medium-sized character who is little known outside South African TV circles. Safe shoulder-size, not broader than what you’d expect from a braai-eating, camera-wielding, cinematic clairvoyant. He’s a smuggler of cultural contraband and the soothsayer of South African paranoia. Gibson is the surprisingly human figure that is the real hero behind this story. His physical presence doesn’t do just i c e to the
weight of his name every time it flashes when the credits roll on local television. With smooth, thinning white hair that sits just at the shoulders, Gibson is controlled and contemplative.
He talks with the kind of self-awareness that can only be mastered by someone who secretly knows something known by nobody else in the room. And it was he who, along with long-term partner in crime Teboho Mahlatsi, coordinated the most impressive mess in South African television history.
GIBSON tells the story of how the iconic Yizo Yizo came to life. “Teboho and I had been writing a vigorous, funny but wild feature called Streetbash, set in the base- ment of a downtown building. Our partner, Isaac Shongwe, who was unnerved by Streetbash’s nihilism, suggested that we do something more constructive and pitch for an educational drama which SABC1 was commissioning. We agreed that we would do it on the side.
“We put together a team of interesting people, none of whom had written or worked in television drama before. Teboho and myself were from documentary backgrounds. Peter Esterhuysen had written textbooks and comics. Mtutuzeli Matshoba had written short stories and Harriet Perlman had edited Upbeat, a youth magazine. We started assembling ideas in the downtown basement, sticking cards on the walls. We assumed it would take just a few months of our lives. It ended up consuming most of the next seven years.
“The Laduma Film Factory (as Bomb Productions was then known) won the bid and was given carte blanche to create a TV series that addressed education issues in schools. But the programme that came out of what was a relatively straightforward brief, was both necessary and otherworldly.
“Set partially around Supatsela High School, the show dives into the depths of the education system and the effect a broken-down school system can have on its surrounding community. Yizo Yizo is a visual poem. The show’s first season is an elegy to the death of hope and the need to face up earnestly to the cancerous uncertainties that were eating away at our rainbow nation dream. The most surprising thing about watching the show now is how well it holds up. “Its themes of disparate youth, communal collapse and social uncertainty are as relevant now as they were when the series first hit the small screen. It set out to draw attention to the crisis in the township schools and I think it was successful in that, although some people suggested that the crisis was heightened by Yizo Yizo itself.
“In the context of local black television that had gone before, people were mixing language for the first time, using slang, swearing. The more experienced members of the crew were often horrified by what was happening in front of the camera. Again and again young people were saying that they were seeing themselves reflected on the screen for the first time.”
DESPITE the fact The Bomb Shelter Film & Television Production Company has gone on to create interesting content in the form of shows like Zone 14, Isibaya
and Isithembiso, Yizo Yizo continues to be their magnum opus.
It has been studied by academics and lionised township Iscamtho. More than a decade after the last episode was aired the SABC, in its usual scramble for relevance, has reverted to re-screening the series – repeatedly airing late-night reruns of the seminal programme. These are all merely the by-products of making a show that canonised a moment.
Perhaps it’s bad form in journalism to talk about your own experience in a story, but indulge me for a moment. It’s worth mentioning that for the so-called Generation X, South Africans who came of age in Mbeki-era Mzansi, Yizo Yizo was the first taste of a thing going “viral”.
I remember skipping school with my friends and catching a rerun of the episode that had Ronnie Nyakale’s Papa Action being sodomised in prison by Nongoloza played by Israel Makoe.
If you were young, black and “with it” in ekasi, you did not experience the early 2000s properly unless you had at least one copy of Yizo Yizo taped via VCR, which you would play with your friends when the parentals were away. Watching the show back then was a hyper-real experience bordering on the surreal. With its awkward angles and extreme closeups, zooming into faces sweaty with the Daveyton heat, it felt like a hallucinogen-induced dream every time.
But it wasn’t. It was just Gibson and his township requiem strumming their guitars and cameras for a cinematic nightmare. Blackness had never been framed so closely, so terrifyingly, so beautifully. It felt both like baptism and drowning. About the approach to narrative and cinematography they chose to use, Gibson says:
“At the time we were very influenced by Asian cinema (Wong Kar Wai and Satyajit Ray), and shows like Homicide – all of which explored the handheld camera and had an honest kind of documentary feel. We were of the opinion that the ‘Rainbow Nation’ was a con. Our nation was in an extraordinarily aggressive moment and we were not acknowledging it in the media. We wanted to provide what we thought was a more honest view.”
STHANDIWE Kgoroge was one of the first people cast for the show, and went on to win an Avanti award for her role as Miss Cele, the eternally optimistic new teacher who finds herself thrust into the mess that is Supatsela High. The accomplished actress says she thinks the reason Yizo Yizo hit home was because of the production team that was behind it, as much as it was due to the courage of the cast to get in front of the story.
Yizo Yizo was ground-breaking for South African television. “I sincerely believe we need more dramas like that, stories which don’t sugarcoat reality and give the youth a false sense of what is happening. The SA industry needs to stop being so PC,” Sthandiwe says, sounding slightly irked by the humdrum of it all.
“I played a pretty straightforward character and I didn’t really get any funny reactions from audiences, just encourage- ment. But what I missed most about being on that set was the energy,” she adds.
The relevance of Yizo Yizo was that it was inspired by reality. The characters were based on some members of a feared Mzimhlophe (Orlando West) “boy bandit” gang who called themselves The Hazels, after a pretty, streetwise girl called Hazel who was every gangster’s dream girl.
Let me risk coming across as arrogant and say that I was the “township guy”. I had grown up with the Hazels and other Soweto gangs and had a front-row perspective of their reckless escapades, like raiding schools for girls. I knew how township delinquents thought, felt and lived because I was an interested short-story writer for Staffrider (a literary and an arts magazine) for a long time. I provided the anecdotes and the three of us weaved them into screenplays.
After an initial screening of Yizo Yizo with musos from Ghetto Ruff, someone described the show as “the bomb”, and thus Laduma Film Factory morphed into The Bomb Productions and later, The Bomb Shelter.
‘It was not just a TV series, it was a symptom’
That “Ugrand, Joe?” line you hear at the end of every episode is actually a line said by Sticks to Thulas in season one of the series. Even the show’s name pays homage to a very specific township dialect which is both unique and generic.
The name Yizo Yizo means nothing in particular, but it can be reconfigured to mean anything from, “it’s on”, “for sure”, to a pre-Wacko Jacko version of, “this is it”. It’s all about context, which is something that is at the core of the show.
YIZO Yizo gave us some of the most memorable scenes in the history of Mzansi television. Who could forget Bobo seeing a cow after taking some drugs in season two, or Chester handing out exam papers after a teacher forgot them at a bar?
Dudu being raped in a chicken den is one of the most harrowing renditions of a crime that has been enacted on the small screen in the history of South African TV and film. Through innovative sequences like this, Yizo Yizo desanitised the happy-go-lucky imagery that post-
1994 South Africans had built about and around themselves. It went against the grain of the invasive, orchestrated hope that was being churned out by South Africans singing Shosholoza in Castle Lager adverts, that single-story narrative that was cultivated in the euphoria of an idealistic, fleeting socio-historical moment.
In those heady days, when singing the national anthem at school was still good form, we were a nation numbed by optimism. With the backdrop of that pervasive feel-good era ushering in the ascension of former president Thabo Mbeki to power, Yizo Yizo came in from the cold like an unwelcome relative with dirty shoes.
The relative who paces restlessly in your living room and starts talking inappropriately about family dirt, uncovering decades-long stains hidden from view, disturbing the false peace and pointing out too loudly that the emperor is, in fact, naked.
Gibson is also not unaware of the trauma some of the actors experienced during the filming of difficult scenes: the rape scenes were difficult and quite traumatic for the actors. Scenes of consensual sex were a whole lot easier. We were encouraging a lot of improvisation in all the scenes. The actors really owned their characters.
The rape that happened next to the cage of chickens started with an observation of the way in which the chickens attacked their food. There was a kind of aggressive madness to it that was the clue to the scene. Ernest Msibi, who played Chester, took on that madness and the scene took off from there. It was very scary and it took some days for the actors to get over that.
The broadcaster usually stood by us, but I do remember negotiating the number of thrusts there could be in the sex scene between Javas and Nomsa in season three.
It was not just a TV series, it was a symptom. An early smoke signal. Watching the prog ramme with the benefit of hindsight, you are able to pinpoint exactly where we began our descent.
CONTRARY to popular belief, however, not all of the show’s actors were street bums before making it onto the show. Some of them had actually worked as extras and even in community theatre. But for many of them, including the likes of Tshepo Ngwane who played Thiza, it was through a small agency and the grand lady of South African comedy, Lillian Dube, that they found themselves thrust into the Yizo Yizo limelight.
Ngwane recalls how he got his big break. “I had just moved from Newcastle to Jozi to come and stay with my dad. I had told him I wanted to do acting but he really didn’t believe in that because he worried about how I was going to earn a living. So I ended up studying full-time and secretly taking weekend classes and acting workshops whenever I could. I was lucky Mam’ Lillian Dube embraced me. I was just passing by one day and she told me there were these auditions in Rosebank. I immediately caught a taxi and went there and auditioned for the role of Sonnyboy, the taxi driver.”
Four days later he got a callback, and after three callbacks Tshepo didn’t get the role of Sonnyboy. Instead, he was cast as one of the leads in the series. With a fade S-curl (which he later shaved off for his role), Ngwane found himself thrust into what became the defining role of his life.
But there was one problem: his old man still didn’t know he was working as an actor now. A taxi-driving, conservative Zulu man, he had no time for watching TV.
“My dad didn’t even see the first episode. He was told by his taxi driver friends that they had seen me on screen, congratulating him on having a son on TV,” Ngwane recalls, laughing.
“I then lied and told him I was just lucky, that some people had come to school hosting auditions for the show and I got the part. I had to downplay it as much as I could.”
But when the old man saw his son’s acting, he accepted the situation and even started taping the show. Who knows, maybe he is the one responsible for all those VCR leaks of Yizo Yizo that were on heavy rotation around 2000?
For Thembi Seete the journey to getting cast was similar, but having to give up the Boom Shaka “image” and make room for a vulnerable character like Hazel in season two was not easy because Lebo was now doing her own thing and Boom Shaka was not that active anymore. “So I spoke to Speedy ( from Bongo Maffin) and he introduced me to Mam’ Lillian. The first thing I told her was that I wanted to be on Yizo Yizo. Auditioning for the show was one of the craziest things I’ve ever done because I spoke to Teboho before I even went in.
“I told him to just give me a chance because I was coming from music and this was a new thing for me, and I had to play this tortured character who was surviving rape so there was a lot of crazy stuff in there all at once.”
But it was the kind of crazy the country fell for.
Teboho Mahlatsi and Angus Gibson came up with the idea for Yizo Yizo, and an iconic show was born.
Thembi Seete found fame as part of Boom Shaka (ABOVE). LEFT: Then she starred as Hazel alongside Tshepo Ngwane aka Thiza.
The late-’90s show was a hit with township folk, as it told their stories in a real and raw way – and an eye-opener for many in the new South Africa. The show made TV stars out of musicians and ordinary people who’d never worked in showbiz before, like Tshepo Ngwane.
Born to Kwaito writers Esinako Ndabeni (ABOVE LEFT) and Sihle Mthembu (FAR LEFT).