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

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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

(Turn over)

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).

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