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.
When people here ask me what I’m studying in the United States and I say “the history of humor and satire in South Africa,” they react in a number of different ways. Some—usually, in my experience, non-South Africans—comment awkwardly and gravely that it’s quite a specialized topic; some, like the very Afrikaans proprietor of my guesthouse in Johannesburg—who immediately thereafter pulled out her phone to show me a video of Leon Schuster’s tokoloshe prank—marvel at my choice and want to know more about what brought me to my topic. Oftentimes, the conversation drifts further towards abstraction than what I’m entirely comfortable with. People here acknowledge that South Africans love to laugh—and make no mistake, this is encouraging—but the idea that laughter is a valid area of study is novel, inspiring questions in people that they may never before have considered: what is laughter, anyway? What can it do for a person, or a group of people, or a country, at a certain moment in time? Do foreigners find South African humor funny, or does it strike outsiders as parochial and esoteric?
I spent most of last week in the picture-perfect little city of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape attending the National Arts Festival, which in my opinion ought to be a bucket-list item for anyone in the world who’s interested in the performing arts. The sheer number of different performances, from jazz to dance to serious theatre and stand-up comedy is positively dizzying. You could literally spend every day for eleven days sprinting from school gymnasium to church hall from 10:00 A.M. to midnight without a break, and never see the same performance twice. Someone could write a fine journal article or even a dissertation about what it means for the National Arts Festival to be in Grahamstown—which was built under bloody circumstances following the dispossession of the local Xhosa-speaking population, with its grand Anglican cathedral and huge stock of English-style boarding schools with manicured lawns. But that’s not my intention in this particular post. What I want to do here, having seen about fifteen different comedy show over the past week, is record some observations about my positionality and the significance (or insignificance) of humor at the current moment in South Africa, as a necessary preface to my further work this summer. Earlier I said that often discussions of humor tend more towards abstraction than I like, and it’s true. I’m not embarking on this project to confirm or debunk Aristotle or Freud or Bakhtin or any of the other great scholars who sought to answer the question of why humans laugh. I’m not there yet, and probably will not be for a long time. But as a white, heterosexual male born in the United States and seeking to position myself as an authority on South African history in general and the history of humor in particular, it’s vital for me to take stock of my position and my internal biases.
Stand-up comedy is a good place to begin to do this, since oftentimes one’s own biases and presumed position are unexpectedly exploited for comedic effect. What comedians call “audience work” consists of asking questions and making assumptions about people who would probably rather be left alone, but who invite being called out by sitting in the front few rows of the venue. Like much of the comedy I witnessed, audience work often succeeds when the comedian makes extravagant assumptions about the person being called out—assumptions far beyond what is empirically obvious to the performer but often, through the magic of stereotype, assumptions latent in the minds of the other audience members.
To cite an example from my own experience, a comedian (in this case Rob van Vuuren) sees a white couple near the front and asks where the man is from; when he answers “East London” (a medium-sized city in the Eastern Cape), the comedian remarks to uproarious applause that the woman next to him must be his sister. Now, the comedian doesn’t literally believe the man is in an incestuous relationship, but the joke lands because the audience recognizes East London as a boring, peripheral place where the implication of inbreeding serves to underscore that peripherality. It’s also perhaps significant that the objects of the joke were white; as an American I’m familiar with the trope that poor whites from the backwoods are incestuous, and just as in America I doubt whether the same logical jumps could be made if the subjects of van Vuuren’s attention were black.
One of the things that fascinates me about humor is the way it allows the ordinarily inexpressible to be made explicit. Outside a comedic context, the idea that white people from East London are probably in bed with their siblings could be considered mean-spirited, classist, and perhaps even racist. Indeed, part of the humor comes from the gravity of the charge: how many of us, in our ordinary lives, have accused total strangers of inbreeding? But because the ludic nature of stand-up comedy allows stereotypes to be discussed explicitly—often by performers who are themselves the objects of such stereotypes—it creates space that can be used to subvert or reinforce prejudice.
We must be careful here, however. The open-ended and audience-dependent nature of stand up comedy can make it dangerous to interpret from afar. Mojak Lehoko, a young black comedian from Katlehong (a township south of Johannesburg), asserts at the beginning of his show Rewriting History that he doesn’t want “the land” back, delving into stormy waters—the emotive politics of South African land reform. Citing his lack of agricultural expertise, Lehoko says he wants a business that cannot fail no matter how incompetent he is, like a K.F.C. franchise in Soweto. The audience laughs because Lehoko seems here to confirm a stereotype about black South Africans’ love for chicken. But is the laughter as simple as that? Are black members of the audience laughing because the statement is true or because it is ridiculous? Is it a laugh of pleasure or of pain? Are other members of the audience laughing because, as a black performer, Lehoko has given them permission to laugh at what otherwise might be considered a racist assumption? Very possibly some members of the audience are getting a kick out of having their prejudices confirmed. At the same time, though, the absurdity of the whole situation can elicit its own laughter. One of the remarkable things about laughter for me is the way it serves as the common physical manifestation of multiple emotional and cognitive responses. For the few seconds that an audience laughs about incest in East London, or fried chicken franchises as a form of reparation, the stereotype in question seems to hang in the air, both true and untrue—real and ridiculous—at the same time. Jokes that strike so close to the bone—that allude to real, raw social issues—defy straightforward interpretation.
Such jokes might appear either liberating or oppressive, depending on the context and depending on the eye of the beholder—indeed, one can laugh at those laughing at a joke when the joke is so obviously awful. But regardless of what a joke “means,” I want to argue that when it “lands” a liminal space opens where the commonplace is rendered absurd and multiple interpretations are possible simultaneously. Relatively safe discursive space appears in a way that rarely seems to happen in the course of more serious discussion. Inhibitions are lowered, and suddenly thinking about social problems and prejudices becomes pleasurable instead of frightening. In a country like South Africa, where social inequality and cultural stereotypes dominate so much of the subtext of everyday life, comedy can grapple more directly with certain issues than other forms of discourse. Yet the same foundation of playfulness that facilitates such frank discussion also acts as a limitation on that discussion: how can play be play if it has real consequences?
One of the key challenges of studying humor consists in recognizing its limitations, and those of one’s own interpretive power. As a white American with fairly extensive knowledge of South African popular culture, slang, and current affairs, at the Grahamstown Festival I found myself in an awkward position of privilege—laughing at jokes whose punchlines I understood, yet free of the complexities of actually being South African. At Loyiso Madinga and Schalk Bezuidenhout’s excellent show, Broken English, I audibly laughed at a reference to the Pure Monate Show, a television sketch show that aired from 2003 to 2004 and helped launch the careers of many well-known South African comedians. Madinga noticed my laughter and remarked that he had never seen that joke elicit such a response from a white person. He asked me about it onstage, and I was forced to come clean: when I admitted I was from America he (along with the rest of the audience) was understandably confused. He had interpreted my laughter as that of a white South African, and while the revelation that I was foreign served to prove his point that white people did not watch the Pure Monate Show, when other comedians learned that I was American, some felt compelled to explain certain jokes to me that, as an avid follower of South African news, I already understood. Of course, in the age of Donald Trump the knowledge that I was American could also draw a different kind of attention from comedians; both Rob van Vuuren and Conrad Koch called me a refugee and made jokes about “getting over the wall” to arrive in South Africa.
Given the uniqueness of my position, why should anyone trust what I say about South African humor? As far as the Grahamstown festival is concerned, I can at least say that I was present in the moment, able to gauge both my own reactions and those of the audience around me. However, as I continue this week with my archival investigations at the National Library of South Africa in Cape Town, I am reminded of the difficulty of engaging with historical humor. Though the words may be written in the pages of a newspaper or in the fragile leaves of a stage play manuscript, comedy is about so much more than printed text. Context and delivery are absolutely crucial to understanding humor, and the specific details of how and why certain people laughed at certain things almost a century ago are, to a certain extent at least, lost forever. At the same time, however, I believe the deep contextual work that is the historian’s stock-in-trade can allow us to make valuable inferences about the laughter of the past. My position as an outsider in South African society will require me to interrogate my own reactions constantly, yet it also affords me a unique vantage point outside that milieu. Time will tell whether my efforts are successful, but I leave Grahamstown confident in the historical importance of South African humor and—quite frankly—in awe of the talented comedians who made my sojourn at the National Arts Festival so very rewarding.
[This is the first in a series I’m writing on my research visit to Austin. Once they’re posted, the links to subsequent articles will be posted here]
For those of you who don’t know, a little less than a week ago I returned from a brief trip to Austin, Texas. It went splendidly and put me in pole position for my journey to South Africa later this month. The object of the trip was research: I was in Austin to have a look at manuscripts and other records in the collection of the Harry Ransom Center for Humanities Research at the University of Texas, which is one of the leading institutions in the country for literary research. Housed in a boxy midcentury building that reminds me of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Center houses material from writers from Amos Tutuola to David Foster Wallace and everything in between; they even have an original Gutenberg Bible in their collection. The reading room on the second floor of the building is gorgeous, and the Center’s staff were all knowledgeable and eager to help me access the collections I sought. Over the next couple of weeks I hope to write more about that specific research, and in particular what I learned by going through the voluminous Herman Charles Bosman collection (one of the Center’s specializations is South African literature). However, as I’m still making my way through Stephen Gray’s excellent biography of Bosman, Life Sentence, I thought this week I’d focus more on my impressions of Austin in the hope of advising anyone out there on the internet who’s mulling a trip of their own. So, without further ado and at the risk of being clickbait-y, here are my Top Ten Tips for visiting Austin.
1. Score Some Brisket: From the moment my plane first touched down in Texas, I had a vision of loveliness in my mind. Having grown up on the East Coast in Virginia and North Carolina where pork is king, I was eager from the get-go to see what Texas had to offer in the way of barbecue. Meat eaters can rest assured that a fine beef brisket sandwich, with melted fat running like the Mississippi delta over expanses of tender muscle with a spicy rub and a touch of tangy sauce; well that’s nothing less than a religious experience right there, and it does not disappoint. Be warned, however: barbecue is a midday food in Austin, not a dinnertime delight. I had my first brisket (and it was delicious) at Freedmen’s Bar, near where I was staying. It was excellent (and the bar boasts an impressive selection of whiskies to go with your meal), but many of the classic Austin barbecue joints close well before dinnertime. A case in point is House Park Bar-B-Que, which has been smoking meat in the same humble pit off West Twelfth Street since 1943. The brisket sandwich is to die for (as well as the beans, for that matter), but it’s only open from 11:00 A.M. to 2:30 P.M. on weekdays, so plan ahead.
2. See The Bats: On my second night in Austin, I had more time and more energy to venture south of the U.T. campus towards downtown (the Harry Ransom Center is at Twenty-First Street, while Sixth Street is the unrivaled center of nightlife in the city. I took a pleasantly circuitous route through the grounds of the massive Texas State Capitol, ending on Congress Street, and decided to walk all the way to Lady Bird Lake, which runs through the heart of Austin. A couple of blocks before the bridge, I noticed a long line of people crowded onto the sidewalk of the bridge. Knowing Austin’s reputation as a music town but unaware of the bridge’s significance, I assumed it had something to do with an open air concert. Pleased at my good luck, I hastened to the bridge but amid the picnic blankets clustered on the south bank of lake I saw no sign of any musicians.
I was still in luck, however, because underneath the Congress Avenue bridge there live almost a million Mexican free-tailed bats who were, at that moment, poised to emerge en masse just after sunset to hunt. According to Bat Conservation International, the bats nesting in the arches beneath just this one bridge eat between ten and twenty thousand pounds of insects per night, which is an extraordinary feat by any measure. In fact, the bats of the Congress Avenue bridge constitute the largest urban bat colony in the world. I chalked the nickname “Bat City” up to the general “Keep Austin Weird” mentality; that Friday night I learned just how ignorant I was.
3. Get Outside: Austin is not the most beautiful city on the planet. Like many other American cities, particularly in the South, it is a sprawling, suburban place, with large surface parking lots even downtown. That said, the city’s leadership should be commended for their terrific investments in the city’s green spaces. From the lovely Shoal Creek Greenway that winds its way towards the lake from the north past playgrounds and picnic areas to the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike trails surrounding Lady Bird Lake, trails offer an outstanding way to get a feel for the central Texas landscape. As an East Coaster, I was fascinated by the plants and birdlife in this comparatively warm and dry atmosphere, where watercourses can rise from barely a trickle to a roaring cascade within a matter of hours. From Butler Park and Auditorium Shores on the south side to Zilker Park (the crown jewel of the Austin park system) to the west, wide paths and pedestrian bridges, kayak launches and wide green lawns (at least in early June) dot the shores of Lady Bird Lake, and reminded me strongly of the James River Park system in downtown Richmond. The trails of Austin are a wonderful way to take in the rhythm of city life, particularly in the early evening, and if I had more time in town I would have been sure to check out the botanical gardens in Zilker Park and the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, which I assume would have been in rare form given the weather and the time of year (since the Ransom Center was open until 5:00 P.M. each day I was in town, I didn’t get a chance to visit Zilker Park when these attractions were open). Then again, it’s always nice to have more reasons to come back.
4. Mind the Weather: Be warned that the weather in Austin can be fickle, particularly in late spring. I came to Texas expecting a dry heat, and I could not have been more mistaken. There were a couple of lovely sunny days towards the end of my stay, but for the most part it was both hot and humid (in the high 90s). It was also stormy, and while I was never caught in the rain, I had a couple of very close calls. Rain, when it fell, fell in sheets and city streets soon became overwhelmed by the cloudburst. Storms in Austin are very bad times to drive, and while I’m told it gets extremely hot as the summer marches on, I am also told the rain becomes less frequent. That means less humidity, which theoretically would make things more palatable. Considering how much Austin cuisine is meant to be consumed outdoors, from food truck arepas to alfresco barbecue, hydration is of critical, critical importance.
night traveler, Rio Grande
the street swept clean by
howling sheets of rain,
feet about gone, head full
of Fordsburg, belly full of
thinking of the royalty of flesh—
how it was you wrote it,
how it was i read.
i was grading papers on Sunday afternoon,
drinking dregs of tea, and in he came, like
a blind date, as if we did not belong to a past—
Phoebe, the only two syllables i ever needed
to feel i lived and also like i died.
swanning through Texas like old friends, what did
she know, this new partner of his? i don’t think
much, Moneta and all that,
to say nothing of Lynchburg,
how could she know?
but there we were and all of it was fine.
scorching heat on Mount Bonnell,
but it rained while we were eating.
who could understand? no use in it,
we were always close,
and i almost dropped him from a great height;
that was long ago.
like old friends,
stories never ever really end
and like old friends,
nothing can be trusted to remain
as it was,
but mostly life is kind to those who breathe
mostly it will comfort those who wait.