(this Opinion piece also appeared in the Daily Maverick, 8 August 2018)
LONG ago I discovered that laughter is not always because we find something funny.
Often it’s because we’re frightened.
Example #1: When I was living in Johannesburg during the 1980s and working at the
Market Theatre, I bought a telephone answering machine. Now the death threats I received
would be recorded.
“Pieter-Dirk Uys, you bleddie communist… We’re going to stop you… We will…” The gruff
voice was interrupted as the machine took over: “Please wait till you hear the bleep
and then leave your message”. BLEEP. Back came the gravelly voice, but no longer
as confident: “No man! Hell! I can’t talk to these bleddie machines…”
But the threats were real. I put one recording into my show. The audience roared
with laughter — and now, so did I.
Example #2: 1985. I noticed a car parked outside my gate with two men sitting in
it, day after day. I was being watched. My first reaction was fear. Then I prepared
two mugs of coffee and a plate of koeksisters on a tray, and went out into the street.
The men stared.
The driver’s window was open. I smiled at them and held out the tray. “Hello Oom?
Koffie en koeksisters?” They revved their car and sped away. I never saw them again.
Those were the best koeksisters I’d ever tasted. As Archbishop Tutu said, “Love your
enemy; it will ruin his reputation.”
There was nothing funny about apartheid, a crime against humanity. In Christian South
Africa it was just policy. To fight it was to expose oneself to the might of the
state. Political protest led to imprisonment, banning, even death. Humour became
my weapon of mass distraction: I laughed at something too horrible to contemplate;
laughing at the hypocrisy and absurd arrogance of those who perpetuated a system
Making fun of horror and the blandness of the evil was my job for 20 years during
apartheid. And old habits die hard. But today what was satire then, is only just
tolerated as comedy. To some it’s even a form of hate speech.
Even though most of my old targets have faded away since 1990, separate developments
seem to be reinventing themselves in many countries. Democratically-elected governments
are using democratically-accepted ways to entrench racism and division. The need
to use humour as a weapon against the new ruling class of populist dictators is more
essential than ever.
One of the most memorable satirical pieces of the past 60 years was Stanley Kubrick’s
chillingly funny film Dr Strangelove or How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love the
Bomb. Who can forget that last image of the insane pilot astride the atom bomb on
its way down to blow up the world? We all cheered and laughed. Satire then was easily
recognised as extreme; outrageous jokes in bad taste at the expense of those who
we were meant to respect or fear — politicians in the main, with popes as a good
second choice. In the 1960s there was plenty of horror and madness, but social media
was not yet invented and all present to rub your nose in it 24/7.
As a result, today’s 21st century world seems more insane than ever. I’m sorry to
be the one to break the news: satire is dead. There have always been the fake newsflashes
of satire’s demise. It has never been the friend of power. Satire can be traced throughout
Much of the time it flourished underground where it was easily trapped and neutralised,
preaching to the converted. It wore disguises: funny hats, false noses and highpitched
voices that helped satire to hide in the costumes of clowns and comedians.
Reputations were destroyed by innuendo. Whispers in the theatres could contribute
to a final carriage ride to the local guillotine.
Charlie Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator is a milestone on that long, winding road
of using politically-incorrect humour to fight the rising tide of intolerance. It
did not stop Adolf Hitler, but it has a legacy: the satirical depiction of power
at its maddest, its bloodiest and its most dangerous, such as the recent film The
Death of Stalin.
It should be a human right to laugh at fear, but maybe the only human right we are
left with is the right to be human. That humanity includes the compassion, dignity
and respect we show one another, the ubuntu that is the essence of our democracy
— or should be.
During the Zumafication of South Africa, human rights were bandied about to disguise
corruption, theft, possibly murder. Celebrating Nelson Mandela behind his back, as
we are doing on his 100th birth year, is again allowing politicians to use his legacy
of humanity to pretend we practice what he preached. We do not.
In our 24 years of democracy, the greatest infringement on our human rights has been
the reality of people forced to live in undignified, abject poverty, unable to access
their socio-economic rights. That’s where government for the people, of the people,
and by the people should have come in. Making jokes about Hitler in death camps like
Auschwitz wouldn’t have helped any of the condemned inmates, and yet they did use
dark bitter humour to help confront the horror.
On the other side of the spectrum, a cartoonist’s showerhead coming out the head
of a leader of questionable morality did a lot to remind us what we were in for.
And after nearly eight years of Jacob Zuma, our nation has been traumatised all over
again. But at least we have a refreshed optimism and the belief that there is light
at the end of the tunnel. We also realise that the tunnel is still curved.
Meanwhile the world’s superpower, bastion of democratic values, leader of the free
world is only entering its second year of trauma. Let me quote from 25 recent speeches
by President Donald Trump:
“Nobody can do it like me. Nobody. Honestly… Nobody is stronger than me. Nobody has
better toys than I do… There’s nobody bigger or better at the military than I am…
Nobody loves the Bible more than I do… Nobody builds walls better than me… Nobody’s
better to people with disabilities than me… Nobody’s fighting for the veterans like
I’m fighting for the veterans… Nobody has done so much for equality as I have… There’s
nobody more pro-Israel than I am… There’s nobody more conservative than me… There’s
nobody who respects women more than I do… Nobody would be tougher on Isis than Donald
Trump… Nobody’s ever had crowds like Trump has had… There’s nobody who understands
the horror of nuclear better than me… Nobody ever understands it but me; it’s called
devaluation… The sale of uranium that nobody knows what it means, I know what it
means… Nobody knows more about trade than me… Nobody in the history of this country
has ever known so much about infrastructure as Donald Trump… I know the H1B; I know
the H2B. Nobody knows it better than me… Nobody knows politicians better than I do…
Nobody knows more about taxes than I do… Nobody knows more about debt than I do…
Nobody knows the system better than me. Which is why I alone can fix it.”
God bless America. And God help the world.
• Uys is a South African satirist, active as a performer, author and social