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A laugh at the end of the tunnel

This article, written by Lyn Snodgrass Associate Professor and Head of Department of Political and Conflict Studies at NMMU, appeared in The Times e-edition and was orginally published in The Conversation.

IN THE PHOTO:  Jon Stewart with Trevor Noah at the 67th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards Governors Ball in Los Angeles, California recently. Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

LAST year was a tumultuous one for South Africa and the country faces an uncertain 2016.

On the face of it, the prevailing mood does not bode well for South African society.

But there are undercurrents that suggest otherwise — budding signs of a deepening democracy. One is the Trevor Noah comedic phenomenon.

Noah is a comic export to the American global television market as successor to the famous satiric host Jon Stewart on the highly rated The Daily Show.

The show draws its comedy and satirical content from trending political news, cutting-edge debates and interviews with top politicians and influencers.

Noah has cracked the nod with his peers, a cosmopolitan audience and influential media critics — no mean feat for a home-grown 31-year-old of mixed race.

The Noah phenomenon speaks to an influential comedic revolution that is happening in South Africa; humour as social commentary and critique.

Late-night talk shows and comedy clubs are increasing in popularity.

This comedic revolution is dominated by a growing number of young, black comedians. Like their peers worldwide, they are pushing the boundaries on controversial issues.

Public, and even iconic, figures are considered fair game and there are no sacred cows.

Comedians are not idealists. But in the single-minded pursuit of their agenda — laughter — they inadvertently provide the sociopolitical critique that has the potential to activate transformation in society.

Satirical humour might be provocative, shocking and even offensive but it is considered fundamental in a free society. Charlie Chaplin observed that “… the function of comedy is to sharpen our sensitivity to the perversions of justice within the society in which we live”.

Satire, a specific genre of humour that goes deeper than ordinary humour, often brutally exposes the absurdity of the human condition, society’s hypocrisies and abuses of the polity. By stimulating critical awareness the satirist-comic comes to play the unintended role of activist and change agent in society.

South Africa’s stand-up comedians and satirical artists offer the opportunity to laugh, providing a Freudian catharsis — a release of emotional stress and tension — with therapeutic benefits. This comic release is beneficial in activating coping mechanisms to deal with the anxiety and insecurity of deeply divided societies.

Humorous strategies are also powerful in exposing social injustice, subverting stereotypes and challenging assumptions. And the constructive role of humour in facilitating dialogue, non-violent resistance and reconciliation is increasingly being documented.

Which free expression a society allows its artists is seen as a significant indicator of its democratic character and maturity. Developing economies often struggle with freedom of expression, especially when regime abuses and dominant discourses are challenged.

The current South African government is no exception. President Jacob Zuma has provided a wealth of material for comedians, artists and cartoonists such as Zapiro.

More recently, however, the governing African National Congress appears to be taking an adversarial stance against artistic expression.

Young, black, stand-up comedians such as Tumi Morake, Loyisa Gola, David Kau, Kagiso Lediga, Tats Nkonzo and many others are performing increasingly to black, middle–class audiences. Kau jokes that he no longer has to rely on white patronage because black South Africans have money and attend his shows.

Satirists can certainly help South Africa deal with building a vibrant democracy. Satirical comedy provides an alternative learning platform by offering competing narratives, subverting stereotypes and deconstructing dominant discourses.

As with the #FeesMustFall movement it is fitting that the “comic revolution” is driven by young South Africans who are debunking myths and challenging political correctness with a sense of humour.


Contact information
Prof Lyn Snodgrass
Head of Department Political and Conflict Studies
Tel: 27 41 504 2624