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Opinion: Humour is saving grace of humanity

He who laughs last, laughs last with a smile from Pieter-Dirk Uys

– Pieter-Dirk Uys, Cape Times, 6 July 2017

(this Opinion piece also appeared in the Independent on Saturday, 8 July 2017, and in the Daily Maverick, 10 July 2017)

So what was so funny about the ANC Policy Conference of the last few days? Frankly everything and nothing. There was nothing funny about apartheid, but we laughed. There is nothing funny about state capture and the cancer of corruption in a young democracy — and yet where would we be without that bitter laughter that keeps us from going mad?

Comedy was found in the past reviled policies of separate development, not in the result of that horror, but the reality of the hypocrisy that surrounded it. HIV and Aids touched the lives of most people in the world and no one could find any reason to smile, and yet some of those who died in the epidemic managed to laugh as they planned their funerals with weeping friends. Bitter laughter, or bittere gelächte as the Jews would whisper.

Can there be humour found in the concentration camps of World War II? Or do we still have to wait for that musical called What a Gas? How much survival depended on the inmates of horror camps keeping themselves alive with jokes and irony. Humour is probably the saving grace of humanity. Comedy can be its downfall.

In our 23rd year of this democracy of the people for some people by a few people, hypocrisy is indeed the Vaseline of political intercourse. Today the jokes in future Azania are few and far between, whispered from behind hands and hoping the targeted people won’t hear. A reference to a monkey and jobs can be lost. Hashtags can become viral and conversation self-censored. Cartoons aren’t seen as the humorous analysis of a national dilemma, but as a racist attack on some in society.

I have become aware why some corporate invitations to entertain their clients have thinned out, mainly because white chief executives are scared my humour will offend their black guests. So comedy from a white mouth about a multiracial society is a one-sided attack against some?

I hope I offend everyone, but not all the time. It is too exhausting. But if someone reacts to a comment because it doesn’t agree with what they think, is that always a bad thing? Rattle the cage of prejudice and maybe new attitudes can be born. Insulting, demeaning or destroying precious dignity is not on the menu here.

So what is funny about where we are today? Words and phrases manage to trap the seriousness of the problem in a few tweeted characters. State capture sounds like an episode from Game of Thrones. A family in control of the state could refer to King Henry VIII and his court of concubines, then wives and eventual executions. We’ve all seen that on TV. And that’s the problem.

We see everything on television, in our homes. Breaking news of children being blown up in Syria flickers across our screens as we savour our breakfast. There is little difference between it and an advert for toothpaste. A nuclear threat from Who-Flung-Dung in North Korea is shrugged off with the newsflash of another outbreak of a virus with no cure, luckily in deepest darkest Africa where it cannot affect us.

One aeroplane with a hidden virus can bring a world to its knees and kill the millions that are on the list of overpopulation. So the clock is ticking for everyone. Even the sea is sighing in exhaustion, losing its fish life to pollution and finding icebergs melting into a higher tide.

Before we can count till 2030, the Cape Flats might be underwater as the peninsula becomes an island. What’s funny about that? And so we sit with the problem of trying to understand the GPS of laughter. I see comedy and humour as two different onslaughts.

Comedy is the joke that you remember to tell someone else. But humour is intensely private and more universal. Everyone has, or had, a sense of humour. It is the laughter at fear, at shock, at disbelief and at the disgrace of bad government. Because none of those things is funny. And yet they have to be.

Looking at the passing parade of Very Important Comrades during the past few days, all trapped in the national park called Nasrec in their plaited hairstyles and new outfits, holding their folders of jumbled printed papers in one hand and something to eat or drink in the other, was a delight to observe.

The 4 000 cadres in the kraal of policy were there to discuss, debate, argue and focus on solutions to the many problems of democracy. The usual joker-cadres were on the stage, political stand-up comedians who needed a Thesaurus App to make sense of their colonialist language that irritatingly has become the communication tool of the business world.

Leading actors stood out in their fancy new designer party jackets, not so much Gucci as Gupta-designed. A Gigaba and a Zwane led the chorus of God save Saxonwold and many in the audience found a tune to dance to. The delight of hearing the ANC rally slogan to be "Strength through Unity" was a delicious reminder that history takes pomposity and turns it into nonsense.

Didn’t the National Party of apartheid rally under the slogan "Eendrag maak Mag"? With the sharp whiff of corruption hanging around every mini-me leader like stinky perfume, the ruling party tightly held onto the power of being the top political gang in the land. Their arrogant strength through forced unity was working, as anyone who argued against the way things were, would not be there to share in the spoils of this uncivil war.

We are in deep trouble socially and politically and without firm leadership, we will probably lose our country before 2020. If there is no firm discipline other than the threats from a giggling godfather and his cronies, the ship of state will hit the iceberg. Maybe it already has, because all those overweight passengers on the Zumatanic are grabbing their pieces of ice off the deck to add to their Johnny Walker Black or Blue, not realising that the Guptaberg has ripped a fatal gash under the waterline of survival.

Behold the mock in democracy and the con in reconciliation. Let us celebrate the best government money can buy. While the Protection of State Information Act is waiting for the president’s signature — and he has been practising — the brown shirts of the Gupta mafia are sharpening their tongues on the defenders of free speech.

So, fellow citizens, stand up and be heard. Or see you all at the Croatian border with a Pick n Pay bag in your hands. That’s our present democracy in a nutshell: you pick and then, comrade, make no mistake: you will pay.

* Uys presents his one-man memoir The Echo of a Noise at the Theatre on the Bay until July 15. Book via 021 438 3301 and Computicket

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articles from 2017