Khaya Dlanga has a way with words. A former copywriter and strategist, he’s worked on brands like FNB and won a prestigious Cannes Gold Lion for Nando’s. An erstwhile YouTube sensation, his monologues – halted two years ago – have amassed over 6.5 million views. A weekly columnist, he shares his political – and other – opinions in two major newspapers. A self-confessed Twitter addict, he has gathered over 120 000 followers. A Senior Communications Manager: Content Excellence, he works for the world’s biggest soft drink company. And, in person, he’s an engaging conversationalist with a warm, genuine laugh.
But the man who spent his first nine years with strict, respected grandparents in the Eastern Cape village of Dutyini wasn’t always that way.
“I was almost invisible,” he remembers of his days at East London’s Hudson Park High where, in the early ’90s, he was one of the few non-white learners. “I didn’t want people to know me because I didn’t want them to see where I came from. We didn’t have electricity, we were using a paraffin stove, we were using candles,” he explains, recalling the half of a four-room township house he shared with his mother, brother, and sister.
Still, there were moments when the person who would eventually write a book called ‘In My Arrogant Opinion’ stepped forward. Like the time he defended OJ Simpson’s not guilty verdict in a class oral, or entered a public speaking contest in grade nine.
“I made this speech which was,” he laughs loudly, “very controversial. I stood in front of the whole school and said that Nelson Mandela freed white people more than he freed black people. I remember afterwards, black kids coming up to me and saying: ‘What are you doing? Are you trying to get us expelled?'”
Of course he wasn’t. And by the time he matriculated, the 18 year old whose earliest memories include herding cattle in a village where “the greatest aspiration of any man’s life was to go work in the mines underground”, had figured out how best to use his way with words: advertising.
With his mother’s encouragement (“she was always ambitious for her children”) and her R500, he caught a taxi to Cape Town to apply to AAA advertising school in person.
“I didn’t know how I was going to live or where I was going to stay, but I knew I had to figure something out once I got there.”
He certainly did, winning over the registrar with an impressive last-minute application and some quick thinking. A part-time job as a waiter helped pay the basics – rent, a little food – but during his second year, the teenager’s financial situation caught up with him. Left without a place to live, he ended up sleeping on AAA’s desks, before his pastor realised Khaya’s predicament and helped him back on his feet. But, unable to pay his fees, the child who’d dreamed of what lay beyond the mountains surrounding his village dropped out of college.
“I always admire people who say that they pulled through and achieved whatever it is they did because of incredible willpower or because they knew who they were supposed to be,” he admits, looking back on his most difficult days. “For me it was really about living day to day and making sure that I didn’t slide into a worse situation.”
Discontent with waiting on tables and having drawn encouragement from the scriptures (“Consider it pure joy my brothers whenever you face trials of many kinds, because the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature. If any of you lacks anything, he should ask God who gives freely to all and without finding fault.”), he sent his rather unconventional CV to Cape Town’s mostawarded small agency at the time. His listed experience: “I used to write slogans like ‘Free Mandela’ and ‘One man, one vote’ on township walls, this was a very successful campaign as you might have noticed.”
With his foot in the door, there was no looking back – or forward, for that matter.
“Woody Allen said that if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,” he chuckles. “My plan has always been: ‘These are the skill sets that I have. What does it mean that I have them? How can I best use them?’,” he says, referring to his natural progression from a creative to strategist to corporate executive.
One of the skills he developed alongside his 9-to-5 was that of self-expression – first as a stand-up comedian in Cape Town (some of his ‘SABC3 Comedy Showcase’ performances are online), before reaching a global audience on YouTube. It’s a legacy that continues through his rapid-fire tweets and the Cape Times and Mail & Guardian columns.
“I think I express myself because I’m a generally restless person, I’m never satisfied. I am positively discontent,” suggests the “terror of the social networks” who, according to his Twitter profile, never eats black Jelly Babies.
“I always need an outlet, whatever that outlet is. It’s all an extension to high school oral. I think it’s an extension of who I’ve always been, actually,” he says, still vividly remembering tuning into the apartheid-dismantling CODESA negotiations on the radio, reading newspapers, and debating politics with his uncles.
“I think what happened is I just got a sense of curiosity when it comes to certain topics.” And he got the skills to share those topics effectively.
“I write in a way that any other normal person speaks. For me it’s really about keeping it simple, so that people can understand it. And if people can understand it, and they can comment, and they can relate to the things that I say, that’s brilliant. If I provoke them to be irritated it means that I’m forcing creative dialogue. And I do enjoy creating dialogue, because it forces me to think and it hopefully forces other people to start thinking as well.”
And yet he doesn’t foresee a career in politics.
“I think politics is a very intricate thing,” he offers. “At some point I’d love to serve, but in what capacity I don’t know. I don’t think there’s anything greater than to serve your country or serve mankind in a positive way, but I could be serving while I’m in the private sector.”
An avid reader since the age of 11, when his mother forced him to read a photocopied selection of Alan Paton short stories, he’d also love to write a novel – as if he isn’t already busy enough.
“Sometimes I think I do all the things I do because my father died when I was really young – he was 26 or 27 – and you just want to do as much as you can before your time is up.”
- This article originally appeared in Man, the men’s lifestyle magazine of the Foschini group. (Image: Andreas Eiselen/HSMimages)