Satire is a curious word in my line of work. When I talk to people about what I do I often find myself trying to use the word in my response, thinking it’ll give my study of mere “humor” an air of respectability and significance it wouldn’t otherwise have. Satire is the humor even serious people can appreciate, because they recognize that it’s not really humor at all—not mere jokes, anyway. Satire goes all the way back to ancient Rome: to Horace, to Juvenal. Fart jokes go back just as far, of course—think of Aristophanes’ The Clouds—but it’s never the fart jokes that bring down the mighty and powerful, is it? So we are told. The more I’ve thought about it, though, the more I’ve concluded that the line dividing “satire” from mere plebeian “comedy” is mostly a fiction. Jokes that tackle aspects of social reality are inherently satirical whether or not they are dressed in the trappings of high culture. Likewise, what do we do with instances of “satire” that seem to be aimed less at rousing an audience than at consoling them?
That seems to be the chief concern of the South African novelist and newspaper columnist Paige Nick in her newly published book Unpresidented: A Comedy of Errors, described on its back cover as a “blistering contemporary South African satire.” If so, I reasoned, it would be right up my alley, and so I picked up a copy at the Van Schaik bookshop in Grahamstown the week before last. Set in the year 2020, I was curious to learn how Nick would represent South Africa in a future beyond the morass of contemporary politics. Is the country headed for collapse or rejuvenation in the wake of President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, or will it only deepen in its virtues and vices, becoming more like itself? These questions are more relevant than ever before, as the A.N.C. struggles to maintain even a slight semblance of unity going into its December elective conference, with the South African Communist Party all but admitting last week that it would leave the Tripartite Alliance if Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was elected party president.
Alas, Nick’s book says almost nothing about the career of South African politics after Zuma goes (or, as he is called in her book, “Jeremiah Gejeyishwebisa Muza”) Instead, the story is narrowly focused on the bumbling ex-president (released from prison on medical parole for an infected ingrown toenail) and a disgraced journalist named Matthew Stone, whose agent has netted him a job ghost-writing the ex-President’s memoirs. Set at the rapidly decayed “Homestead” in Nkandla, Stone has just a month to write the ex-president’s book amid the constant frustration of being fed “alternative facts,” as Nick calls them. Stone wants to tell the story of the “real” ex-President Muza, while Muza, a pathological liar, remains focused on schemes to win back power.
The central joke running through the book is that Jeremiah Muza is a deluded incompetent, abandoned by his erstwhile friends the Gupta…er…“Guppie” brothers and three of his wives (the remaining two, Refilwe and Bonang, are both successful businesswomen who leave Muza near the end of the story). Yet nothing seems to ever crack the façade of bravado and confidence for which Muza/Zuma is so well known. As Muza confides to Vuyokazi Ngcobo, his parole officer, “I suppose I would put there on my CV that I’m the Most Important Person In The Country Of South Africa For Over A Decade, and that I am also the Future Most Important Person In The Country, too.” As the story proceeds, he cultivates a relationship with Stone’s cocaine dealer, a Malawian named Elijah who, we are told, once married into a Jewish family and fancies himself Jewish, peppering his dialogue with Yiddishisms (including such scintillating dialogue as “Listen, Mr. Stone, you’re in luck, I’m a mensch…I’m going to give you time to write your vershtunkende book”). He is just the kind of enigmatic con-man Muza has been looking for, and so they conspire to go into the showerhead business together (a reference, if you didn’t catch it, to the infamous episode over a decade ago whereby then-Deputy President Zuma was accused of raping an H.I.V.-positive woman without using protection and showering afterwards to reduce the risk of contracting the disease). It’s not necessary to divulge precisely how far this plan gets, but it suffices to say that the plot never really leaves greater Nkandla.
Unpresidented is built on a firm foundation—what will Zuma’s life be like when someone finally gets the better of him?—but disappointed me in its failure to come to grips with the totality of Zuma as a man. In this Nick is not unique—the standard mass media caricature of Jacob Zuma is that he is a giggling, uneducated incompetent and not much more—but that’s reflective to me of a middle class and disproportionately white experience of Zuma that fails to account for the complexity of who he is. I don’t say that as someone who claims any kind of insight into his inner life—far from it—but the details of his biography alone say quite a bit. He is a man from very humble beginnings, with little to no formal schooling, who spent ten years as a political prisoner on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. On Robben Island he showed a keen interest in sport and was deeply involved with the administration of soccer among the prisoners. He is also took a strong interest in chess, which, it would seem, has served him well in subsequent political battles. He is a Zulu traditionalist whose lavish Nkandla homestead reflects, among other things, a commitment to his role as a Zulu patriarch—at his happiest with his cattle. Whatever his vices—and I don’t mean at all to minimize them—he contains multitudes. Indeed, much of his political success in recent years can be attributed to his opponents’ persistent tendency to underestimate him.
I realize I am writing this critique as someone who doesn’t necessarily have a better idea. A novel about the future Jacob Zuma, stripped of his powers, is justified in taking some liberties to ensure that it’s appropriately funny, and I’m not certain that I personally could do a better job than Nick. But I what interests me most about reading Unpresidented is that, contrary to a lot of satire which, at least ostensibly, is focused on consciousness-raising and “afflicting the powerful,” Nick has written a book that reassures its (disproportionately white, middle class) readers in a remarkably ahistorical way that everything will be okay. We don’t get to know who is president in 2020 because once Zuma goes to jail, it won’t matter. Once he’s out, we won’t have to worry about political personalities; the rules will matter again. The good, sensible people shaking their heads in disgust at the present moment will quietly resume control of the things that matter. The many tensions that the Zuma era brought to the surface—land reform, #FeesMustFall, xenophobia, structural racism—these will have been put back in their box and life will continue as normal. It’s a fantasy with which I can sympathize—as an American, how nice would it be to imagine that once Donald Trump goes Americans will be able to transcend the forces that have paralyzed their own politics for the past decade? But such a vision, at its core, is nothing more than a fantasy. If Nick’s satire is “blistering,” it is blistering only in the darkest, most ironic sense. If it is blistering it is because of the tension between what she writes and reality—the fact that the Zuma presidency is not a dream from which the country will soon waken en masse, but, rather, an further chapter in the messy narrative of South African history. Like all historical eras, it will leave ghosts and unfinished business. While laughter may ease the pain, providing avenues for creative thinking and resistance, satire is a poor vehicle for consolation alone. To the extent that Nick’s satire seeks to console, it tells us something valuable about the present moment, but is unlikely to be remembered far beyond its own time.