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.