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.

at montecasino

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
in Hartebeespoort).

all will have jobs this way, you see,
and none hungry.

What to know before you write a syllabus: Some loving advice.

In my second semester of graduate school, I learned that syllabus writing is hard. I’d signed up for a class (technically an independent study, though there were four or five of us who would meet weekly, usually without a professor present) that was well outside my comfort zone.  It was a class on Islam in Africa, and all the other students were historians of either East or West Africa in the advanced stages of preparing for comps.  Still, I’d taken a few classes on Islam in undergrad, and I was a religious studies major—I didn’t feel totally out of my depth. Our final assignment for the course was to design a syllabus.  It was a great experience—I’m really glad to have done it so early in my graduate career—but it was definitely rough going.

Syllabus writing is hard for many reasons.  To put it bluntly, a syllabus is an exercise is branding.  It’s a venue for your values as a scholar, and a way to actually do something about all the stuff you’ve been complaining about in seminars.  Which, by the way…let’s just say that it’s never too early to get some perspective on the graduate seminar phenomenon.  They’re not useless; they can  be fantastic under the right circumstances, but the nervous energy of a gaggle of impostor syndrome-addled graduate students should never be underestimated.  If you aren’t careful you might find that instead of learning how to be a historian (or a practitioner of whatever it is you study), you’ve spent two years learning to absolutely crush seminar discussions—which is not the same thing.  The latter generally entails a lot of complaining about what the author omitted, about citations, about methodology, et cetera.  But do you have a better idea?  Without having your own published monograph, a syllabus is where you put your money where your mouth is, as it were.

Are the canonical sources too uncritical of [blank]?  Cut ‘em.  Is it a problem that the vast majority of Africanist historians cited in the West are white non-Africanists?  Screw ‘em, assign some African voices, some primary sources, some queer scholars.  It’s your call.  It’s your time to shine.  It’s all wonderfully open-ended too—are you pissed that your undergrad Africa survey never mentioned Madagascar?  Do a unit on Madagascar.  You can make it work.

But making bold choices like that invites second guessing.  Fifteen weeks seems like a long time when the syllabus is blank, but it fills up quickly.  I used to think it was a cop-out in undergrad when professors admitted up-front that their survey wasn’t going to be “comprehensive” and some worthy topics were going to get the shaft; now, from the other side of the desk, I realize I was wrong to be so critical.  There really are limitations on what you can get to in a single semester, and the more you value getting students to really grapple with the past and think about cases in more depth, the more limited you’ll feel.  Some topics and sources won’t make the final cut, and not only will you be pissed, but you’ll also have to take responsibility for it.

You have serious limitations too. Unless you’re able to design a course exclusively around your research interests (something I don’t think many people would recommend, even if it were possible), you’re going to have to spend a good chunk of the course covering material you’re not really an expert in.  Islam in Africa was a case-in-point for me: I know a heck of a lot more about it than the average undergrad, but much less than someone who studies precolonial Senegal or Zanzibar.  When you’re gathering sources it can seem overwhelming, because you probably won’t know many names beyond the blockbusters, let alone the way their work has been received and debated.  And if you worry about your expertise when it comes to your own dissertation topic, how much more phoney is your command of the Trans-Saharan slave trade in the fifteenth century?

The biggest problem of all, though, is the literature itself.  As you seek out readings to fill your blank syllabus, you’ll probably have some faves in mind that were always going to make the cut.  As you continue, though, your well-honed grad seminar senses will be tingling like crazy as the shortcomings of the books and articles you find become manifest.  You’ll find that many of the sources you wish were out there just don’t exist, and that the ones that do are deeply flawed.  Worse, you’ll find that a lot of the sources you might use are totally inappropriate for undergraduate students, which is a special kind of disappointment.  You might push back on this, thinking you can hold your students to a higher standard—and you might be able to!  It depends heavily on your ability and the nature of the class you’re designing, but obviously the definitive test is whether students actually read what you assign.  If they have a low threshold for abstruse scholarly prose, they might just be apathetic. 

Of course, it also might be true that said prose is simply bad.  We academics put up with a lot of bad writing.  When we write, most of us spend our time thinking about our colleagues rather than the public, which is fine except when you have to convince the public (your students) that the material is worthwhile.

So how does one do it? There’s no magic bullet, but I would start by setting a series of goals for the course: what do you want students to get out of it? Some of the goals should relate to specific content (i.e., colonialism was bad) and some should relate more generally to the discipline. Why is history so important? Why is it necessary to approach sources critically? How do historical narratives get pressed into the service of oppression and resistance? The case studies you choose can then illustrate these broader ideas. To expand on George Orwell’s famous axiom from 1984, all debates over the future are really struggles for control of the past. If my students take nothing else away from my class, that’s the message I would want them to take away. Syllabus writing teaches you how that sausage might be made.

I haven’t even gotten to discussing ways students can demonstrate their learning to you through exams and projects. Designing assignments isn’t as laborious as populating your syllabus with readings and lectures, but it’s every bit as important. Again, your process here should be shaped by your overall goals. I’m a big believer in mixing small items like reading quizzes in among bigger essay style assignments, because as important as the big takeaway lessons are, it’s impossible to learn meaningfully about History writ-large without mastering the nuts and bolts of particular cases. I think group projects can be valuable, but their burden tends to fall disproportionately on stronger students, and I don’t think I would ever design a syllabus with a group component of more than 30% of the final grade (I also totally reject self and group evaluation assignments; in my experience they are basically useless and place students in an inherently uncomfortable position).

So there you have it: perhaps this advice isn’t quite as “targeted” as it might be, but this is the kind of thing I wish I had read before embarking on my first syllabus writing journey. Set goals, be realistic, and don’t underestimate the difficulty. As always, drop a comment if you found this post helpful, or to suggest a topic for another post! I’m currently in South Africa starting in on my dissertation research, but I’ll still be posting content as often as I can.