Three comedians performing in isiSwati have a swiftly growing fanbase upwards of 60 000 followers at home and in South Africa. But it is the fans that also keep them humble and grounded.
In a country that's little known for creative art, three comedians from the Kingdom of eSwatini have taken the online and offline world by storm through comedy, not only within the monarchy but also around some parts of South Africa.
The trio - Lungelo Gina (Smallz), Ncamiso Ntshingila (S'lwane) and Jacob Shongwe (Gedlembane) - produce Swati content loaded with hilarious punchlines. They bring nothing but tears of joy. Their jokes are flavoured with "different angles of humour" resulting in endless laughs.
"[The trio] are currently the most sought-after and the busiest artists in the Kingdom of eSwatini, without a doubt," says manager Philani Mpanza confidently. Often, their humour is peppered with educational messages, which gets them booked by non-governmental organisations and corporations.
To disseminate their content, they rely primarily on their Facebook page, Smallz The Comedian, which had more than 64 000 followers at the time of publishing, up from 61 000 just two weeks earlier. The trio use the camera selfie mode to capture their organic videos, which sometimes get more than 100 000 views without boosts or promotion. They say their love, passion and brotherly spirit has made their commitment to bring joy stronger and more unbreakable.
Becoming a team
As Smallz was building his comedy career, he approached S'lwane and told him of his strong interest in creative art. At the time, S'lwane was one of the directors of the Pelepele Arts Academy, a well-known academy that offers stage, drama, dance, gumboot, entertainment, drums, community training, television and live events production.
S'lwane, who has a background in acting, trains the youth in schools, communities and churches around eSwatini, fostering their performing art skills. The father of one took a starring role in Umjingi Udliwa Yinhlitiyo, a Swati movie that explores the culture of offering your daughter for marriage without her consent.
Smallz auditioned for the Pelepele Art Academy. "I auditioned Smallz and I loved his work. When it comes to drama pieces, he is powerful. Judging from the drama skills, I saw that he is a comedian," says S'lwane, recalling how Smallz joined the group. He became more invested in nurturing Smallz's creative skills by ensuring that his jokes are humorous but also intellectual.
In 2015, Smallz took part in one of the biggest comedy competitions in the country, the LOL competition, which he won. After his victory, their collaboration became much stronger.
"I was behind the scenes," S'lwane says, adding that he seldom appeared in videos until now.
At the age of six, one morning in 2002, Smallz was on a bus travelling from Mbabane to Manzini with a man who cracked jokes throughout the journey. "When I saw him, deep down I said I want to become like him one day," Smallz says, reflecting on the man who became his inspiration after just a single encounter.
Smallz told S'lwane this story and they decided to seek him out. That man was Gedlembane.
He is one of eSwatini's legendary comedians, who got the name Gedlembane playing a leading role in a soapie called Tigigaba. In real life, he is more reserved than S'lwane and Smallz. But in the videos, Gedlembane is portrayed as the more animated and crazier of the trio.
"He is the kind of guy who will give you punchline jokes now and then. And S'lwane will give you the intellectual perspective of humour. When you combine this, it will work even in the sense of mileage," Smallz says, adding that they capitalise on their unique strengths. "We don't run out of content, everything is a joke for us. What works is that we've got different angles of humour."
There isn't much money in comedy in eSwatini. This is partly because the majority of emaSwati do not consider it to be formal work. Even those in comedy often do it as a part-time gig. This unintentionally perpetuates the stereotype that comedy is not a viable form of employment and so talented young comics often abandon their skills.
However, the trio has succeeded in demonstrating that comedy is worthy work. "We've got some of the finest artists in [eSwatini] but now they are not able to monetise their craft," says Mpanza, whose role as their manager is to help the three comedians "monetise their skills because they have to start families, build homes out of this, and I need to make sure that all their hopes and aspirations are fulfilled".
To successfully gain prominence purely on vernacular jokes, the trio has made Swati speakers prouder of their language and their identity as a people. Most importantly, their joy movement has inspired thousands of children in far-flung rural communities to believe in the power of storytelling and the feasibility of building a career through creative art and comedy.
When Gedlembane spontaneously cracked jokes in front of a crowd, the elders in his community would bet with their thumbs up that "I was either mentally disturbed or bewitched, and I needed some serious help. They did not understand that I am a comedian."
After gaining fame and status, things changed drastically for him. "During 'fun day', teachers now give learners a chance to imitate some of our plays." Gedlembane says this is a sign that people are starting to believe in the power of art. "We've opened gates, when the younger ones come to the comedy industry they would see that it can also pay [and needs to be taken as seriously as any other job]."
The comedians are amazed by the power of social media, saying it has taken their craft to unimaginable heights with thousands of followers waiting patiently for their videos every week. Their audience continues to watch despite the expense of watching videos online, because of high data costs. All they want is some comic relief.
"If social media was a person, I don't know how I would thank it. It has played a wonderful role, we are popular because of it. We post videos because of it, we meet people because of it, our page has become a big family," says S'lwane. "The nice part about social media is that even if you don't have a passport, you are able to have access to what's happening around even if you're unable to be present in the flesh."
As eSwatini is primarily a rural country, there are inherent hindrances to chances of success. "The environment contributes a lot to an individual's talent. If the environment is not enabling, people will only support you based on the possibilities that the environment brings," S'lwane says, adding that they have an astounding fanbase in South Africa.
Because their jokes are primarily in isiSwati, Mpumalanga remains the main province in which they perform. It offers lucrative prospects in terms of gigs, but the migration of people is contributing to the expansion of their footprint to other provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
South Africa may be lucrative in terms of opportunities, but there's one place they will never forget: home.
"eSwatini is our stand and foundation," S'lwane says. "Even when we begin to look beyond and be amazed by the support we receive from South Africa, we know very well that we wouldn't be able to succeed without a solid foundation, which is eSwatini."
At a show in Nhlangano, about 130km from the country's capital of Mbabane, they witnessed first-hand just how far ardent fans would go to show their love and support. On arrival at the venue, an old man approached them saying that he loved them so much and had always wished to attend their shows. "I don't have money to buy the R50 ticket, may I give you a live chicken as a form of payment?" he asked.
The old man's request left them feeling emotional and they accepted his offer. "We used to see people crying for the likes of Michael Jackson, but now that people sacrifice the little they have just to be with us is really humbling. We hope to become bigger and better," Smallz says. That chicken earned the old man a VIP seat at the show.