Johannesburg - Ten years ago he made his comedy debut and barely a soul turned up to watch him.
But times sure have changed. These days when Skhumba Hlophe takes to the stage it’s usually to a full house – and sometimes he can’t believe he’s being paid and recognised for making people laugh.
The funnyman is fast becoming a household name thanks to his role as Bheki in SABC1’s comedy series Thandeka’s Diary and his radio hosting skills on the Kaya FM show Good Friday.
Yet it’s stand-up comedy that makes him tick and the industry is rewarding his commitment and talent.
From politics to celebrities, nothing is off limits when it comes to his comedy set and he pulls no punches. But his humour isn’t always appreciated. One of his gags backfired in 2016 and a petition circulated online to have him removed from the airwaves.
“What kind of students study at Wits? Is Wits now like Sassa with old women? How are these students with silver stripes [stretch marks] and saggy breasts?” Skhumba said, commenting on protesting female Wits students who removed their tops and bras in anger and frustration during the #FeesMustFall protests.
He was forced to apologise for his body-shaming remarks – but what is comedy without risks, he asks. “When you joke that Xhosa men are stingy and Gwede Mantashe has oversized suits and a funny voice, aren’t you crossing the line? If it’s a joke, it will cross the line.”
He knows being criticised comes with the territory and Skhumba takes it all in his stride.
“South Africans are very sensitive. They wanted to kill me. But I’m a boy from eKasi – don’t mess with me because I know how to fight!”
His jokes are so effortless it’s hard to believe comedy was never part of the plan.
Growing up in his grandmother Leria Hlophe’s four-room house in Tembisa, north of Joburg, Skhumba wanted to be a lawyer “even though I’d never seen a lawyer in my life”. But his plans were derailed “because I was dumb,” he admits.
“Although I wasn’t last [in class] I was never in the top 20. I was very naughty.” Had it not been for his mother, Queen Hlophe, Skhumba might have carved a life for himself based on the flashy lifestyles of the role models he respected growing up in the township – gangsters.
“We would wash their cars and admire them. If I wasn’t scared of my mother I would’ve been in prison or dead by now. But she was very strict. She played a huge role in me becoming the person I am.”
Skhumba is grateful to both his mom and gogo for raising him. “My parents didn’t have a relationship when they had me,” he explains. When he was a bit older Skhumba asked his mom about a man who lived just four streets away from them.
“I wanted to know why I look like him. My mother told me he was my father.” That was the beginning of their relationship, he says. He’s forgiven his dad for not being part of his early childhood and is happy they’ve reconnected.
“No one’s perfect. He made mistakes but are we going to punish him for the rest of his life? He’s my friend.” After matric Skhumba got a job as a senior personnel officer at the Tembisa police station.
“My mother worked at a dry cleaner and couldn’t afford to send me to university. But I was never a cop – I’ve never carried a gun. I hate guns,” says Skhumba, who quit his job with the police in 2016. And throughout it all he realised this: the only thing he was really good at was making people laugh.
He got his first taste of performing when a friend convinced him to do a comedy show at Caprivi in Tembisa. “I thought he was too ambitious,” Skhumba recalls. It turned out Skhumba was right. His first show, which also featured Emmy nominated comedian Tol Ass Mo, flopped when no one pitched up to see them.
But over time word of his wisecracks slowly started spreading – although he still wasn’t performing to capacity crowds. “I remember [comedian] Chris Mapane said I’m funny only in Tembisa. I thought, ‘this bastard is jealous because I’m funnier than him’. “But he was right. I realised I had to grow.”
To hone his skills Skhumba became a resident comedian at Bambatha Avenue Jazz Café in Centurion for two years. “I earned less than R200 at Bambatha,” he says. Posters advertising shows usually featured headliners such as Trevor Noah, Loyiso Gola, Barry Hilton and “many more”.
“My name was ‘many more’ for a very long time,” he jokes. Things turned around for him in 2010 when he was invited to perform at Monwabisi Grootboom’s 99% Xhosa Comedy show in Port Elizabeth.
Skhumba says his life changed after he received a standing ovation at the PE show. He moved from being “many more” to a headline act for the next show in East London. “I was very happy when I saw my name in a newspaper for the first time. I couldn’t believe it,” he says.
His career has soared over the past three years, but his feet are still firmly on the ground. “I’m happy but I haven’t celebrated my success,” says Skhumba, who also co-hosted a motor show on Mzansi Magic with Boity Thulo called Change Down.
“If I was someone else, I’d order the most expensive whisky and pop Champagne to show I’ve made it. But I know how to go to bed with just pap and cabbage. I have to stay grounded and not lose myself in this fame thing.”
Part of staying grounded is maintaining a healthy relationship with his kids – he has an 11-year-old daughter from a previous relationship and a six-year-old son with his current partner. Family means the world to him.
“My phone needs to be on constantly because a child can be sick at 1am. I need to be there for them all the time.” To the world he’s a funny man but at home he’s firm.
“My son thinks I’m his friend but I always tell him I’m his father. I love my kids.” They’re the reason he hustles so hard, he adds.
Skhumba will soon be jetting off to America and the United Kingdom to perform there – but people shouldn’t expect him to change things up simply because he’s overseas. “I won’t perform in English,” he says, laughing. “South Africans are everywhere.”