Kagiso Lediga: “Youth made me fearless”Breaking new comic ground: Lediga, with his spiky mini-dreads, gap-toothed smile and rakish beard, is anything but boring
By all accounts I was a boring child,” says Kagiso Lediga. It’s hard to believe. Lediga, with his spiky mini-dreads, gap-toothed smile and rakish beard has a face that looks permanently on the verge of saying something hilarious. It doesn’t matter whether you see him on the stage, the TV, the big screen or in the OR Tambo carriage of the Gautrain, the man is anything but boring.
Born in 1978, Lediga grew up north of Pretoria in the townships of Soshanguve and Ga-Rankuwa, both hotbeds of anti-apartheid activism. By the time he was in high school, however, he and friends were gearing up for a new form of resistance. “I lived in the same building as David Kau, who is one of the funniest men in the country. We used to talk about doing stand-up comedy one day, and ultimately we both went to the University of Cape Town to study drama,” says Lediga. “We were totally ignorant about local comedy. Obviously white comedians like Barry Hilton and Mel Miller were already legendary, but we existed in a parallel universe in which you never read or heard about people like that. For us, comedy was Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy.”
Lediga did a few stand-up gigs as an undergraduate, and in the process met other young black comics like Tshepo Mogale and Loyiso Gola. However, he found it hard going. “The audiences were all white, so there was a tendency to pander to terrible stereotypes, cracking jokes about stealing car radios and not being able to swim, which was bad for our souls,” says Lediga.
“When Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola first aired, it was slated,” recalls Lediga. “I think South Africans had become accustomed to a certain level of political correctness, and it was unnerving for them to watch comics ripping local celebrities and politicians to shreds.”
Wider recognition, he felt, was the key to being able to talk about his own experiences in his own voice. “I had this idea for a comedy sketch show, but it was a catch-22 because local broadcasters had totally missed developments like Monty Python and In Living Color. They had no concept of sketch comedy,” he says.
Luckily, a side door opened into the SABC: a job on the Phat Joe Live show. “I was on TV every week and audiences got to know me. I think this convinced the SABC to take a gamble on The Pure Monate Show which, when it aired, gave birth to a new wave of black comedians, and I say that in inverted commas because some of them were only black in spirit, like Chris Forrest,” Lediga chuckles.
Before PMS, the vast majority of South African comedians were part-timers, reliant on other sources of income. “Joey Rasdien was working at Alexander Forbes, Tshepo Mogale was working at Investec, Chris Forrest was working for Multichoice and Riaad Moosa was still doing his medical internship. After PMS, they all became professional comics. Youngsters saw this and were inspired. Trevor Noah told me it was an episode of PMS that convinced him to go into comedy,” says Lediga.
“But promoters took a long time to see comedy’s potential. We knew the demand was there, so with some partners I formed Diprente, a creative and commercial collective, which launched shows like e-tv’s satirical Late Nite News With Loyiso Gola (LNN) and films like Blitz Patrollie.”
LNN has twice been nominated for an Emmy Award, and Blitz Patrollie was invited to the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. “Comedians have now moved from the margins to being our cultural flag-bearers: starring in ads, promoting cellphone networks, even taking over America [a reference to Noah’s recent inheritance of The Daily Show],” says Lediga. “It’s nice to think I played a part in that.”