Is it too soon to laugh about apartheid?
In post-apartheid South Africa, comedy has become the expression of a new democratic energy
This article is a preview from the Winter 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
When Trevor Noah was appointed the new host of that bastion of US liberal comedy The Daily Show last year, American viewers and critics were baffled. Noah, a mixed race South African in his early 30s, is a big star back home – as a former soap actor, TV presenter and stand-up comedian – but the only South African Americans have heard of, it has been quipped, is Nelson Mandela.
Noah, incidentally, does a very good impression of Mandela. He’s a skilled mimic, also taking off subsequent South African presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma in stand-up shows. His family background – he has a black Jewish-Xhosa mother and a white Swiss-German father – has always been central to his comedy. His 2013 stand-up tour was titled “Born A Crime”, and the memoir that he published this autumn has the same name. It’s a reference to the fact that when he was born in Johannesburg in 1984, the apartheid regime mandated that marriage between people of different races was a criminal offence, for which his mother was jailed and fined. His father moved back to Europe and Noah grew up in Soweto with his mother and maternal grandmother. He has spoken about how, when he was a toddler, his mother would drop his hand in the street when white people approached, to avoid trouble.
Being mixed race has allowed Noah to position himself as the ultimate outsider. He belongs neither to South Africa’s black majority (at the 2011 census, 80.2 per cent defined themselves as “black African”) nor the formerly politically dominant white minority (now just 8.4 per cent of the population). His brand of sharp observational comedy delivered with a charming smile thrives under these circumstances. Everyone is fair game for him, and although he is now a rare non-white face in America’s late-night TV line-up, he plays up his “foreignness” and doesn’t spare African Americans either.
South Africa is experiencing a comedy boom at the moment, frequently referred to as “the Trevor Noah phenomenon” by critics. This is partly down to economics: a 2012 report from the University of Cape Town (UCT) found that the country’s black middle class had more than doubled in less than a decade. David Kau, who made waves as a young black comic in the years immediately following the end of apartheid in 1994, has commented that he no longer has to rely on “white patronage”, because black South Africans now have enough disposable income to attend his shows.
Comedy is also thriving because there is a lot of material to work with. Apartheid itself was a “structural joke”, in the words of UCT academic Tessa Dowling, and the struggles that the country has faced since 1994 – the AIDS epidemic, vast social inequality, racist institutions, economic slowdown, an increasingly corrupt political class – have proved fertile ground for comedians. Black people were shut out of public life entirely until just a couple of decades ago, so it’s no wonder that a new generation of performers have a lot to say. Lyn Snodgrass, the head of political and conflict studies at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, has identified this flowering of comic talent as a “budding sign of a deepening democracy”, similar to the anti-colonialist Rhodes Must Fall movement and the #FeesMustFall student protests of the past year. Millions of previously disenfranchised people were brought into the political discourse for the first time in 1994, and comedy is one way that they are now expressing their agency.
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During the apartheid regime, millions suffered systematic discrimination and abuse, and thousands were killed for their activism or beliefs. It’s an open question whether writing jokes about South Africa’s recent history is appropriate or even desirable. How soon is too soon to make people laugh about traumatic events? Scholars are divided on the question of whether racial humour, in particular, has an overall positive effect. Some believe it merely reinforces the power of the oppressor. In the words of academics Joseph Boskin and Joseph Dorinson, it “maintains society’s social strata and perpetuates ethnic groups’ outsider status”, while other academics have argued that if previously oppressed groups use racial humour to “punch up”, it can challenge assumptions and broaden the minds of audiences.
There is a long history, though, of oppressed groups using humour to cope with an ongoing trauma. Professor Don Nilsen, a scholar of humour at Arizona State University, has observed that “the humour used by Jews in Nazi concentration camps allowed the Jews to take a little bit of control of their own lives”. Sigmund Freud provided a famous example of this type of satire-under-duress when, attempting to flee Nazi-occupied Vienna, he was forced to sign a statement confirming that he hadn’t been mistreated. He wrote a note saying: “To Whom It May Concern: I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone.” Satisfied, the Nazis allowed him to depart, apparently unaware that Freud had been making fun of them.
In this way, humour can also provide an outlet for victims to stealthily hit back at their aggressors without detection. Prior to 1994, the languages of white authority in South Africa were English and Afrikaans, and few officials had knowledge of widely spoken African languages. Xhosa, with 8.2 million native speakers, has a long tradition of storytelling and “praise poetry” being used for politically subversive means. In 1925, when the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) visited South Africa, the Xhosa imbongi (the official poet to the tribal chief) at King William’s Town in the eastern Cape delivered a formal ode of welcome that contained a double meaning. It began:
Ah, Britain! Great Britain!
Great Britain of the endless sunshine!
She hath conquered the oceans and laid them low;
She hath drained the rivers and lapped them dry;
She hath swept the little nations and wiped them away;
And now she is making for the open skies.
Ralph Deakin, a British journalist accompanying the Prince on his tour, included a description of this welcome in his report of the trip. He wrote that the imbongi, S E K Mqhayi, wore “a vermilion cape and sat with a look of dread uneasiness on his wizened countenance . . . He drew himself up to his full height and opened his capacious mouth; with teeth shining in his black visage he half-recited, half-chanted the Prince’s praises and gave him greeting into the land.”
Deakin and the rest of the British party totally misinterpreted the intent behind the poem, and thus Mqhayi was able to use the formal rituals of Xhosa culture to satirise the representative of the British monarch right to his face. Under apartheid, the Xhosa art of storytelling and humour more generally expanded to encompass the injustices of segregation. Although the penalties if caught were severe, authors and performers could be fairly sure that the language barrier would protect them.
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Ray Hanania, a stand-up comedian who created the Israel-Palestine Comedy Tour, said in 2007 that “if we can laugh together, we can live together”, and there is certainly a way in which humour can be used to find common ground between historically opposed groups. Because apartheid forced different racial groups in South Africa to live in segregation, there is relatively little shared cultural history. To avoid perpetuating outdated stereotypes, veteran white South African comedian Mel Miller once said young black comics should “avoid bitching about apartheid”, and look inward as well as outward for their targets. Patronising as this now seems, there is evidence in the material of the new generation of South African comedians that his advice has been heeded.
Although the background of the apartheid years is, as you would expect, always present, these comedians do not simply attack across racial lines. Politics in South Africa has never been as simple as white vs black, as Noah and his personal story of mixed race exclusion demonstrate. Kagiso Lediga, who directs the popular South African Daily Show equivalent Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola, tells a story about an elderly black couple getting into a confrontation with a white clerk at an airport check-in desk. Lediga describes how the older man looks around for other black people in the queue to support him in his loud accusations, and then delivers the punchline: that he avoided the older man’s eye, so he didn’t get drawn into a confrontation – revealing that the anecdote is about old vs young, not black vs white.
Something that all these young comics have in common is that they draw on the multilingual nature of contemporary South African society. It’s no longer the case that language barriers prevent humour from being shared – South Africa now has 11 official languages, and most people speak at least two. Nik Rabinowitz, who describes himself as “South Africa’s funniest Jewish, Xhosa-speaking comedian” uses his language skills to great effect. In 2007, he did a routine about newsreaders struggling to pronounce African names – “I think the most challenging thing about the new South Africa is the clicks. I mean, you’ve got to pronounce people’s names correctly these days, especially people in public office” – and in the film of the event you can see audience members of all races laughing hysterically as he impersonates journalists mangling Xhosa and Zulu names.
Thanks to Noah and those following him, South African comedy is now getting attention for its role in enlivening a new democracy. Charlie Chaplin once said that “the function of comedy is to sharpen our sensitivity to the perversions of justice within the society in which we live”, and the expanding comedy scene in Cape Town, Johannesburg and other cities is fulfilling that function. But it’s not only in the last few years, or since 1994, that South Africans have been able to laugh at their situation. Even in the most traumatic circumstances, they found a way of deploying humour to their advantage. Perhaps there is no such thing as too soon – look a little bit closer, and you find that people have been laughing all along.