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Nelson Mandela University’s Dr Jennalee Donian was invited to Paris earlier this year to be part of a documentary on Trevor Noah who has been awarded Europe’s prestigious Erasmus prize.


Postdoctoral researcher at Nelson Mandela University Dr Jennalee Donian in Paris for her interview for the Trevor Noah documentary and interview.

“Earlier this year I had the most exciting call inviting me to fly to Paris to be part of a documentary on Trevor Noah, which will be screened on 28 November in Amsterdam at the awards ceremony for the prestigious Erasmus Prize,” says Dr Donian, a postdoctoral researcher who specialises in humour as part of the DST-NRF South African Research Chair Initiative (SARChI) Chair in Identities and Social Cohesion in Africa at Nelson Mandela University, headed by Professor Andrea Hurst.

Professor Andrea Hurst, head of the DST-NRF South African Research Chair Initiative (SARChI) Chair in Identities and Social Cohesion in Africa at Nelson Mandela University. 

South Africa’s most famous humour export, Trevor Noah is the second comedian ever to be awarded the Erasmus prize; the first being Charlie Chaplin in 1965.

This year’s theme is ‘In Praise of Folly’, and Noah is being awarded for his exceptional contribution to the humanities, social sciences, and arts.

Dr Donian’s contribution to the documentary adds scholarly context to Noah’s significance as a stand-up comedian.

The Director of the Erasmus Foundation, Dr Shanti van Dam, said her work was a motivating factor in awarding Noah the prize.

“What makes Trevor Noah so significant is his accessibility and relatability with all audiences,” Dr Donian explains.

“He draws on his multicultural background and mélange of languages to incite, navigate, and mitigate sensitive and taboo subjects like race, politics and ethnicity.

No subject or sector of the population escapes him, and he tackles even the darkest, most painful issues with immaculate satire.”

She adds that Noah's global success has catapulted South African comedy to an international stage. “He has paved the way for other South African comedians, and his significance for our country extends beyond his success as a comedian. He has become a cultural icon and has used this status for numerous philanthropic projects.” 

Dr Donian chose humour as the subject for her PhD as she wanted to do something “new and interesting”. “There were not a lot of studies on humour at the time, especially not in South Africa,” says Dr Donian who looked at the power of different forms of humour, based on case studies of South Africa’s Trevor Noah and Pieter-Dirk Uys, and America’s Ellen DeGeneres.

Dr Donian graduated with her PhD in 2018 and has continued focusing on humour for her postdoctoral research.

“Analysing the stand-up comedy of British, American and South African comedians, it emerges that South Africans speak far more openly about taboo subjects, race in particular,” she explains. “Pieter-Dirk Uys does this masterfully through the guise of his role as Afrikaans socialite Evita Bezuidenhout. South African ventriloquist and comedian Conrad Koch also does this through his puppet Chester Missing, who tackles politics, racism, and white privilege.”

“Humour is a powerful way for people to broach a very difficult past and in South Africa we use it as a cathartic and coping mechanism,” Dr Donian continues. “As a nation with so many languages, cultures, and races, it bonds us together. And while we might not all understand vernacular comics like Celeste Ntuli who performs in Zulu, there is universal camaraderie about a wide range of topics, including political corruption, apartheid, Eskom, and sex.”

“In traditional Zulu culture, women are supposed to be very polite and respectful and not swear, but Ntuli spectacularly breaks all these boundaries in her stand-up,” Dr Donian explains. “She talks about sex, she uses guttural sounds and moves her body in a sexual way. It’s interesting to see how popular she is, including amongst the men in the audience.”

Dr Donian adds that in the face of “a rather grim contemporary existential reality, humour has the capacity to inform positive social change, reframe or reinterpret conflict or trauma, break down racial and cultural barriers, and as a form of social protest. Of course, as Prof Hurst points out, the functions of humour are ambivalent: it can also inflame conflict, reinforce negative stereotyping, and incite societal division.”

“Laughing and crying are both forms of nervous energy release,” Prof Hurst explains. “Sometimes we laugh when we should be crying. Laughter also helps us to understand complexity better, to deal with the hardships, absurdities, and contradictions in the world. It helps us to achieve a more cohesive society. Freud said a sense of humour is an escape-valve for repressed feelings and one of the highest achievements for humans as it helps us to better handle life’s challenges.”

“People who are extremely ideological or vehement about something tend not to see the humour in life. This includes religious fundamentalists, anti-vaxers, right-wing extremists or climate change denialists,” Prof Hurst adds.

In 2022 the Chair hosted a weekly online seminar series on ‘The Power of Humour’ and it was extremely well received, with presenters from all over Africa, America, and Germany. This led to an international conference of the same name, hosted by Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha, featuring an international line-up of researchers.

At the conference, the founding chair of the Humour Society, Lydia Amir presented on the ridiculousness of being a human in the world and that if we can look at ourselves with a benign sense of humour then we would be kinder to ourselves and to others.

Prof Hurst and Dr Donian co-presented a paper titled ‘Laughing when the lights go out: Humour and the electricity crisis in South Africa’.

“Humour is a powerful way of talking truth to power, and it is also a mirror of how the people in a country see themselves, which naturally differs from country to country and culture to culture,” says Prof Hurst. “In South Africa we have a victim mentality in relation to the powers that be. Eskom, in this case, is the abusive partner, and that gives us insight into how we see ourselves; we take it and take it and come back for more.”

Emanating from this conference, Dr Donian partnered with a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, Dr Massih Zekavat, who also specialises in satire and humour. “We facilitated a virtual international cooperation project between our two universities which sought to facilitate an intercultural appreciation of humour within an intercontinental framework,”  says Dr Donian.

Prof Hurst and Dr Donian are currently working on an edited collection on the power of humour, which will be submitted for publication at the end of 2023.

Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057