MAVERICK LIFE INTERVIEW
Mike van Graan on satire, collective catharsis and political megaphones
‘Comedy – and satire in particular – are not going to change the world, but they play important roles in reducing politicians to the ordinary’, says Mike Van Graan.
“Art generally, and theatre in particular, do not emerge or take place in vacuums. The socio, economic and political context that is contemporary South Africa, shaped primarily by inequality that largely aligns with and perpetuates historical racial divides, shapes our creative universe”, says director, activist and award-winning playwright Mike van Graan.
In a year dominated by a global pandemic, political infighting and relentless corruption, watching what South African artists and designers have been or are creating is a revealing – and often soothing – magnifying glass laid on top of our societal wounds and political failings.
With the tip of a pencil or the touch of a paintbrush, through tapisseries, photographs, plays, cartoons, many of our bafflements, doubts and frustrations take a more permanent shape, one that will be left for all to see, revisit, explore, even years after we have experienced them.
Satire in South Africa takes different forms: From the iconic 1981 South African satirical play, Woza Albert! by Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema and Barney Simon, which portrayed disenfranchised black people who are anticipating the second coming of Jesus, or the well-known work by author, performer and satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys who from the mid-1960s till today, “(exposes) the bones of that dinosaur (apartheid culture) for the entertainment of democratic audiences worldwide”. Daily Maverick’s very own Zapiro, whose interpretation of Goya’s painting, Saturn Devouring His Son, as Trump eating the American democracy, and Asterix coordinating a global response to coronavirus while Getafix prepares a Covid-19 vaccine are both masterpieces that will be forever emblematic of the year that was 2020.
Today, Lesego Tlhabi, aka Coconut Kelz, creates short videos that wrap current events in much needed humour, but also criticise “racism and privilege”, and point out to South Africa’s very real social tensions and inequalities – like her #CoronavirusUpdate or her commentary on racism in high schools to name but a few; comedian Trevor Noah who every night on the Daily Show, through humour and jokes, ridicules the powers that be; or Tumi Morake’s satire bites on spending her lockdown in the US, all have chomped – and still are biting – in unique ways, at our world, as it stumbles into confusion or topples into political divisions; through creative expressions they make sense of an often-senseless time.
And although both comedic sketches and satire offer a sort of relief and liberation from political and societal events, Van Graan points out at the differences between both practices. “Over the last number of decades, we have witnessed the huge rise of stand-up comedy, comedy festivals and even comedy slots on radio and television. While a lot of stand-ups may make political commentary, generally, the comedy relates more to everyday social relations and observations. That kind of comedy generally offers opportunities for catharsis through laughter, a kind of escapism that is valid and necessary in a society that has many stresses. And then there’s satire, which we experience most often and directly through political cartooning.
“Comedy – and satire in particular – are not going to change the world, but they play important roles in reducing politicians to the ordinary. Too many of our elected leaders think of and conduct themselves as ‘rulers’ rather than as servants, which give citizens the freedom to laugh at the foibles of such politicians and so help our democracy in that people see them less as rulers to be obeyed than as elected officials to hold accountable,” he says.
The playwright explains that, in fact, be it through the work of journalists, book writers, political commentators, those in power are often critiqued and exposed; yet, such commentaries are often “consumed individually” while “comedy and satire in theatre provide for collective catharsis, and to build a community (even a temporary one) in which insights are gleaned through humorous commentary and which gets to laugh at similar things and so crosses many divides within our society”.
In addition, satire – which can be uncomfortable and at times unsettling – “is also about challenging the audience and their beliefs and views”; but because it is done with humour and mockery or parody, “it is more palatable than having the same commentary made in a more direct, ‘preachy’ form,” says Van Graan.
Although Van Graan’s work post-1989 was part of the broader anti-apartheid struggle – he wrote plays about migrant labour, the tricameral constitution, anti-conscription, detention without trial, all performed at rallies or political gatherings – he has been using his role as a playwright to contribute “to democracy by putting into the public domain the kinds of issues that citizens are concerned about, that they may not be able to voice for whatever reason, and to interrogate them in the public space. This allows for catharsis within the audience but also, it’s about encouraging people to use their voice to help advance and defend our democratic gains, for if we retreat from that space, we allow others – mainly those with loud party political megaphones – to shape our democracy in their self-serving interests,” he says.
However, the irony is that although back in pre-democracy, “there was a censorship board and there were many restrictions on what could be said, and yet, I felt a great sense of freedom in being able to write about those subjects – even with consequences like being arrested for doing street theatre that was deemed to constitute an illegal gathering – because of the knowledge that one was on the right side of history”. Today and even though South Africa is enjoying freedom of creative expression, it is “compromised and suppressed” in other subtle ways.
“The fear of not accessing public resources to support one’s work, the fear of not having one’s work produced by theatres and festivals dependent on government funding, the fear of being labelled racist/anti-transformation/a factory fault, or whatever. I am not a freedom of expression fundamentalist (that I should say anything I want because I can) – I do believe that I need to understand and be sensitive to people and communities whose ideas and beliefs are different to mine as part of my broader commitment to changing people in order to contribute to changing society.
“What has changed is that whereas before, we – as progressive creative practitioners – were part of a broader anti-apartheid struggle and the regime had no political or moral legitimacy, the current regime has political legitimacy in that it has been democratically elected. During the apartheid era, we had all forms of censorship by a repressive, minority government and yet we paid little attention to it, and engaged in critical expression anyway, now we have a legitimate government, supported by the majority of people, and we don’t have formal censorship, but there was more self-censorship through the Mandela and Mbeki eras. The decline of the moral authority of the ANC because of the high levels of corruption and the rise of the EFF as a vocal opponent of the ruling party has created far more space for public critical expression.
“However, we have seen the rise of different forms of censorship: negative labelling of critics, marginalising of those who criticise the regime from opportunities and funding, threats of legal action, protest action”, he notes, alluding to the march on the Goodman Gallery in May 2012, to protest against Brett Murray’s painting, The Spear.
He adds: “But I also am of the view that one needs to expose, interrogate, stand up to and even ridicule dogmas that seek to reinforce power relations – political, religious, cultural, social, etc. – that perpetuate injustices and inequalities”.
A sort of visionary expose, his 2003 play Green Man Flashing, a fast-paced “political power-play thriller”, was written a few years before former President Jacob Zuma’s rape trial and received formidable acclaim. “It took on the themes of rape, power, suppression of truth and the like. The overriding response of many audience members was that it was a brave, courageous play which I didn’t understand really, since it was ten years into our constitutional democracy and many people considered it ‘brave’ for an artist to be exercising freedom of creative expression?
“There is always the threat or the pressure of contemporary taboos as they emerge, new dogmas, new power groups, new politically chic formations that demand conformity or new languages that we need to be conscious of, and choose how to engage with. This will always be our challenge in the foreseeable future as we defend and promote democracy by practicing it” he says.
Now, Van Graan, through his production company MVG Productions, and along with the STAND Foundation and the Lunchbox Theatre, launched the STAND Foundation satirical writing project that aims to promote satirical writing for theatre by new young writers, who were encouraged “to produce satirical sketches defined with satire – ‘the use of humour, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose or criticise people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics or other topical issues’”.
Judged by actress, writer and art director of the Fortune Cookie Theatre, Sylvaine Strike, actor and writer, Rob Van Vuuren and winner of the 2020 Standard Bank Young Artist for Drama, Jefferson Tshabalala, the winning sketches – all from van Graan’s Bafana Republic and Other Satires – were by Tafara Nyatsanza (first prize), Lauren Snyders (second prize) and Ncumisa Ndimeni; the winners received a cash prize and their sketches will be used to promote the release of Bafana Republic and Other Satires: A Collection of Monologues and Revues in print.
About the entries the judges received, Strike noticed few common themes: “Gender-based violence stands out as a painfully real fact in our society, it takes a very fine writer to turn the uselessness of our police’s response to GBV into satire; poverty, political appointments, corruption and greed be it political or religious. All of these appear amidst the writing of the top 5 writers we selected”.
To young satirists who enter the field, Van Graan advises: “Think about who you are writing for; make cut-outs of the kinds of audiences who may attend your work and have them in front of you when you write. You’re not writing for yourself only; audiences experience your work differently depending on their class, their histories, their education, their life experience defined by ‘race’ and their gender, their aspirations. Be aware of your privilege (not just in the traditional senses), but also as a writer, commentator, who has voice, agency and influence. Be brave (you will face push back), and yet, be self-reflective, learn to empathise”. DM/ ML
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