2020 has been a difficult year for us all. A few weeks ago, South African literature lost a towering figure: the novelist, poet and scholar Stephen Gray, whom I had the honor of calling a mentor and friend. I wrote a remembrance of this extraordinary man recently for the South African website LitNet.
On Wednesday, May 8th, South Africans will come out in their numbers to vote for national and provincial legislators in the country’s sixth general election since 1994. I’m a little ambivalent about writing this post, because I know I can’t really do justice to the subject in what little time I have to write (and finish this) before Wednesday, so it will be of some use.
Nevertheless, American media coverage of South African politics is, to put it mildly, abysmal. This is, I suspect, because South Africa is a complicated place that doesn’t neatly fit into any of the categories the American news uses to group the hazy collection of countries that are not America.
Essentially, we can boil the story of South Africa according to the American media down to four major nuggets of wisdom: (1) apartheid bad, (2) Nelson Mandela VERY VERY GOOD, (3) other black people probably bad, and (4) it’s Zimbabwe waiting to happen. There’s a certain awareness that apartheid was “bad,” but little understanding of why it was different than American Jim Crow. Nelson Mandela was a great man, but he’s remembered only for what he did after being released from prison (the smiling, harmless, grandfatherly Mandela), not for what got him there. He comes across as a South African version of a caricature of Martin Luther King, Jr.: acting heroically and on his own, without help from the thousands of other people of all races who fought and died for South African democracy. Despite Mandela’s brilliance, however, according to these commentators present-day South Africa is composed mainly of vengeful and incompetent black people who ignored his pleas for forgiveness and, by advocating the expropriation of land without compensation, are going to take the country down exactly the same path as Zimbabwe. It’s all very tidy.
I don’t have time to comprehensively address each of these points. Suffice it to say that each assumption contains a germ of truth: apartheid was a crime against humanity, Nelson Mandela was definitely a hero, lots of poor South Africans are unhappy with the slow pace of change post-’94, and land reform could indeed go poorly! But since Africa is very far away, and complexity is seen to be hard for many people, these ideas are often presented more or less nuance-free.
This is really a shame, however, because we could learn a lot from South Africa if we paid attention. After all, South Africa is the only place I’m aware of since the election of Donald Trump where a corrupt populist has actually been removed from power, where we can observe how the remains of a country’s democratic institutions are left to pick up the pieces. President Jacob Zuma presided over looting on a mass scale. In the thrall of the notorious Gupta family, he and his allies swept in on a wave of populist sentiment and proceeded to plunder almost everything they could get at, from the state revenue agency to the public broadcaster to the national airline. His successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, who managed to oust him after narrowly beating his preferred successor in the race for African National Congress (A.N.C.) president, was one of the chief negotiators of South Africa’s democratic constitution. He’s urbane, soft-spoken to a fault, cautious but formidable. In other words, aside from being very rich, he is the perhaps the perfect cosmic antithesis of Donald Trump. Personally, he’s popular with almost all segments of society. But Jacob Zuma’s faction didn’t vanish into thin air when their leader left office. Like Donald Trump’s hardcore supporters, they remain an energetic minority within the A.N.C.’s leadership. They would jump at the chance to regain power, if only to stay out of jail.
The dilemma for ordinary voters has to do with South Africa’s unique proportional voting system. South Africa’s houses of parliament are elected on a purely proportional basis: you vote for a political party and depending how many votes they get a certain number of people off of their parliamentary candidates list take up office. Parliament, in turn, elects the president. There are both advantages and disadvantages to this system. The main rationale for it in 1994 was that it would protect minority rights in South Africa, but it was not meant to be a permanent solution; in 2003 the Van Zyl Slabbert commission recommended introducing multiple-member constituencies, but this was never enacted. Without constituencies, MPs and provincial legislators are essentially at the mercy of their party’s leadership, which decided whether they’re on its list. Ordinary citizens, in turn, have no say over who gets to be on the list. This is a dilemma because, for example, the A.N.C. list for 2019 includes many politicians credibly suspected of corruption mixed in with the anti-corruption hawks. If the A.N.C. returns to power with a strong mandate, which faction would be empowered? Likewise, if the A.N.C. takes a beating because of the corrupt politicians on its list, it’s possible that Ramaphosa will be weakened as leader of the party, or possibly removed. It’s fundamentally unclear how voters’ preferences on the ballot will affect what is in many ways the more important fight: a factional battle within the A.N.C. over which ordinary citizens don’t have much control.
What about the opposition? The second largest political party is the Democratic Alliance, or D.A., led by a charismatic young Barack Obama-wannabe named Mmusi Maimane. He’s the first black leader of the D.A., which is the successor to the Progressive Federal Party, the most racially liberal legal (white) political party during apartheid. The party’s positions are analogous to that of a very centrist Democrat in America: capitalism with a human face, skepticism about economic redistribution, and a professed commitment to diversity. These are middle class, suburban values, and the D.A. in recent years has attracted middle class voters of all races in the country. Most whites, Indians, and “Coloured” (mixed race) South Africans vote D.A., which has resulted in notable success: the party governs in one province, the Western Cape, and in three of South Africa’s largest cities: Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Tshwane (Pretoria). But with success has come new challenges. Corruption is easy to disavow when your party doesn’t control any largesse of its own, but when there’s loot to fight over, factional battles inevitably arise. Patricia de Lille, the popular (Coloured) mayor of Cape Town, was hounded from office recently on hazy and unsubstantiated corruption allegations; she has since founded her own political party. Helen Zille, the former leader of the party and the premier (governor) of the Western Cape, was suspended from the party (but not her office) after a lengthy and unedifying fight over tweets she wrote that implied colonialism wasn’t “all bad.” Which highlights the D.A.’s persistent cultural problem: many people will never vote D.A. because they see it as an essentially white party. Mmusi Maimane is a gifted orator, but these controversies and others have contributed to a narrative that he doesn’t really run the show; that the core of the party’s leadership is still very white and quite conservative. Because of the party’s troubles in the Western Cape, they are expected to lose votes on Wednesday overall but probably hold on to the province, since the A.N.C. leadership there remains inept and unpopular. Depending on the A.N.C.’s performance in Gauteng, the largest and most urbanized province, they have a shot at governing in a coalition there with the Economic Freedom Fighters and smaller parties. They are unlikely to make much of a dent in the other provinces, winning 20-25% of the nationwide vote.
Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (E.F.F.) are poised for big gains on Wednesday, expecting 10-15% of all votes. Now, I could spent pages and pages talking about Malema and what everyone and his uncle thinks about Bra Julius, as he’s known, but suffice it to say that he’s a brilliant man. I can remember when he was the firebrand president of the A.N.C. Youth League, convicted of hate speech for singing the struggle song “Dubula iBhunu” (“Shoot the Boer”) at rallies. Now, almost a decade later, he’s matured significantly, but remains something of a political chameleon. One day he’ll make statements that seem to advocate (or at least be open to) bigotry, violent revolt, and extremism, and the next day he’ll say things that seem eminently reasonable. His signature issues have always been expropriation of land without compensation and the nationalization of key industries, and, despite leading a fairly small party, he’s the one responsible for putting the land issue at the front of everyone’s mind. People used to accuse him of being unintelligent; they know better now. His base of support consists of people who are traditionally among the hardest to get to the polls: unemployed youth, the poor, the disaffected. But even if his party underwhelms on Wednesday, he’ll likely be right where he wants to be: in the catbird seat as a political kingmaker deciding whether the A.N.C. or the D.A. governs in key areas.
The three biggest issues in the election are pretty simple: land reform, corruption, and the state of the economy, which has remained pretty dismal since the Great Recession began. The A.N.C. and E.F.F. support land expropriation without compensation, but as yet there isn’t a concrete plan to enact this policy. The overseas media likes to portray this issue as Zimbabwe-redux, with fat, sunburned white farmers squaring off against hate-filled black zealots, but the reality is much more complicated. Nearly one in five South Africans lives in an informal or shack settlement, often without electricity, plumbing, or running water. Racist laws like the 1913 Natives’ Land Act and the 1950 Group Areas Act directly contributed to this state of affairs by enshrining white ownership of about 90% of the land and moving black people from cities to far-off, hellish “bantustans” and peri-urban “native locations,” later called townships. Thus, while many rural Africans want white-owned land for subsistence or commercial farming, the desire for land inside and close to cities is even more in demand, and much of this prime real estate is owned either by corporations or the state, and left idle. Thus the battle over land in South Africa isn’t so much about taking land away from white farmers (and remember that only a small minority of white South Africans are farmers), but redesigning the inherently racist spatial configuration of South African society.
This is, as you can imagine, incredibly tough to do. The laws that would address this have yet to appear in any form that I’ve seen. Even then, it’s no secret that while South Africa has some of the best laws in the world, implementation is an entirely different matter. I don’t think there will be any violent land grabs like we saw in Zimbabwe twenty years ago; South Africa and Zimbabwe have very different histories in this regard. I suspect and hope the powers that be will figure something out; but it will take someone above my pay grade to figure it all out.
The last thing I’ll say is this: corruption is the great vexation of modern South Africa, but it has deep structural roots going back literally centuries. The economy has always been structured in a very top-down manner, with almost every industry consolidated into the hands of a few massive enterprises who are able to exploit an enormous, largely unskilled and poorly-paid workforce. This, sadly, is a recipe for corruption, regardless of the moral probity of whoever happens to be in power (very much a colorblind disease, by the way). As much as I love and admire the democratic values of this country and its constitution, I don’t have confidence that any opposition party would do a much better job than the A.N.C. of preventing graft and looting. And, of course, the poor are the worst victims of corruption. When your children die falling into pit toilets at their primary school, your business fails because the power is cut to your house four hours a day, and you lose another job in the faraway city center because the commuter rail network is unsafe and unreliable, what use is the vote? Julius Malema is right to argue that the basic economic structure of South Africa needs to be overhauled, because if not the social contract is in great danger. I’m just not sure he—and if not he, who else?—is the man for the job.
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
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.
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.
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.
if all it took to
make Johannesburg a normal city
was a teenager in an ill-fitting jacket
wanding everyone—my God,
is it that easy?
or maybe what it takes
is a few million dollars
and some paving stones and Vespas you can
chain to fake light poles,
some canvas to paint like permanent Italian sunset
and a judicious use of neon.
maybe the whole nation could be like
Montecasino: we could put the food court
in Bloemfontein and convert Port Elizabeth to toilets;
Cape Town would be nothing but gelato
shops and underwear boutiques—basically unchanged, and
we could hang shabby-chic bulbs
from the blikkies we’ll repurpose
into craft gin bars
(the shack dwellers will all be working
at the famous Fourways Mugg and Bean
which will have five million seats,
or at the Spur next door
all will have jobs this way, you see,
and none hungry.
Last weekend, for the first time in a few years, I found myself in New York City, a place I really love spending time. I got to hang out with friends both old and new, and see a particularly interesting performance of Hamlet in a wonderfully “only in New York” kind of venue: an empty room in an apartment with maybe fifteen folding chairs set up for the audience. On Saturday, though, I had the privilege of seeing a South African film I have been hoping to see for a long time: the gritty Western Five Fingers for Marseilles. I remember first seeing the trailer last August, and ever since then I wondered whether I would ever get the chance to see the complete film. With an all-star South African cast, an intriguing (if vague, going by the trailer) storyline, and the stunning backdrop of the Free State-Lesotho borderlands, I fell for this movie and its bizarre title (the Marseilles of the movie, it turns out, is a small Free State dorpie instead of a French seaport), uncertain of what it would actually be like.
Anyway, I had the opportunity to see it last weekend as part of the New York African Film Festival at the Lincoln Center’s cinema, even though the movie isn’t slated to have an actual American theatrical run until September. I saw it with some wonderful friends of mine living in New York City (not Africanists or historians) and a film buff friend of theirs, whom I had never met before. The film, we all agreed, has its flaws: it’s much more of an aesthetic exercise than a character-driven story (owing to the nature of the script rather than the excellent cast). Nevertheless, particularly for anyone interested in the dynamics of post-apartheid South Africa, it’s a beautiful and, I would say, provocative through its engagement with the Western genre. I’m very happy I saw it.
Directed by Michael Matthews and written by Sean Drummond (originally in English and translated by Mamokuena Makhema into Southern Sotho), the film centers around Tau (Vuyo Dabula, who also plays Gadaffi in the SABC1 soapie Generations: The Legacy) and his four childhood friends living in Railway, a tiny township on a hill overlooking Marseilles in the early 1980s. There, under the leadership of the charismatic Zulu, Tau and the other “Five Fingers” do battle with apartheid police and protect their homes. Armed with little more than bicycles and slingshots, Tau goes on the lam while still a child after a skirmish with the police turns deadly. Decades later, in the present, Tau finds himself out of prison and returns to Marseilles to see what has become of it post-apartheid. The picture is complicated: Railway is nearly emptied out, but Tau’s old friend Bongani (also known as Pockets, played by Kenneth Nkosi) has become mayor and is vigorously promoting the government’s new housing scheme in “New Marseilles,” down the hill. Another of the five fingers has become a pastor, another is the chief of police, while their leader Zulu is long-dead. What’s worse, the town is in the thrall of a mysterious gangster figure named Sepoko (“Ghost,” played by Hamilton Dhlamini), who, according to classic Western conventions, menaces the town with nihilistic violence and cruelty. To defeat Sepoko, Tau must assemble a new group of Five Fingers: Wei (Kenneth Fok), a Chinese shopkeeper whose family is being menaced by the police, Honest John (Dean Fourie), Railway’s white town drunk, Sizwe (Lizwi Vilakazi), Zulu’s son with his beloved Lerato (Zethu Dlomo), and two gangsters from Tau’s more recent past (Brendon Daniels and Anthony Oseyemi). With the aid of his ghoulish sidekick, the wonderfully vile Thuto (Warren Masemola), Sepoko ensures that the tale of Marseilles’s ambiguous redemption is soaked in as much blood as possible.
The film is violent. So violent, in fact, that one of my friends had to leave the screening midway through the film. Another one of my friends found the violence egregious and unjustified. This is, I think, a fair observation: the mood of the movie is brooding and bleak, the sparse dialogue in the film, which is almost entirely in Southern Sotho, is delivered with an impressive gravity by the veterans of stage and screen portraying Marseilles’s heroes and villains. Five Fingers takes itself very seriously, but its characters are little more than the familiar stock characters from famous Westerns of yore, South Africanized for their immediate setting. Sepoko, for example, is a wonderful villain in speech and gesture but not in motivation: why exactly is he so evil and what does he want? As one of my friends commented, the fact that the movie fails to answer this question is particularly frustrating. Short of dying, in fact, none of the characters leave the film changed in any fundamental way, and so I can certainly understand criticizing Five Fingers as a needless spectacle (or worse, as my film buff acquaintance suggested, a mere imitation of a well-established genre). Through gorgeous cinematography and able performances, Five Fingers succeeds in delivering the suspenseful Western romp South Africans might not have known they needed, but does it succeed in saying anything new?
I thought about this as my friends and I waited patiently through the post-show talkback session. Michael Matthews was unable to attend the screening, but three people associated with the film were there to chat, and, since they were all white men, elicited a number of fair questions about the underrepresentation of black people at all levels of southern African cinema and the difficulties of working on a film in a language the white director and lead writer do not speak. The three men did a good job of fielding these questions, but through it all I couldn’t help wishing I was watching the talkback before a South African audience, which would have hopefully navigated the discussion towards greater specificity.
Eventually I asked my own question about the film’s engagement with post-apartheid South Africa. The answer I received bolstered a certain line of thought that I was still developing as the audience emptied out of the building.
Now, if you’re reading this from South Africa, you may have already seen Five Fingers, but if you’re in the United States you may not have another chance until the fall. I want to be careful about spoilers (the ending, which I’m not crazy about, is nevertheless something of a twist).
For me, Five Fingers for Marseilles really does succeed in saying something beyond mere imitation. This is a film about violence and its poisonous legacy; if the violence in the film appears egregious and spectacular, that is only because violence in South Africa often appears egregious and spectacular, from government corruption to cash-in-transit heists to astonishing rates of domestic abuse. The film, following many other great Westerns before it, never lets us forget that violence is corrosive, whether in the name of good or evil. Even in fighting against an unjust regime in the 1980s, it suggests that the Five Fingers were unable to transcend the trauma they experienced as children, and therefore to a certain extent are condemned to revisit it on the town they love. The inscrutable Sepoko, (whose name, interestingly, is the Sotho-ized version of the Afrikaans for ghost, spook) can perhaps be read as the incarnate manifestation of this legacy of trauma and violence on the land, from the early trekboer incursions up to the present. His “invasion” of New Marseilles from the dying old township of Railway, the event that sets up the movie’s climactic final battle, might therefore evoke the sabotage of post-apartheid attempts to transcend the past by history’s poisonous legacy.
The stance Five Fingers seems to take is that the freedom fighters of the past must step aside to allow a younger generation to break such cycles of violence. The character of Zulu’s son Sizwe (which means “nation”, in case the message were not clear enough), fills the classic role of the overeager youngster eager to take on the mantle of this late father, whom he never knew. Known to be an excellent shot, I kept expecting him to swoop in at the last moment and save the day at the film’s climax. Yet when his big moment comes, he is the only armed character to go through the whole film without using violence. In fact, according to the movie, Sizwe is perhaps the only character in whose hands the future of Marseilles is safe.
Even as I continue to be fascinated by South African cinema, I’m still working my head around the complexity of films as sources. Not only is a film like this open to a wide range of critiques and interpretations, not only can they be seen as the work of a multitude of different people, films from South Africa made in the hope of export are also subject to several additional layers of manipulation and mediation. Surely the positive reception Five Fingers seems to be receiving counts for something, but it’s difficult to conceptualize exactly how authorial intent works for something that’s clearly subject to review from so many quarters (when I say things like “the film implies,” what do I mean beyond my own interpretation?). Surely it also matters that the chief writer and director of the film were both white men: does their reading of the conflicts and silences of post-apartheid South Africa ring true for others?
At the same time, in a country where Mandela-era narratives about the success of reconciliation and the democratic transition are increasingly subject to challenge, films like Five Fingers that confront the messiness of the anti-apartheid “heroic age” and its legacy are surely welcome. I applaud the perseverance of the filmmakers in striving to market something so unique and quintessentially South African internationally: it bodes well for the future of South African film. Ultimately, if you like Westerns and are fascinated by the chilly emptiness of the South African interior, you will probably have a fine time at Five Fingers for Marseilles. If, in addition, you are curious about the intricacies of twenty-first century South Africa, and want some food for thought, I think there’s a fair amount to chew on as well.
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.
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.
cape town is too fine:
you can walk around here, you
know, and be safe.
really, none of us
should be safe here: i try not
to think about that,
the tavern of the
seas founded on the bright blood
of peaceful people.
none of us are safe
from history, but if we
don’t at least get mugged
is that fair? on the
other hand, why should the sun
not shine on bad men?
it would be too much
to ask table mountain to
fall into the sea
because of jan van
riebeeck or anyone else:
he was not so strong.
nature cannot be
an allegory in this place
a cold comfort to
know that even if mandela
had died bitterly
off the harbor, the
cape would still be prettier
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.” 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.
BANTU MEANS PEOPLE…all 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. 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.
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. 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.'”. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.”
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.” 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.
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)..
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.
- Herman Charles Bosman, Recognizing Blues: Best of Herman Charles Bosman’s Humor, ed. Stephen Gray (Cape Town, South Africa: Human and Rousseau, 2001): 15.↩
- 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↩
- Quoted in Stephen Black, Three Plays, ed. Stephen Gray (Craighall, South Africa: Adriaan Donker, 1984): 12.↩
- T. R. H. Davenport, South Africa: A Modern History, 3rd ed. (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1987 ): 217.↩
- 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.↩
- Stephen Gray, “Introduction,” in Black, Three Plays, 30↩
- Sandra Swart, “‘The Terrible Laughter of the Afrikaner’: Towards a Social History of Humor,” Journal of Social History 42.4 (2009): 890.↩
-  Rolf Solberg, Bra Gib: Father of South Africa’s Township Theatre (Scottsville, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2011): 23-31.↩
- Peter Larlham, Black Theater, Dance, and Ritual in South Africa (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International, 1985): 70↩
-  Robert Mshengu Kavanagh, Theatre and Cultural Struggle in South Africa (London, U.K.: Zed Books, 1985): 138-139.↩
-  Herbert W. Vilakazi, quoted in Solberg, Bra Gib, 113.↩
-  Chris More, “Uncle Magnificent, Tribute, April 19th, 1989, quoted in ibid., 63.↩
- Black, Three Plays, 257-258↩