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.