The word ‘Nerd’ as slang dates back to 1951. A year earlier, the word originated in the most unlikely place: In the Dr. Suess book, If I Ran the Zoo, as a creature, the narrator Gerald McGrew claims he would collect for his imaginary zoo.

“Nerd is seldom used nowadays, maybe because we took that term and made it our own, perhaps because, truthfully speaking, everyone is nerdy about something. Whether it’s computers or soccer, it’s all the same.  A nerd is someone passionate about what is near and dear to their heart, and thanks to films like Black Panther and The Avengers, things are moving to a more positive connotation here.” This is the observation of Tebello Khala, a manga author, podcaster, and self-confessed nerd. 

Khala can’t remember when he first ventured into nerd culture. “No singular moment first interested me in nerd culture; I merely express who I am, and I express myself through my artwork in the manga I’m making and the other stories I plan to have animated.”

He and his friends are part of a Black Nerd Culture movement emerging in South Africa. On his YouTube Channel, KC Media, the Nerdgasm group discusses 90s cartoons or does superhero tier lists.

BizCommunity attributes the rise of the Black geek culture to accessibility. “As more South Africans gain access to the internet and digital devices, they are able to explore different areas of interest and connect with like-minded individuals. This has led to the emergence of online communities focused on geek culture, which has given Black geeks a platform to express themselves and share their ideas,” the article said. 

But there are still systematic barriers to so-called “nerd spaces” in South Africa. Khala mentions that while he hasn’t experienced overt racism, he has seen the effects of these barriers. “I’ve seen instances where events were advertised in such a way that it only resulted in a handful of Black South Africans attending said events. It’s actually how I got to meet my friend and Co-host Phila since there were so few Black people present at the event, we hung around each other for ‘safety’”, he said. 

He also mentioned how Black South Africans who aren’t in these spaces often look down on nerds. “Many a young black man’s or woman’s dreams are trampled upon as careers in nerd-related spaces are not taken seriously or seen as anything other than a hobby. This adds a whole lot of pressure on an already pressurised individual, and this mindset is all too common in the Black community,” said Khala.

Despite this, he says once you find these spaces, people in these communities are very accepting and inclusive. “Everyone wants to share what they’re passionate about and are happy to listen and see what you are passionate about. The nerd space here is truly where the dream of the rainbow nation lives; we don’t care about nationality, race, creed or orientation. Here, we not only accept you, we celebrate you. It’s just a shame that there are not many avenues where our black brothers and sisters can access these nerd spaces.” South Africa boasts diverse nerd cultures, from PC and console gamers to cosplayers and tabletop enthusiasts.

Representation and Inclusivity

Khala is a big fan of representation in nerd culture. “It’s massively important. Look at what the movie Black Panther did for us. We wouldn’t have Comic-Con if it weren’t for the movie’s massive reception on this continent.” He is referring to the first Comic Con in Africa that was held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2018. 

He says that while international communities see the value in SA nerd culture, local businesses and public sentiments do not. “Thus, more representation is required by ourselves in this Comic Con,” says Khala.

He also wants to see more South African cities holding Comic Cons. “We need to create more and more avenues where nerds can be among fellow like-minded people. There are Comic cons or expos happening in every major city in the United States throughout the year. Think of all the good we could do if we did the same here, in places like Mamelodi, Polokwane or Bloemfontein.”

He says he has seen positive initiatives aimed at fostering inclusivity within the local nerd community.

“The arrival of Comic-Con in this country is a MASSIVE positive change; even in Zimbabwe, you see a concerted effort to bridge the bias I mentioned before, and I’ve observed a ripple effect. Now we have Otakukon in Zimbabwe, and we have AfroGeek happening in Soweto. These are exciting times for us. The world is changing, and dreams are coming true,” said Khala. 

Otakukon, launched in August 2023, is the first anime convention in Zimbabwe. It aims to create an environment for fans of Japanese animation (anime), Japanese graphic novels (manga), related gaming, and Japanese pop culture to share and learn from one another through community-based events and conventions.

AfroGeek is a space for sharing and celebrating all aspects of Afro-Geekdom. In May, they’ll hold an AfroGeek Fest in Soweto. 

Black Geekdom in South Africa has seen the most enormous growth recently. Khala thinks that e-sports and an acceptance of anime contribute to its popularity. “I’m seeing more and more esports players come up the ranks, and it has become more and more accepted that you enjoy anime of various genres now,” he says.

What are his top three anime recommendations for someone just starting to explore the world of anime?

“There are so many genres in anime to cater to everyone’s unique preference, but for now, I’d recommend History’s Strongest Disciple Kenichi, My Hero Academia and Pluto.”

He concludes by mentioning that he believes the challenges in nerd spaces can be overcome. “Like the X-men, we are everywhere, just living in “disguise,” and it’s high time we started living this truth. Siya Kolisi, for as much as he is a rugby champion, is also a massive Goku fan. If he is one of us, then we clearly have what it takes to create a more accepting and open society,” he said.