Did You Hear the One About Apartheid?

After losing power in 1994, South Africa’s white right-wingers withdrew into psychic exile, leaving the chattering classes to pursue a political agenda so correct that it sometimes verged on insanity. Newspapers were soon filled with great billows of soft-left pabulum. Talk show hosts routinely used appalling terms like “gendered” or “Othering,” and almost everyone observed an unwritten law stating that it was unfair to criticize black people on the grounds that any failings they might exhibit were attributable to poverty, oppression and bad education, otherwise known as “the legacy of apartheid.” In time, I came to feel as if I were suffocating in a fog of high-minded pieties, a condition that often reduced me to cursing and throwing things at the TV set.

In the course of one such episode a few years ago, I switched channels and came upon a demented comedy sketch in which a gunman was tutoring a class of black schoolchildren in the finer points of armed robbery. “You got to have an inside source to tell you where the money is,” yelled the gunman, “and when you get caught — I just love this bit — when you get caught, blame it on the legacy of apartheid. OK! So what have you learned today?” The children chorus, “Blame it on the legacy of apartheid!”

If you’re not South African, you’ll probably never understand how dumbfounding this was, but let’s give it a try. What do you do, if you’re young, gifted and African, when the Economist describes your home as “The Hopeless Continent”? Contest this assessment and you sound like a silly white liberal, which is anathema to a cool dude like comedian David Kibuuka. “The way the foreigners see Africa is sort of the way it is,” he says. “Wars, people dying of diseases that were cured long ago and so on.” But acknowledging such truths is dangerous, too, because some brothers are always going to accuse you of being a self-loathing sellout, and that’s enough to keep most Africans quiet.

Not so for a group of young, black comedians who have taken South Africa by storm. Their attitude, says 30-year-old comic Kagiso Lediga, is, “Get lost if you can’t take a joke. Our job is to talk about things that are wrong, and we’ll keep doing it unless you kill us.”

Based in Johannesburg, the comics first rose to prominence four years ago in a TV series called “The Pure Monate Show.” The title meant “absolutely delicious scrumptious show” in a local African language, and its standard fare was outrage. The show lampooned the nation’s obsession with crime, staged a conversation between sex toys of various races, and offered some comic sketches about life in neighboring Zimbabwe, which has been rocked by political and economic turmoil under President Robert Mugabe. In one such skit, a shady-looking character hands a great wad of cash to an underworld connection, who surreptitiously slips him a briefcase. Viewers think they’re witnessing a Zimbabwe-style drug deal, but when the briefcase is opened, it contains a lone loaf of bread — the consequence of a currency destroyed by an inflation rate that recently hit 2,200,000% a year.

On the domestic front, the show parodied the cultural peculiarities of racial and tribal minorities, and, in one memorable sketch, portrayed South Africa as a country where politics were so boring that most people stayed in bed on election day, thereby allowing the white rulers of yore to stage a comeback. This was presented as a trailer for a horror movie: “Apartheid II — coming to a cinema near you.”

The comedians’ manager is Takunda Bimha, a 29-year-old lawyer who wears designer jeans and Italian smoking jackets and has a suite of offices in the trendy Johannesburg suburb of Greenside. Mr. Bimha forsook the law for TV production a few years back, and now he’s a capo in Johannesburg’s comedy underworld. As Mr. Bimha tells it, the comedians were middle-class boys with good educations who wanted to do a satirical comedy show in the style of “Saturday Night Live.” Since most of them were young, gifted and black, state-owned SABC TV gave them a deal in 2003.

God knows what the broadcaster was anticipating, but what it got was renegade comedy of a sort never previously seen in South Africa. The show slaughtered sacred cows and lampooned important people. “Memories of apartheid were fading,” says Mr. Bimha, “and the guys were like, ‘Let’s move on,’ you know? They felt the culture had become boring, and that it was time we started laughing at ourselves.”

If they were white, they would have been fired. But black authorities seemed dazed by the fact that those responsible for this mockery were bright young men from their own side of the racial divide. “They thought we’d care,” says Mr. Kibuuka, 27, a leading light in the collective. “But actually, we don’t. We didn’t set out to be subversive. We just did it because we liked doing it. They said, hey, that’s subversive! And we said, really? OK!”

Mr. Kibuuka is a droll young sophisticate who drives a convertible, writes clever pop songs and affects to be vaguely bored by almost everything, including my questions. Although the show drew complaints from audiences, he says he has no regrets, and no serious grievances about the show’s ultimate demise. (It was axed in 2005.) “The SABC is a public broadcaster,” he yawns. “Citizens were complaining, so they had to listen.” The SABC declined to comment.

The gang packed their bags and moved on to greater things, beginning with a pseudo-documentary about young comedians and their girlfriends traveling into the backwoods to perform stand-up at a rock festival. Their film, the 2006 “Bunny Chow,” directed by John Barker, did well on the local circuit, but foreigners found it a bit bewildering. There was an “Easy Rider”-esque scene where a small-town redneck threatens to murder the funnymen because they’re trying to seduce his wife, but otherwise, this was a South Africa that was totally unfamiliar to outsiders. The whites were likeable slackers, the blacks cocky and urbane. Characters of various races were constantly hopping in and out of each other’s beds, and apartheid cropped up only in jokes.

In short, the film was a fairly accurate depiction of the lifestyle and attitudes of, say, university students who were in grade school when apartheid ended and find their parents’ politics pass?. This in itself was a sin in certain eyes. “I thought politicians would be smart enough to treat comedians and satirists like court jesters,” says Mr. Lediga, a veteran of the show. “You let them do their thing, and then you stand back and say, of course I believe in freedom of speech, look what I’m willing to put up with.” But South Africa isn’t like that. “They expect you to take sides,” says Mr. Lediga. “That’s one of our problems. They feel the black youth is apathetic and we should be inciting them to take up arms or whatever.”

The source of one such critique was Christine Qunta, a black-power activist and writer who sits on the state broadcaster’s governing body and is said to be close to South African President Thabo Mbeki. After the Cape Town premiere of “Bunny Chow,” she fired off a text message to a relative who leaked it to the comedians. Ms. Qunta did not return several calls for comment, but Mr. Lediga says her reaction was extremely negative. “Christine was like, [this is] disgusting,” says Mr. Lediga. His heart sank when he read Ms. Qunta’s verdict. There was clearly no chance of “The Pure Monate Show” getting a second chance on state TV.

But hey, no worries. The boys were making good money on South Africa’s live comedy circuit. In fact, some were making a great deal of money, wearing sharp suits and driving cars with TV sets in the back seat. It was time, as Mr. Bimha puts it, to start plotting “world domination.” Their chosen vehicle was “The Dictator,” a movie script about the rise and fall of Edson Nyrirembe, president for life of a fictitious African country named Jambola. Part Idi Amin and part Robert Mugabe, Nyrirembe is a sinister buffoon with certain painfully lifelike characteristics. In other words, Nyrirembe is stupid, arrogant, occasionally barbaric and always surrounded by quivering yes-men. Like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, he is perplexingly popular among foreign black-power fans, who invariably grant him a standing ovation when he appears on their shores. Mr. Lediga was sent to New York and Cannes to sell the project to potential investors, none of whom were willing to commit. “White liberals are happy to finance harmless African art movies,” chuckles Mr. Lediga, “but they seem to get very anxious about ideas that might draw the attention of the Thought Police.”

If failed “The Dictator” project cuts a bit close to the bone, one struggles to imagine the reaction to their other movie project — a comedy about apartheid, loosely inspired by “Life of Brian,” Monty Python’s heretical parody of the story of Jesus.

What was funny about apartheid? Mr. Lediga shrugs. “It was absurd,” he says, “and that’s always funny. It was also painful, so there has to be a lot of comedy in there somewhere.”

“Ja,” says Mr. Kibuuka, “like white racists with black lovers and morons trying to free Mandela.”

Did he say morons? Ouch. These guys are lucky to be working in Africa’s most tolerant country. Elsewhere, they’d be in dungeons. Nearly every country in Africa has “insult laws” to protect the dignity of its leaders, and if those don’t work, there are other forms of joke suppression: African culture commands youngsters to respect their elders, and Africa’s embarrassments provide a powerful incentive for self-censorship.

Am I making these guys sound like raving neo-cons? That wouldn’t be accurate. In person, they’re thoughtful young men who lament the poverty in which most South Africans still languish and acknowledge how lucky they are to have escaped it. They are also staunch anti-imperialists, always delighted to find an American in the audience so they can crack jokes about moronic presidents and so on. Local whites get frequent lashings, too. The other night, Tsepo Mogale picked out some pale faces at a front-row table and said, “You whites are full of s-, you know.” He proceeded to tell a story about how he pulled up at a traffic light alongside “a battered old Datsun carrying a white family” who locked their doors the instant they clocked black skin. “I’m going to hijack a Datsun?” he chuckled. “Get out of here. I drive a Mercedes.”

This draws a laugh, but whites are a dwindling minority, not nearly as interesting as the “Afristocracy” that now holds power. A year or two back, comedian Loyiso Gola, 25, developed a fascination with the local political style that evolved into a one-man show titled, “Loyiso Gola for President.” His absurd policy proposals brought the house down. “Crime?” he’d say. “You want to stop crime? Easy. For six months, anyone who commits any crime, blam, just blow him away. Pull a Giuliani, man. I guarantee you, crime will vanish.” Mr. Gola says his follow-up show will be titled, “You should have voted for me.”

This is not really a joke, given the perilous state of local politics. South Africa’s ruling African National Congress hopes to install Jacob Zuma as the country’s next president, in spite of his facing charges arising from the alleged acceptance of a bribe from a French arms manufacturer. Mr. Zuma denies the charges, and a judge will rule next month whether the trial will go ahead. Meanwhile, his followers portray him as the victim of a political vendetta orchestrated by “counter-revolutionaries.” The dispute has precipitated a crisis in public life, with militant Zuma supporters threatening mayhem if the government attempts to jail their hero.

It was against this tense backdrop that dignitaries gathered at Johannesburg’s Emperors Palace casino for the Black Management Forum’s 2008 gala dinner. Mr. Zuma was the keynote speaker, and entertainment was provided by Trevor Noah, 24, the newest star in Takunda Bimha’s stable. Trusting that Mr. Zuma was big enough to take a joke, Mr. Noah launched into a monologue that went something like this: In apartheid’s dying years, he said, hundreds of thousands of terrified white South Africans moved to Australia rather than live under a black government. Those who remained were charmed by Mandela, but when the old man stepped down in favor of Thabo Mbeki in 1999, whites thought, uh-oh, and there was a renewed exodus to the Antipodes. Blacks were amused by these outbreaks of paranoia, Mr. Noah concluded, but now that a Zuma presidency is on the cards, they aren’t laughing anymore. Now you hear blacks saying, “How much is a ticket to Australia again?”

The all-black audience howled, but Mr. Noah had broken several powerful African taboos here. The taboo that says 24-year-olds must respect their elders. The taboo that says it’s treachery for a brother to criticize a brother. Heck, even the universal conventions of good manners. All eyes swiveled in Mr. Zuma’s direction, and lo: “He was laughing like crazy,” says Mr. Noah. “Killing himself.” (A spokeswoman for Mr. Zuma confirms he heard the joke, and says, “it would be entirely in character for him to laugh” at it.)

Jokes rooted in pain are nothing new, but it was extraordinary to have a banquet-hall of glamorous black-tied Africans laughing at the notion that South Africa is now in such a pitiful state that even they might want to flee. Is this not a sign that they’re transcending victimhood? “Learning to laugh at yourself is a great sign of human evolution,” says Kagiso Lediga. Jews and the Irish went through the process generations ago. Black Americans made the critical breakthrough in the seventies. Indians followed suit about 10 years later, and look at them now — rising giants of international trade and authors of every third work on the West’s best-selling book charts. Take this as a joke if you like, but I think the crew might foreshadow a similar renaissance in Africa. Takunda Bimha liked my punchline. “Exactly!” he says. “Exactly!”


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