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The second coming — comedians rush to respond to SA’s new political reality

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Robin K Crigler is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and a research Fellow at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study. He is currently working on his first books, Inevitable Satirists: Histories of South African Humour, 1910-1965, and a biography of the apartheid-era satirist Casey Motsisi. His chapter on modern South African stand-up comedy appears in Izuu Nwankwọ’s collection Stand-Up Comedy in Africa: Humour in Popular Languages and Media (Ibidem Press, 2022).

For the past 30 years, South Africa’s political reality hasn’t reflected the level of nuance and messiness that comes out through its comedy. We had a Ruling Party, with two capital letters. We don’t have that any more. Today, for the first time, South African politics is as messy as its people.

They say the ANC will rule until Jesus returns, and indeed this past Sunday had a distinctly biblical feel to it. The sun was shining early on in Johannesburg, but you could tell it was an empty promise, like when the bath is running but the geyser is off.

Around noon the skies darkened and the breeze picked up, and suddenly I saw birds everywhere. Birds I had never seen before in Melville were suddenly all over the place, silent except for the sound of their wings. The rain started falling, the wind howled, and at the Gallagher Convention Centre in Midrand, an unprecedented new chapter in South Africa’s story was officially opened with a final presentation from the IEC and a presidential address.

I had low expectations from this week’s instalment of Bioscope Sundays, the weekly comedy show at 44 Stanley hosted by Tsitsi Chiumya and Shanray van Wyk. Not because of the quality of the space or the performers, but because of the cold front and the uncertainty of this week which seems to have changed everything.

I was worried I’d be the only one in the audience, but as a historian of South African humour, my curiosity got the better of me – I had to see for myself how stand-up comedians would respond to this moment. Maybe I’m being a little disingenuous: I needed some laughter in my life, and I wasn’t getting any from the News24 and Daily Maverick election live blogs.

My fears were unfounded: the show was actually very well attended. Interestingly, almost everyone there was a repeat customer. Usually comedians like to see lots of new people in the house, which helps with their crowd work – “is that your partner sitting next to you?”, “how long have you two been together?”, etc. But that was simply not the vibe on Sunday, as the night unfolded against a steady backdrop of rain pounding the Bioscope’s metal roof.

I’ve always been fascinated by the way energy works at comedy shows. The relationship between a performer and a crowd is anything but straightforward: the performer has to prove themself to the crowd, which usually decides early on whether they’re on board. Once they decide, the verdict is final.

Hearing the way comedians talk, you realise it’s a fundamentally gladiatorial relationship: the comedian wants to “kill” and not to “die” – to succeed and not to fail. The audience acts as both the adversary and the emperor in the stands, brandishing its thumb. That’s how it usually goes.

But not this past Sunday at the Bioscope. That night there was nothing gladiatorial in the atmosphere, nothing reminiscent of duelling or courtship or any of the metaphors we commonly use to describe stand-up comedy.

When they came out to their mics, Chiumya and Van Wyk didn’t dominate the audience with a fearsome intro song – they just started talking, and we were all a little startled. Only slowly, as they riffed about deciding their vote, did the laughter start to pick up.

Through comic after comic, the laughs grew louder and louder. Mbali Gudazi unpacked her identity for us, lamenting the ways her Zuluness gets stereotyped by other South Africans. “My father doesn’t own a taxi!” she insisted. In any case, it’s not the drivers who are to blame for taking chances on the road, but the passengers who expect them to speed. It felt like a political metaphor.

Veteran comedian Ntosh Madlingozi gave us several reasons he thinks white people are secretly on nyaope. Mo Mothebe described how his experience collecting an ewallet exposed his classism, and Molokela Makola broke down the differences between European and African names.

In some ways it was classic South African comedy – plenty about race, lots about gender, and a deep engagement with the idea that “even when we meet each other, we don’t know each other”, as Madlingozi put it.

There were a few interracial couples in the audience. In between acts, Chiumya and Van Wyk built a joke about how that still raised eyebrows in South Africa in 2024. Children’s dolls were a good example of this: a white Barbie and Ken will get married very quickly, but a white Barbie and a Black Ken? Try this with your own children, they said: if Ken starts gardening for Barbie or delivering Uber Eats, know you’re raising a racist.

None of this was particularly new, though it was very funny. But for the past 30 years, South Africa’s political reality hasn’t reflected the level of nuance and messiness that comes out through its comedy. There was a liberation movement which was fully in command and a small opposition – free to wail and whinge as it liked, but ultimately not a threat to the national status quo. We had consistency. We had a Ruling Party, with two capital letters.

We don’t have that anymore.

Today, for the first time, South African politics is as messy as its people. It has democratic tendencies and dictatorial ones too. It wants to lead Africa and it also wants to throw all the foreigners out. It wants to take all the land back and it also wants to abolish BEE.

Without a Ruling Party in charge, it seems like all of these options will always be on the table. For better or worse, nothing is impossible anymore. Nothing can be ruled out.

‘Hawu, hawu’

When I found out that Tats Nkonzo was the closing act for the night, I knew we were in for a treat. Nkonzo has been one of the most intense and cerebral comedians in South Africa for a while now, and he thrives on provoking his audiences. If anyone sees comedy as gladiatorial combat, it’s Tats. His opening bit was like that for sure. But then he went somewhere else.

He set the gags aside and embarked on a passionate critique of his own cohort, the urban black middle class. People who thought Rise Mzansi and Bosa actually had a chance last Wednesday. People who spout pieties about GBV and trans rights while in Johannesburg, but who leave it all behind when they go “home-home” to places like the rural Eastern Cape, where patriarchy is in charge and any deviation from the norm is stigmatised as izinto zabelungu (white people things).

People who aligned with the EFF 10 years ago like a jealous lover, hoping that their message would bring the ANC back onside. Those same people, now coming to grips with the chain reaction they helped set off – the collapse of ANC rule and the certainty it once provided.

As Nkonzo worked towards his crescendo, he abandoned words altogether. “Back then we were like ‘hawu, hawu’, but now we have ‘HAWU-HAWU’.” His comical middle-class toyi-toyi became something else altogether, and everyone knew exactly what he was talking about.

“Hawu hawu” became “how how” and then “hawu hawu” again, and the bit and the performer and the audience melted together into something cathartic and defiantly inarticulate – one of the most South African of all sounds, repeating again and again and again at various cadences. Asking and answering its own questions. Nkonzo spoke it into being, but our laughter gave it life, and it hung in the air above us long after the show ended.

It turns out we don’t have the words to describe this moment yet, let alone joke about it. At least not in complete sentences.

Chatting with comedians after the show, it became clear that the energy shift was not my imagination. The audience braved wind and rain to attend the show because we were deeply in need of some comedic guidance. But the performers also felt they needed to be there. This was maybe the first Bioscope Sunday I’d been to where all the comedians advertised before the show actually showed up, with no last-minute changes.

And so it wasn’t a matter of killing or dying, it was a night that was about being together. As Nkonzo said during his set, we need each other now more than ever before.

We’re all tense. We’re all nervous. We’re all here together.

Nothing is impossible any more. DM

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  • District Six says:

    Didn’t we learn that in 1994? “Nothing is impossible any more.” Maybe this election just reminded us that COVID19 changed the world – and us.
    A significant portion of us are angry. Angry enough to get Jesus to come, and the end of ANC hegemonic power. Angry enough to succumb to the Strongman, Numba One. Angry enough not to give the DA a chance. Angry enough to not cast vote. This week, my community whatsapps have exploded with wry humour, rage, and cute cats lifted from instagram, as we grappled with uncertainty and fled to the comforts of social media.

  • Beverley Roos-Muller says:

    Such a welcome article! Thanks.

  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    Beautifully written, Robin.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Your concluding observation about “Nothing is impossible any more” .. is pertinent, because across the sea where my predecessors came from, even the BJP (with Modhi as its self appointed god !) got taken to task, and hopefully has put his feet on terra firma again !

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