articles from 2007

South African politics are a joke, seriously

– Mariette Le Roux, The Mail & Guardian, 9 December 2007

As the African National Congress prepares for its elective conference in Polokwane on December 16, satirists have not run short of gags designed to cut the party's members down to size.

Whether lampooning ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma for trying to beat Aids by showering, President Thabo Mbeki as being stuck in an ivory tower or the country's police chief as a mafioso, cartoonists and stand-up comedians hack away relentlessly at the indiscretions of the powers-that-be.

"The satirist in South Africa today has become probably more of a psychiatrist than an entertainer," says comedian Pieter-Dirk Uys, whose female alter-ego Evita Bezuidenhout has kept generations of South Africans in stitches.

"There is something very therapeutic about laughing at fear," he said.

And so Uys and others poke fun at such serious topics as Mbeki questioning whether HIV causes HIV/Aids and the sexual antics of Zuma who is favourite to unseat Mbeki at the helm of the ANC this month and place himself in pole position to become president.

Another popular target is Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang whose touting of vegetables to help combat HIV/Aids has won her the nickname Dr Beetroot.

Award-winning cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, or Zapiro, sees the role of the satirist as that of a social pressure valve.

"Finding ways not to take these things quite so seriously is important," said the man who first attached a showerhead to the forehead of his Zuma caricature -- a now near-permanent fixture.

This was after Zuma, also the subject of a corruption probe, testified in his rape trial last year that he showered after having had consensual sex with his HIV-positive accuser to prevent infection. He was acquitted.

"The satirist plays the role of a kind of prism that directs light in one way and turns it and focuses it in another way," said Shapiro.

"If you use humour, there is this little synapse thing in the brain that makes those insights exciting and digestible and quick and full of impact."

He has taken to drawing Tshabalala-Msimang as a variety of vegetables, Mbeki as a "Stalin-lite," and police National Commissioner Jackie Selebi with a "long arm of the law" encircling his alleged friends in the criminal underworld.

In a frocked and bejewelled appearance at the Cape Town Press Club, Bezuidenhout had her audience rolling with laughter when she recently launched a mock bid for the South African Presidency. Known fondly as Tannie Evita, the 72-year-old fictional grand dame married an apartheid-era National Party Cabinet minister and was herself an ambassador for the whites-only regime before swearing off her theoretically bigoted ways.

She claimed to enjoy the company of polygamist Zuma, saying: "He has always treated me with great respect, although I've never been alone with him in a room for more than a minute."

Zuma, she added, "always asks me to call him by his Zulu name, Innocent".

On Mbeki, generally perceived as an aloof autocrat, she declined to go into detail "because as you know there is no detail".

The apartheid regime had done Mbeki a disfavour, she added, for not having jailed him and thus robbing him of struggle credentials.

"Everybody in the ANC was in jail, following Nelson Mandela's example. As a young man, Thabo Mbeki threw stones at police cars and the police threw them right back. We didn't think he was important."

While Mbeki had no sense of humour and Zuma laughed only because he was the joker, South Africa's first black president Nelson Mandela understood the value of a good laugh, said Bezuidenhout.

"To form a government with the people who locked you up requires one hell of a sense of humour."

On a more serious note, Uys contended that freedom of speech was under threat, citing a R10-million defamation suit by Zuma against Shapiro.

While the ANC government did not censor the media as its apartheid predecessor did, the signs were worrying and the guarantees fragile, he said.

"There is a certain sinister symmetry [with the apartheid state]," said Shapiro -- citing ANC control over the output of the South African Broadcasting Corporation and party officials' regular condemnation of an "unpatriotic" press.

Added Bezuidenhout: "The day we allow democracy to happen behind closed doors is the day we go back to the old days. Nobody wants to go back."

Keeping South Africans interested and engaged was the only way to fight this phenomenon, she said, and vowed to keep doing her part.