Several years ago, I started a lecture on orality and popular culture with a reference to a song by comedian, traditional rapper, singer, story teller, concertina player and maskandi musician Vusi Ximba. In the song, Ximba tells the story of how a rural woman — let’s call her Ma Dlamini — who could neither read nor write asked her daughter, whom we shall call Bongi, to read out a letter Ma Dlamini had just received from her migrant worker husband. Ma Dlamini’s instructions to Bongi include that as she reads out the letter, Bongi must literally and physically close her ears. Why? Because her father is man who calls a spade a spade and he might use words too explicit for a young girl’s ears. Bongi obliges and plugs both her ears with her palms as she reads. To Ma-Dlamini’s surprise, Bongi starts to smile and ends up giggling shyly as she reads the letter.  Without access to the experience of reading and writing Ma Dlamini does not realise that one does not need their sense of hearing to “hear” what a letter is saying. An amazing insight and conjecture from Vusi Ximba!

When I learned two days ago that Vusi Ximba had died, I was numb with shock.

As a youngster whose childhood was split on the one hand between the villages of Basani, Valdezia, in Limpopo and Meadowlands, Soweto, on the other, I, like Bongi, was often called to perform this crucial task for my aunts, uncles and grannies. As such I had access to (intimate) knowledge about families, couples and individuals which would be normally unavailable to children. Often I had to pretend that I was not actually “hearing” what I was reading — especially if it was too explicit, too intimate or too painful.

Migrant men living in the hostels and townships as well as their destitute spouses and parents had a way of pouring out their raw emotions, hopes and fears into a letter.  It often felt like a kind of literary voyeurism — which would both embarrass and excite me tremendously.

Ximba was a very astute and insightful observer of culture and of human behaviour — something he has not been given enough credit for. Though isiZulu is not my first language, I am proficient enough in it to know that his usage of the Zulu language was riveting. He was not the most handsome old man around. He did not have the most angelic singing voice. What he possessed were brilliant story telling skills, cutting-edge wit and a mind-blowing sense of humour. He was one of the greatest impromptu stand-up comedians ever to grace our streets. Especially admirable about him was the fact that he possessed that greatest of comedic traits — the ability to laugh at oneself! The butt of his jokes were his own people, people like him, with desires and weaknesses just like his. The reason Ximba managed to make us laugh so much and so hard is that he taught us, first and foremost, to laugh at ourselves and not to take ourselves too seriously.

There has been some controversy about the explicit nature of some of his jokes. A few of his songs even earned the honour of being banned by the national broadcaster. Yet this did not seem to dampen the spirits of his fans. There could have also been concerns about the inappropriate manner way in which some of his characters were portrayed. I am thinking of a song such as Yes Mesisi — which tells the story of a rural woman who had never used a modern toilet. But I think that the explicitness and inappropriateness of Ximba’s songs were grossly exaggerated. Ximba is not nearly as carelessly and needlessly explicit as some of the R&B, rave or soul songs on offer. Nor are his songs violent in the manner in which some rap and house and R&B songs are.

Remember the one about the rural man who tried to fight a kid with a karate black belt with a stick? When he regained his consciousness he asked: “Where is the taxi that knocked me down?” Do you know the one about the rural man who upon arrival in Johannesburg meets a group of men chasing a man? Instinctively, the well trained rural man, swings his knobkerrie and floors one of the men. Only to discover the all the men were participating in a marathon! Ximba could have taught the likes of Trevor Noah (of Day Walker and Tonight with Trevor TV show fame), Eugene Khoza  (now of Khoza Can fame) and Chris Rock (of Kill the Messenger fame a thing or two. If you have never listened to Ximba, you are missing out on indigenous wit, brilliant language usage, riveting story-telling and thought-provoking humour.


  • Tinyiko Sam Maluleke is a South African academic (currently attached to the University of South Africa [UNISA]) who suffers from restlessness, intellectual insomnia, insatiable curiosity, a facsination with ideas, a passion for justice, a crazy imagination as well as a big appetite for music, reading and writing. He has lectured briefly at such universities as Hamburg in Germany, Lausanne in Switzerland, University of Nairobi in Kenya and Lund University in Sweden - amongst others.


Tinyiko Sam Maluleke

Tinyiko Sam Maluleke is a South African academic (currently attached to the University of South Africa [UNISA]) who suffers from restlessness, intellectual insomnia, insatiable curiosity, a facsination...

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