The Great S.A. Comedy Odyssey Begins: Chester Missing, Wokpo Jensma, and the Meaning of Laughter

i toss my head off
i cry with agony
that they may laugh
but they only stare

i show them my bum
they still stare
i tell them a joke they stare

ah, i get it
i must be their judge

—Wokpo Jensma

I encountered this poem in the basement of the Wits Art Museum one Saturday morning a few weeks ago, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I had to know more about the author of these haunting lines. It turns out that the man who wrote them, Wokpo Jensma, is one of the great enigmas of South African cultural history. Born in 1939 in the Eastern Cape, he studied at two of South Africa’s leading Afrikaans universities and made a name for himself as a poet in the 1960s. He married across the color line (in Botswana, where it was legal) and suffered from schizophrenia. In 1993, according to the sources I could find, he “disappeared.”

The words are short and simple but leave us with a powerful image. What does it mean for our narrator, the victim of the poem, to be the judge of his audience? Jensma wrote this poem in 1972, at the height of the apartheid era. The South African economy was booming and white supremacy seemed invincible. If we apply this context to the poem we might observe that systems of oppression require constant performance on the part of both torturer and victim, oppressor and oppressed. But what struck me most was an image familiar to me from watching stand-up comedy: the unspoken, inarticulate urgency of risky jokes, jokes that temporarily unmask the unpleasant realities of power. Audiences in those moments want more than just a fun night out. What do they want? It can be dangerous to ask that kind of question.

A view of the stage at Blacks Only, April 6th, 2019. It was a sold-out show.

I’m thinking about this in the context of a comedy show I saw later that day. It was a Blacks Only Comedy Tour event, at the massive casino monstrosity called Emperor’s Palace, near Johannesburg’s main airport. The tickets were expensive and I didn’t like the venue at all: I was seated only a few rows from the very back of an enormous convention center ballroom. It was a sold-out show: 3,500 people in stackable plastic chairs on a flat convention floor. If it wasn’t for the six big screens hung from the ceiling I wouldn’t have seen a thing.

People often ask me what sets South African comedy apart from comedy in America or in other countries, and I never feel like I have a satisfying answer. Laughter is one of the things that unites us as a species; almost everyone, the world over, likes to laugh, even if they have different ideas and theories about what laughing means. And of course laughing never means just one thing: it usually means many different things all at once. But if I say that South African humour (or French or women’s or queer humour, for that matter), is such-and-such, I immediately pigeonhole that tradition in a way that can never stand up to scrutiny. If comedians thought like that the world would be a much less creative place.

Maybe my stance will change by the end of my travels here, but for now all I feel I can say is that South African comedy is special because it’s from South Africa. First and foremost, that means an overwhelming concern with diversity. Diversity of race, diversity of language, diversity of culture—diversity of truths, even in an era of fake news. South Africa’s incredible diversity lends itself easily to the absurd. After all, this is a country where so many unreconcilable things somehow manage to coexist. It’s a country where some of the most crushing poverty in the world exists cheek-by-jowl with some of the most ostentatious wealth. It’s a country where the ruling party officially espouses socialist rhetoric while bolstering one of the most monopolistic and influential corporate regimes in the world. By laughing about it, South Africans name that absurdity and make it less powerful, less intimidating.

Comedian Sne Dladla performs at the Protea Hotel Fire and Ice, Johannesburg, April 27th, 2019

When people are laughing, their guard is down, after all, and they’re prepared to listen to things they would avoid hearing about otherwise. Yet humor also has limits. To quote Chester Missing, speaking to a hushed auditorium after goading Koch, his ventriloquist (the only white comic in the line-up) to apologise for apartheid on the spot, “You see that? Absolutely fokol has changed.” Naming absurdity disarms it for a while, but resolves nothing.

Conrad Koch holds a master’s in sociology and received a raucous reception that night (David Kau, the host, opened by taking a racial census of the audience, asking each of the four apartheid-era racial groups in the audience to cheer and be counted—probably 95% of the audience was black). Koch is almost certainly the most politically relevant ventriloquist in the world—Chester Missing is a household name with a prime-time network TV show and almost 400,000 Twitter followers. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that South Africans have an appetite for ventriloquism. After all, as anyone will tell you, the place is full of “ventriloquists”: “white monopoly capital,” “Gupta puppets,” “tenderpreneurs,” and “Stratcom spies” are just a few of the terms used in everyday language to describe people who are not acting straightforwardly, but on behalf of more sinister forces. Years ago, Chester Missing himself used to be visibly black or Coloured, creating an explicitly racialized puppet/puppeteer dynamic. Eventually Koch decided to turn Chester white, to avoid the charge that he was indulging in blackface. Judging by the audience’s laughter at Emperor’s Palace, his fanbase seems to have accepted this.

Koch uses his “whitened” puppet to call attention to the inadequacy of his work. He leans in to the fact that his satirical attacks on South African injustice do not negate his privilege as a white performer, any more than his audience’s laughter can assuage their pain over continuing injustices or alter their position in the society. The depth and rawness of South Africa’s historical wounds makes for an intensely existential comedy. The louder the laughter, the sharper the pain; pain which is no less necessary for being futile.

We find the same paradox in Jensma’s poem. His narrator wants to please the people watching, perhaps hoping that doing so will cause his abasement to end. Yet their desires are mismatched; the crowd wants a judge. And this is, in many ways, the dilemma of comedy: the audience usually wants both a judge and a jester. A judge to pass judgement, and a jester to reassure it that there are no consequences; comedy demands recognition, but not repentance. Like moths to a porchlight, the dance continues. Living in a country where so much seems unresolved, it seems fitting that South Africans would be more comfortable than most with loose ends.

NEW ARTICLE: “No Laughing Matter? Humour and the Performance of South Africa”

Hello all,

The “African History” part of this website’s brief has been sorely neglected this year owing to my comprehensive exams, but I hope to change all that this summer, having more time on my hands.  I’m particularly excited to share the link below, the first peer-reviewed article of my graduate career.  It’s been a long time coming, and it focuses on themes I’ve already written a bit about on this site: the early 20th century satirist Stephen Black, and his work’s parallels with Leon Schuster’s post-apartheid films.  The link to a free PDF will expire when enough people click on it, but if you have access to the South African Theatre Journal through a university library it should not be difficult to access it that way.

Let me know in the comments if you have any questions or observations on the paper; any and all opinions are welcome!  Thanks once again to everyone who helped make this a reality.

On Jacob Zuma and the End of History: A Review of Paige Nick’s “Unpresidented”

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?

Jacob Zuma has often been the target of satire in recent years; the T.V. show “Puppet Nation Z.A.” does a Zuma impression of note

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.

Number One is far more complex than Paige Nick reckons with…

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.

Laughing in Grahamstown: Participant Observation and South African Comedy

The bucolic surroundings of the Albany Bowling Club, one of the main comedy venues at the Festival.

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.

The Grahamstown festival is enormous. Here are some posters slung across the atrium of the 1820 Setters National Monument (like I said, one could write an article…)

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.

Grahamstown is a gorgeous little place to be sure, but screams “colonial” from every cobblestone and charming pub

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?

The town is rather pretty from above as well. This was taken from the Settlers’ Monument as well.

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.

Of Fluid Texts and Solid Foundations: The Challenges and Possibilities of Unpublished South African Comedy

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All the ordinary attempts at evaluating the significance of of humor in terms of its social use and psycho-physiological functioning seem of necessity to have to end in sterility.  Humor is something that stands apart from these things.  I feel that to get at the true essence of humor it must be approached from the side of the eternities, where it stands as some sort of a battered symbol of man’s more direct relationship with God.

In the world’s cultural development humor came on the scene very late.  And that is the feeling I have always had about humor, ultimately.  That it is one of man’s most treasured possessions, one of the world’s richest cultural jewels.  But that humor came amongst us when the flowers were already fading.  And that it came too late

Thus Herman Charles Bosman, mid-twentieth century South Africa’s foremost humorist ends an essay entitled “Humor and Wit.”[1]  An inauspicious beginning, perhaps, to an essay aimed at demonstrating the value in studying and historicizing humor.  Such circumspection is common even in the relatively few academic writings that do exist on the subject, perpetuating—in far less poetic terms—the idea that humor must “stan[d] apart from these things.”  Are we angered by the student of tragedy whose analyses are insufficiently tragic?

Yet there seems to be a widely-shared idea that killing a joke through study ruins the whole enterprise.  “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can,” remarks E.B. White, whose quip serves as the epigraph to Peter McGraw and Joel Warner’s 2014 book The Humor Code, “but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”  Funny for sure, but as Sharon McCoy (a past president of the American Humor Studies Association) notes on her blog, only a fool would start a dissection with a live frog!

White’s formulation shifts when we think of humor as founded in shared ground. Analyzing humor becomes like dissection only if you assume that the joke is already dead, that there is no common ground between those who “get it” and those who don’t — and no way to create it. His statement becomes, then, not a statement about the futility of analyzing humor, but about the lack of willingness to expand one’s community — or the profound pessimism and insecurity about whether the recipient of the explanation would want to join that community: “Few are interested.” I’m reminded of Groucho Marx’s quip, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”

Suffice it to say that mounting an investigation into the history of humor requires confronting serious headwinds.  One can see this in the enormous dissonance between the way humor (much of it explicit political satire) pervades the South African pop culture landscape and the paucity of work that has been undertaken to interpret this trend.  Possible subjects are in abundant supply!  Whole monographs could be written on the career of Leon Schuster, a veteran Afrikaans filmmaker whose work spans nearly three lucrative decades.  Schuster has perfected the art of the lowbrow South African comedy: slapstick and scatological humor, candid camera pranks, the liberal use of blackface, and patriotic appeals to rainbow nationalism.  Schuster has plenty of critics (“You either love Leon Schuster or you would rather have your toe nails pulled out live on television,” says one), but he remains the undisputed king of the South African box office; his 2008 film Mr. Bones 2 (a sequel, no less!) is still the most successful locally made film in the nation’s history—second only to Titanic (1997).  Schuster’s films are by no means high-minded explorations of the dynamics of post-apartheid society—in fact there’s almost nothing high-minded about them at all—but the degree to which they are all somehow concerned with what it means to be South African, despite the crude stereotypes and fart jokes, is worthy of further inquiry.

Or take Kagiso Lediga, an increasingly important figure in South African show business.  From producing and appearing on the pioneering Pure Monate Show, “South Africa’s Monty Python,” Lediga went on to co-produce the Daily Show-style satirical news show Late Nite News With Loyiso Gola starting in 2010.  His latest S.A.B.C. venture, The Bantu Hour, is a Saturday Night Live-style mix of stand-up, pre-taped sketches, and interviews, and, incredibly, features the musical stylings of Hugh Masekela leading the house band—one of the most famous South African jazz musicians of all time.  The multiracial ensemble of comedians that feature in sketches tackle all kinds of topics, including racial issues, but one of the most interesting things about The Bantu Hour is the disclaimer that appears at the start of the show, read by Bra Hugh himself:

We would like to inform the viewer that the word “Bantu” is not a derogatory word for black people but it is actually an Nguni noun meaning people.


This program is by no means meant to offend.  Although being offended is by no means hazardous to your health.

This is a curious statement.  On one hand, Lediga’s intention to reclaim the word “Bantu,” which the apartheid government infamously used to refer to black South Africans, is clear.  On the other hand, the statement would appear to be directed mostly at the white, colored and Indian minorities, since black South Africans, whether Nguni speakers or not, presumably know what a word as basic as “abantu” means.[2]  Lediga routinely refers to the show’s audience as “bantu,” and once again the connection between comedy and national identity is reinforced.  Last year, as the country geared up for elections, Lediga co-wrote and starred in a feature film called Wonder Boy For President, which lampooned South African politics and featured numerous cameo appearances by politicians.

All of this is to say that South Africa is home to a vibrant comic culture which regards its position in the post-apartheid state as one of great political responsibility, a primary player in the ongoing process of reconciliation and nation building that is widely acknowledged in public discourse to be the responsibility of all South Africans.

In light of all this, consider the following quote from The Cape Argus of December 23rd, 1908:

One must realise that the actors, with their clever fooling, who make life sparkle for us, and teach us kindly philosophies, are just as worthily working towards Closer Union as grave statesmen, who in sealed conference assemblies are settling the tremendous matters of State, unification of the railways, civil services—and all the paraphernalia of Civilisation—with a large C…South Africans living close to nature are natural-born actors and one day they will evolve a Drama all their own—such as only a peasant folk with fresh emotions and perfect physiques can.[3]

It’s often forgotten that in 1908 South Africans found themselves in the midst of a process of nation-building and reconciliation that mirrored the country’s 1994 transformation in important ways in spite of the extent to which the 1910 Act of Union created a South Africa that was segregated, undemocratic, and arguably already starting down a path that would result in apartheid.  The South African War had ended only six and a half years earlier, leaving thousands of soldiers dead on the battlefield, but even more tragically, an official figure of 27,927 Boers dead in British concentration camps (the vast majority of whom were children under sixteen) and between fourteen and twenty thousand black South Africans dead in separate internment camps.[4]  Boer soldiers returned home from the war to find their farms burnt and their wives and children starving, and so began to pour into South Africa’s rapidly expanding cities, where they poverty alongside black and colored migrants drawn by the same lure.  Meanwhile, the political leaders of the Cape Colony, Natal, and the occupied Boer republics were busy designing a new nation based on unity of the “races”—”the race question” almost always referring exclusively to the prospect of reconciliation between Boer and Briton.  Black, colored, and Indian leaders had reason to hope, but also reason to fear: many had hoped that with a British victory in the war and the Act of Union, the qualified non-racial franchise enshrined in the Cape Colony would be extended to the rest of the country.  Unfortunately, just the opposite occurred—successive governments made a point of slashing black and colored voters from the Cape rolls, and in 1930 when all white women were finally enfranchised regardless of property qualification, the once formidable political power of such voters at the Cape was halved overnight.

Black’s aim in writing his first play Love and the Hyphen was to inaugurate an authentically national theatrical tradition in the South Africa.  The play visciously lampoons those of both British and old Afrikaner descent who seek to hide their colonial identity in the presence of others and refer to England as “home,” a problem that replicated itself on the Cape stage, as he recounted years later in a magazine.  “Our few actors and actresses had been painstakingly impersonating costers, lords, English solicitors, stage Frenchmen, Irish begorra-boys, scottish comedians; none could give the faintest idea of a Cape ‘boy,’ a Boer ‘jong’ or a Dutch ‘tante.'”[5].  It, as well as his subsequent works like Helena’s Hope, Ltd., and Van Kalabas Does His Bit, were broad comedies that the South African literary critic Stephen Gray classes as Victorian farce and melodrama.  But they were also plays committed to portraying South Africa in its fullness.  There are, of course, tropes and representations in Black’s plays that we would recognize as offensive, but, as Gray noted in 1984, at the height of President P.W. Botha’s reactionary administration,

Union utterly implicated the greater whole, and although the Act of Union excluded ‘Native’ rights, Black’s plays did not. By the depression of the 1930’s that network had collapsed into the beginnings of the more formally segregated society of today…the very notion that that the entire range of society can be portrayed on a stage as normal business has been increasingly lost. The children of apartheid, several generations on, no longer know that the land could have had a sense of being one democratic totality, and that its theatres could have reflected this spirit as found.[6]

Indeed, in his later life editing a satirical newspaper called The Sjambok, Black published the early work of both Herman Charles Bosman—whose moving words on humor opened this essay—and the Dhlomo brothers (Herbert Isaac Ernest and Rolfes Robert Reginald) the most important black South African writers of the interwar period.  Gray’s elegiac quote also alludes to the fact that Black as well as the theatrical tradition he promoted, came to an unexpected end at roughly the same time—South Africa’s relatively small dramatic circuit was eviscerated by the Great Depression in 1929, and Black himself died two years later, of liver cancer, at the age of just fifty-one.  Further imperilling his legacy, Black did not publish any of his plays in the course of his lifetime, for proprietary reasons.  Many of his manuscripts survive in South Africa’s National Archives, but not in definitive forms—Black constantly revised and rewrote his plays, sometimes adding entire acts to ensure the success of a particular revival.  Also important, of course, are the things left unwritten: comic songs, set pieces of state business and the details of how his plays were staged can only be hinted at by reading newspaper reviews.

Stephen Black (1880-1931). From Stephen Gray’s edited anthology.

It should already be clear that I am deeply interested in humor and its role in the development of South African national consciousness.  In the task of collecting and presenting Stephen Black’s written works online, I understand myself to be responding first to Stephen Gray’s apartheid-era call for the legacy of early twentieth century South African theatre to be re-examined and brought back into the public consciousness.  This call is particularly timely given the development, as outlined above, of a humorous post-apartheid reconciliation discourse that seems to share similarities with Black’s reconciliation push.  I also see myself answering the call of the South African historian Sandra Swart, who sought, in an article written for the Journal of Social History in 2009, “to make tentative first steps towards a cohesive social history of laughter in southern Africa,” taking as her subject the ways in which defeated Afrikaners after the South African War coped with the trauma of war through laughter as well attempts fold the archetype of the laughing Boer into Afrikaner nationalist canon.[7]  As someone who has recently grown more deeply acquainted with digital humanities, I want to explore in the remainder of this essay considering how the affordances of the digital might advance our ability to accomplish the task of recovering and presenting Black’s legacy in a way that engages the vibrant state of theatre in contemporary South Africa.

In the course of further and further research into the historiography of South African theatre this semester, I have also grown interested in the life and career of Gibson Kente, which draws striking parallels with that of Black. According to Rolf Solberg’s 2011 biography Bra Gib, Kente was born near the city of East London in 1932, the year after Black’s death, into a fairly affluent Xhosa family. The young Kente was mission educated, at Bethel and then the famous Lovedale College, where he was first exposed to music and performing arts. Moving to Johannesburg in 1955, Kente at first sought out Herbert Dhlomo’s Bantu Dramatic Society, but became disillusioned by the paternalism of the Johannesburg theatre scene’s white liberal benefactors. His long and successful career writing and staging original plays began with Manana the Jazz Prophet in 1961, about a preacher’s efforts to turn local gangsters from their wicked ways with music. It was not until the 1970s, however that his “political trilogy” How Long? (1973), I Believe (1974), and Too Late (1975) established him as one of South Africa’s foremost black playwrights.[8]

Like Black, Kente performed the roles of actor, director, playwright, composer, and manager simultaneously; unlike Black, he did so on a township circuit which often involved a grueling schedule of one-night-only performances in crude facilities.  Peter Larlham, in his book Black Theater, Dance and Ritual in South Africa, describes one such performance outside Durban:

A black audience of 1,200 persons, each paying two rands (approximately three American dollars) admission, packed the small cinema in Umlazi township in July 1979.  The performance of The Load started an hour late, waiting for the audience to assemble, but those already present remained excited and expectant.  The audience responded volubly throughout, commenting on the action and as a result, the dialogue was difficult to follow.  At key moments in the play, dialogue, which was necessary for the exposition of the plot, was delivered by the actors turning to face the audience directly and projecting their lines slowly with exaggerated articulation.[9]

Indeed, as the theatre critic Robert Mshengu Kavanagh explained in 1985, “Kente’s theatre was especially effective in non-intellectual, unarticulated areas of communication.  The total mesage of these plays was far more powerful than that which is contained in the script, because important elements of the play’s impact remained unarticulated…Our own first-hand experience revealed how the music of these plays was able to fuse an audience of separate and divided individuals in an experience of intense cultural identity.”[10]

Gibson Kente (1932-2004). From Rolf Solberg’s 2011 biography.

Yet this “intense cultural identity” and Kente’s profound interest in “how the outer boundaries of of white supremacy shaped and determined the inner boundaries in the desires and dreams and aspirations, passions and thoughts, of normal people in the ghettos of South Africa,” often ran afoul of more explicit disciples of “protest theatre.”[11]  Kente’s insistance on the centrality of entertainment, and refusal, as he saw it, to cash in on the apartheid system by attacking it for its own sake, dogged him from the 1970s onward. After being widely criticized for the apparent conservatism of his 1987 play Sekunjalo (“The Hour Has Come”), which foretold a turbulent socialist future for post-apartheid South Africa, in his later career Kente nevertheless continued to write plays about the limits of political rhetoric, the possibility of reconciliation in a democratic country, and the nature of South African identity—as always, served up with a healthy doses of music, dance, and comedy. His patriotism is on full display in a 1989 interview with Tribute magazine:

I believe we all love our country, and I am no different. I do not want to inherit a mutilated and jaundiced country…As a black man, it is more natural for me to build bridges than to destroy…I have always believed that if we build with the children, in future they will preserve rather than destroy what they helped build themselves.[12]

Like Stephen Black before him, Kente thus dedicated his life to the idea of a nation to come. Unfortunately, also like Stephen Black, Kente died an untimely death, having published few of his works. Many of his most important writings and records were destroyed in a 1989 house fire, which Kente referred to as a firebombing.

As anyone familiar with performing arts knows, a theatrical production is a great deal more than just a script.  Scripts themselves are changed all the time in the course of productions, scenes are cut, new elements are added, and directors and production teams seek to make their own unique mark on the performance history of a particular show.  The size of the performance space matters, as does the lighting, the set and the sound design.  As always, any attempt at archiving here will necessarily fall short of the original, since nothing can compare to actually being in the space with the performers—though here too, it’s also true that performances themselves vary from night to night, sometimes quite drastically.  In a very significant sense, then, what happens during the run of a particular production can never be recovered.  But this doesn’t mean that the ephemera of theatre—documents, recordings, and paraphernalia—should not be preserved.  Doing so—and making such materials available to others—prepares the ground for future visions to build off of what has been done before.  Moreover, as theatre’s role in the anti-apartheid struggle and even the recent controversy over the vice president-elect’s visit to Hamilton attest, theatre has the potential to be profoundly relevant in the wider world of people and power.

Perhaps the most ambitious digital humanities project dealing with theatre arts at the moment is Visualizing Broadway, a project spearheaded by Derek Miller, an assistant professor of English at Harvard University.  It’s not yet up and running, but according to an article published in Harvard Magazine from last year, its centerpiece is a massive database of shows that have appeared on Broadway since 1900.  The big data approach, according to Miller, is aimed at better understanding what makes Broadway shows successful, not only to improve our understanding of New York theatrical history, but to bring failures back into the study of theatre—since, after all, failure is a far more likely outcome than success in show business. The project also focuses on reconstructing professional networks to understand how the presence of successful people might correlate with the success of shows.  It’s a far larger project than anything I could see someone doing on South African theatre, but I would be interested in knowing, once the site is up and running, how the project visualizes professional networks which are important in any theatrical setting.

For my part, I am interested in designing a digital humanities project that I can fully realize in the course of my time in graduate school, but that can be scaled up later if desired.  My starting point will be the collection of Stephen Black-related manuscripts held by the National Library of South Africa, which, from what I understand, is a significant but by no means unmanageable assemblage.  The challenge, however, is how best to present the texts of plays for which no definitive script exists, since Black was constantly revising and recalibrating his work.

M.I.T.’s Shakespeare Electronic Archive, founded by Peter Donaldson, is a fairly early but still very solid example of how digitized primary sources and their transcriptions can be presented side-by-side in a straightforward and user-friendly.  The chief shortcoming of the site is its incompleteness; the only Shakespeare play where the archive fully delivers on its potential is Hamlet, which even the “Collections” piece treats as something of a showpiece.  To be honest I was quite surprised, on first visiting the site, to learn that even a well-known and much beloved play like Midsummer Night’s Dream is only represented by one scanned Folger folio edition and its transcription, without any supplementary images or film.  this isn’t much of a problem from the perspective of studying Shakespeare; there are plenty of other online resources to consult, but for me it also serves as a cautionary tale—I don’t want to start something that I won’t finish.  Again: Shakespeare is hardly understudied, but when it comes to marginalized or semi-forgotten playwrights like Stephen Black or Gibson Kente, I feel an ethical responsibility to see my project through to a certain level of completion, not to leave it half-constructed in cyberspace because I had insufficient funding or a hankering to move on.  Donaldson has since moved to even more innovative work co-directing the M.I.T. Global Shakespeares project, which collects videos and scripts from Shakespeare productions and adaptations around the world, with a particular focus on Asia.  This spectacular multilingual enterprise successfully problematizes common Anglophone notions of what constitutes Shakespeare’s text, but I am still haunted by its older, still unfinished predecessor, which points to the perils of the internet: in traditional scholarship, a book or journal article would be either published or not published, instead of remaining in a kind of limbo state between the two (until possible deletion?).  It all underscores the importance of strongly committing to a project from the outset and setting realistic goals that can a team can actually follow through with.

Another issue is that the Stephen Black texts I plan to work with are manuscripts and not printed editions like the Shakespeare folios and quartos.  The basic trouble with Black’s unpublished plays (and also Kente’s, for that matter) is the lack of a definitive version of the text—a real issue, from the perspective of a director, since while many versions of a play’s script might exist, only one version can be performed at a time.  Stephen Gray’s solution, when he was editing three of Stephen Black’s most famous plays in preparation for their publication, was straightforward: he chose whichever version of the text he liked best, noted places where the text had been significantly revised in other versions with footnotes, and, in some cases, actually wrote in material where Black did not specify what precisely he intended.  The biggest example of this is the opening to Helena’s Hope, Ltd., which Gray says he reconstructed based on twenty-three “descriptive reviews,” and the Xhosa character Jeremiah’s telephone monologue at the beginning of Act II, which, he explains, entirely replaced the original comedic bit (his alterations to Helena’s Hope, Ltd. were more substantial since Gray actually mounted the play with a multiracial cast at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1981).[13].

A possible model for dealing with this problem may be Herman Melville’s Typee: A Fluid Text Edition, edited by John Bryant, an emeritus professor of English at Hofstra University.  Bryant’s scholarly interest in Typee, Herman Melville’s partially autobiographical account of a voyage to Polynesia, published in 1846, stems from the extraordinary degree of revision to which the manuscript was subjected by Melville.  Problematizing the standard notion that the only moment that matters in the life is the moment at which the final draft of a manuscript is handed over to a publisher, Bryant dives deeply into the versions and revisions of Typee in an attempt to reconstruct the process of revision at the most granular possible level.  Bryant’s contention is that by treating the even the micro-variants of a text as legitimate iterations of the text itself, a whole new world of appreciation for an author’s writing process might open up new vistas for inquiry.  Though the full fluid text edition is not available for free, a preview explains the system used for transcribing and presenting the text(s).  This undeniably exhaustive project incorporates the following components, according to the project website:

  • a full set of digital reproductions of the manuscript

  • a diplomatic, or graphic, transcription of the manuscript

  • a reading text (also known as the “base version”) constructed from the manuscript evidence

  • the text of the first print edition of Typee

  • the reading text with active links to more than one thousand revision sites

  • a set of revision sequences laying out each step of revision in a given site

  • a set of revision narratives explaining the strategies of each revision step

  • a powerful search engine for the reading text

  • a four-part introduction offering a rationale for the fluid-text edition, an explanation of its features and procedures, and a description of the manuscript itself. Also included is a historical account of the growth of Typee, its biographical context, its manuscript versions, and Melville’s creative process.

I truly doubt such an exhaustive set of tools would need to be applied to the Black corpus, but, even so, it would be interesting to take a deep dive into the revision process.  How might Black have changed his productions based on venue or location?  How did shows change over time (we know that in many cases shows of his received thorough rewrites, since they were fundamentally concerned with current events and had to stay fresh).  It’s also important, I think, to present the scripts in a way that emphasizes their fluidity—scripts for performance require different things than scripts for close reading, after all.

Textual fluidity as a premise could also serve an advantageous pedagogical purpose.  Just a week ago I was privileged to attend the 59th Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association in Washington, D.C.  On the second day of the conference I was attended a roundtable on “Digital Literary Africa(s),” where Duncan Yoon, an English professor at the University of Alabama, presented on a digital annotation project called #nounsarestumps he was leading for a higher level undergraduate class on “Postcolonial Conditions.”  The project utilizes WordPress as a base and engages students in collaboratively annotating the St. Lucian writer Derek Walcott’s long poem The Prodigal with both text and images that help flesh out the many artistic allusions the author makes.  The abundant political and cultural content in Black’s plays Love and the Hyphen and Helena’s Hope, Ltd. (as well as Black’s 1920 novel The Dorp) inspired me to imagine a similar kind of annotation project working well in an undergraduate South African history survey.

The next step for me is clear: to get to South Africa this summer and find this archive, as well as any collections of material related to Gibson Kente that still exist (as Kente only died in 2004, I am sure there is material left in various places by people who worked with him, even if most of his own papers were destroyed in a fire.  Solberg’s biography of Kente notes that shortly before his death, a Gibson Kente Foundation was established with the stated goal of turning Kente’s house into a museum and collecting materials related to his career.  In its early years the foundation was chaired by none other than Duma ka Ndlovu, a protege of Kente’s and the creator of South Africa’s most popular soap opera, Muvhango.  As of 2016, however, the Gibson Kente Foundation does not appear to have any kind of web presence, nor is there any sign that these goals have been seriously pursued.  Building relationships within the South African theatre community is going to be crucial to my further progress.

Last but not least, it is important to note that there are two digital projects related to South African theatre that I will be watching with great interest.  The first is the established Encyclopedia of South African Theatre, Film, Media, and Performance, which is hosted by Stellenbosch University.  It has a long history, having been originally conceived as a print publication in the mid-1990s.  As the years went on and the project gathered steam, the amount of material collected became so unwieldy that publishers became reluctant to publish something so gargantuan.  So the encyclopedia moved online, into a wiki-style format (though this is somewhat deceptive; members of the public are allowed to contribute material, but are not allowed to make edits on their own).  There is some terrific information on the project site; its chief shortcoming is a lack of multimedia, even at the level of images (if there are pictures anywhere on the site, I haven’t been looking in the right place).  I would be very interested in getting involved with the encyclopedia if there are any opportunities to do so.

Another initiative, about which I know even less but am perhaps even more excited, is the Segopotso Project, announced via press release less than two months ago.  Supported by the South African Ministry of Arts and Culture,

The Segopotso Project aims to develop an electronic archive of South African theatre from 1976 to 2016. The archive will consist of synopsises of political and community plays; the history of venues where theatre has taken place over the past four decades; and profiles of people who have made theatre happen across the provinces. The archive will include photographs; interviews; and audio and audio-visual recordings.
There will be several volumes of play-scripts published over the years, looking at mainly but not exclusively at plays that have never been published. These publications will be presented free of charge to universities, colleges, and NGOs dealing with theatre studies, as well as libraries and archives, free of charge.

So far, all that exists of the Segopotso Project in the public domain appears to be this press release and an inactive Facebook page.  If the project does go somewhere, however, it’s absolutely something that I need to follow and consider involving myself with at some level.  Since the Grahamstown Festival captured my heart last summer I finally made significant progress, I think, towards figuring a way in to the history of South African humor and performance.  Before any technical considerations, however, I will need to build relationships with people, and this is what I need to set my mind to as the Fall 2016 semester becomes Spring 2017.


  1. [1]Herman Charles Bosman, Recognizing Blues: Best of Herman Charles Bosman’s Humor, ed. Stephen Gray (Cape Town, South Africa: Human and Rousseau, 2001): 15.
  2. [2]South Africa has eleven official languages, four of which are classified as Nguni (South African Ndebele, Swazi, Xhosa, and Zulu), three of which are classified as Sotho-Tswana (Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, and Tswana), two of which are classified as European (Afrikaans and English), and two of which don’t fit into any broader category (Tsonga and Venda).  According to the 2011 census, 43.3% of South Africans are mother tongue Nguni speakers
  3. [3]Quoted in Stephen Black, Three Plays, ed. Stephen Gray (Craighall, South Africa: Adriaan Donker, 1984): 12.
  4. [4]T. R. H. Davenport, South Africa: A Modern History, 3rd ed. (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1987 [1977]): 217.
  5. [5]Stephen Black, Outspan, September 14th, 1928, quoted in Jill Fletcher, The Story of Theatre in South Africa: A Guide to Its History from 1780-1930 (Cape Town, South Africa: Vlaeberg, 1994): 133.
  6. [6]Stephen Gray, “Introduction,” in Black, Three Plays, 30
  7. [7]Sandra Swart, “‘The Terrible Laughter of the Afrikaner’: Towards a Social History of Humor,” Journal of Social History 42.4 (2009): 890.
  8. [8] Rolf Solberg, Bra Gib: Father of South Africa’s Township Theatre (Scottsville, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2011): 23-31.
  9. [9]Peter Larlham, Black Theater, Dance, and Ritual in South Africa (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International, 1985): 70
  10. [10] Robert Mshengu Kavanagh, Theatre and Cultural Struggle in South Africa (London, U.K.: Zed Books, 1985): 138-139.
  11. [11] Herbert W. Vilakazi, quoted in Solberg, Bra Gib, 113.
  12. [12] Chris More, “Uncle Magnificent, Tribute, April 19th, 1989, quoted in ibid., 63.
  13. [13]Black, Three Plays, 257-258

Sekunjani? Gibson Kente, Stephen Black, and Artistic Legacies

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South Africans are obsessed with soap operas.  I don’t know how else to describe it.  When I was in South Africa this past summer, the Zulu-speaking family I lived with followed an ironclad schedule in evening: do whatever you want as the sun goes down, but when 6:30 rolls around, the T.V. will be tuned to S.A.B.C. 1 (“Mzansi Fo Sho”) and Skeem Saam will be playing, a quasi-educational soap about young men from Limpopo navigating university life in the big city.  At 7:00, we would watch the news in either Xhosa or Zulu (it alternates by day) as we ate dinner; then, at 7:30, we would switch to for Scandal! (or, rarely, watch Rhythm City on S.A.B.C. 1).  At 8:00 we would be back on S.A.B.C. 1 for Generations: The Legacy and at 8:30, just before most of us turned in for the night, we were faced with the difficult choice between two Zulu language soaps set in KwaZulu-Natal: Uzalo on Mzansi Magic, about the son of a pastor who struggles to balance his religious calling with his playboy tendencies, and Isibaya on good old S.A.B.C. 1, a graphically violent show about taxi drivers.  Almost without fail this routine was followed almost every weeknight I was in Durban (and if you happened to miss a day, the week’s episodes would re-air as an omnibus over the weekend.  Evenings in the living room with my homestay family, finding myself more and more invested in each show’s various melodramatic storylines are some of my strongest and happiest memories of the summer, and by the end of August I could recognize many of the actors and actresses gracing the covers of popular magazines like DRUM! and Bona.

It’s an aspect of South African popular culture that I think few outside the country really appreciate.  Due to government suspicion of the medium, television came to the country in 1976, almost absurdly late, and while Ron Krabill has explored how South African television in the late 1970’s and 1980’s reflected the complex desires and contradictions of the apartheid era (the most popular shows of the era were Dallas, The Bold and the Beautiful, and, perhaps unexpectedly, The Cosby Show), little academic attention has been paid to the South African soap opera.[1]  Given how important locally-made soap operas are in the lives of South Africans today (of all races; one of the most popular programs, S.A.B.C. 2’s long-running 7de Laan, is geared at an Afrikaans-speaking audience), it seems like an important avenue for future research.

But what does all this have to do with the digital humanities, and my own prospective project on Stephen Black?  Over the Thanksgiving holiday I was fortunate enough to read Rolf Solberg’s 2011 biography of Gibson Kente, the “father of South Africa’s township theatre,” and a somewhat controversial figure.  Active from the early 1960’s until his death from A.I.D.S. in 2004, Kente was enormously popular and influential during most of the apartheid era, and pioneered a style of musical theatre that in some ways presaged the flowering of South African soap operas in the post-apartheid era.  Criticized by some of his contemporaries for his apparent ambivalence towards the anti-apartheid struggle, Kente was nevertheless deeply interested in the everyday realities of life for black South Africans.  As the sociologist Herbert W. Vilakazi put it, “Kente was concerned to show how the outer boundaries of white supremacy shaped and determined the inner boundaries in the desires and dreams and aspirations, passions and thoughts, of normal people in the ghettos of South Africa.”[2]  Like Stephen Black, Gibson Kente’s plays often dealt with the spectre of the South African future, and future that present politics might create.  His 1987 play Sekunjalo (The Hour Is Come) was criticised for negatively portraying an African socialist future, while Mfowethu (1993) and Ezakithi (2001) present a more optimistic view of South African reconciliation reminiscent of the end of Stephen Black’s Helena’s Hope, Limited.

Another unfortunate similarity to Stephen Black is his elusive documentary remains. In 1989 almost all of his papers were destroyed in a house fire. He left very little documentation behind him after his death as well, “due to Kente’s particular way of developing a play. More often than not…Kente would build the storyline around a song or melody, with any writing down of dialogue and script coming later in the process.”[3]. It is no accident that some of Kente’s most important protégés, like Sello Maake kaNcube, are some of the most important soap stars in contemporary South Africa.

So here we have two of South Africa’s most important historical entertainers, spanning two drastically different times and milieux, yet inescapably united in the fragility of their legacies. Thinking back to my reflections on the M.I.T. Global Shakespeares Project, the point is underscored again and again that theatre is so much more than just a script, and digital spaces afford us the opportunity to preserve and present theatre and its memories in tremendously exciting ways. Clearly there is a lot be said for digitizing and making accessible what we can of Black and Kente’s work, but this can only go so far. Any digital space dedicated to them must emphasize fluidity and malleability, must be aware of the limits of our understanding. Such spaces should aim at facilitating creativity on the part of the user, because the benefit of preserving the embers of that creativity is, ultimately, the reason why we should care about Black and Kente to begin with.

What is the use of laughter in the face of injustice? By the same token, what is the use of spending two and a half hours almost every night following the travails of fictional characters? My suspicion is that the ability to imagine the world in a different way is fundamental to our experience as human beings. In a country like South Africa, where the future has often seemed so uncertain, this seems doubly true. A Stephen Black digital archive would not speak for itself; it would need curation and presentation. But how to present him and his world critically yet delicately, facilitating innovative engagements with his work—this is what I’m going to be thinking about these last weeks of the course. I don’t know quite how it will look, but I’m excited for the journey.

  1. [1]Ron Krabill, Starring Mandela and Cosby: Media and the End(s) of Apartheid (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2010)
  2. [2]Quoted in Rolf Solberg, Bra Gib: Father of South Africa’s Township Theatre (Scottsville, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2011): 113
  3. [3]Ibid., 116

The Cost of Interdisciplinarity: Reflections on the Need for Cultural Criticism in DH

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What is the purpose of good teaching? What is the purpose of good scholarship? I have to confess that as I read yet another set of readings focused on the radical promise of digital humanities, I found myself wondering again about the position of “DH” vis a vis other academic institutions, and whether the current state of the discourse is as insular as the readings suggest. What is it about the digital that invites such fetishism, from both critics and allies? To echo Alan Liu and William G. Thomas III in their discussion of digital humanities “centers” at universities, the construction of digital humanities as a discipline outside “traditional” academic departments feels increasingly pernicious to me, otherizing and exoticizing what should be firmly in the main stream of humanities discourse.

This week I began to read a collection of plays by the influential South African actor and playwright Stephen Black. Black is remembered as the first professional actor in South African history, and his plays like Love and the Hyphen (1908), Helena’s Hope, Ltd. (1910), and Van Kalabas Does His Bit (1916) oscillate wildly between low brow comedy, melodrama, and sophisticated exploration of heady political themes in a country still reeling from the South African War (1899-1902), knit together for the first time as a single political unit. From questions of class and status to latent tensions between “Boer” and “Brit” to women’s suffrage and the political rights of black people (some of whom were allowed to vote in the Cape province but not elsewhere), Black’s plays and their wild popularity have a lot to tell us about early twentieth century South Africa, but because he never published them he was largely forgotten after his death in 1931.

I am able to read these plays, of course, because half a century later the literary critic Stephen Gray edited and published the volume I am reading. Working at the University of Witwatersrand in the dark days of the P.W. Botha administration, he introduces the collection by recounting his experience reviving Helena’s Hope, Ltd. at the university’s Performing Arts Centre. Mixed-race theatrical companies had been less than two years before, and Gray recounts vividly the process by which Helena’s Hope, Ltd. forced his actors to reconsider the history they had been taught in apartheid-era South African schools:

Although all of the players were Johannesburg residents, another first was encountering the hard fact that, after generations of education in the Transvaal…almost no information about, for example, the dispossession of the agriculturalists, the advent of taxation, the Battle of Johannesburg between Boer republican and British imperialist, the rise of capital in the city, the enfranchisement of White women and the disenfranchisement of Black men, the Land Acts preceding 1913, etc., etc,—it is a long list and these are all crucial issues in Black’s play, had seeped through to them. For them, coming to an understanding of these issues through the script and in the rehearsal room was tantamount to a re-education in their own immediate past.[1]

Preparing and performing Helena’s Hope Ltd. challenged Gray and his actors to confront a history that had been buried, to resurrect on the stage a world of discourse that had been foreclosed and repressed by apartheid society.  Far from a mere exercise in antiquarian drama, Gray’s troupe at Wits confronted a text that challenged their ideas about the past, present and future, all at the same time.

The readings for this week all stress the need for digital humanities to confront questions of difference.  Whether emphasizing the potential contribution of Asian-American studies, intersectionality, or feminist research ethics, each reading is at pains to save digital humanities from itself (or a stereotype of itself, perhaps).  Yet each of the ideas the readings laid out are each two to three decades old, largely innovations of the 1980’s cultural turn.  What does it mean that even at this late stage scholars in the field of digital humanities are treating such established (if perhaps not predominant) ideas as potential paradigm shifts?  Is digital humanities really so out of touch with current debates in the disciplines out of which it comes?

Certainly valuable work is being done, as the readings describe.  Moya Bailey’s Misogynoir book project is a genuinely cutting edge contribution to our understanding of the online presence of trans women of color, and it provides a useful model for future activist scholarship engaging with online communities.  But the tone of the readings for this week led me to wonder whether the prevalence of digital humanities “centers” outside academic departments contributes to a sense that DH is separate from debates and developments in more traditional disciplines, a disturbing suggestion that the much-vaunted interdisciplinarity of DH is, in some way, holding the field back, kin to the “retro-humanism” Roopika Risam’s article alludes to.

Stephen Gray’s presentation of Helena’s Hope, Ltd.  exemplifies a multi-modal approach to scholarship and pedagogy that does not involve the digital.  It does the things that we ask all great pedagogy (and great digital humanities scholarship to do): to present something not otherwise easily accessible in ways that challenge and illuminate our understanding of a particular context.  Keeping digital humanities outside the mainstream of academic life maintains a unique, innovative culture of DHers across disciplines and departments, but at the cost of keeping DH marginalized, fighting for legitimacy among jealous, insecure university departments led by academics easily disposed to suspicion.  The more readings I do for this class, the more I find the air of exceptionalism surrounding digital humanities to be damaging.  The presence of computers does not necessarily mark a paradigm shift in disciplines that have always engaged in multimodal research and multimodal productions.  Instead, digital humanities should embed itself in established disciplines; after all, it’s not as if DH spaces are the only ones facilitating interdisciplinary projects.  In the long run, the goal must not be the creation of academic space for a sui generis digital humanities, but the full integration of digital methodologies and engagement with various fields in the humanities.  If an entire field, such as women’s studies, needs to move in a more digital direction, that debate should be going on at the central venues of the field, not at the periphery or among an academic subculture.  If digital humanities is valuable, and digital cultural criticism is necessary, there is no virtue in being on the sidelines.  This is especially critical given the considerable expense of digital humanities projects.  Only when great digital humanities scholarship is considered as simply great scholarship, and great digital pedagogy considered great pedagogy, will the fight be won.

  1. [1]Black, Stephen, Three Plays, Stephen Gray, ed. (Craighall, South Africa: Adriaan Donker, 1984): 31.