from Africa in Transition

Comedy and Democracy in South Africa

January 21, 2016

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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For most Americans, their first exposure to South African comedy has been Trevor Noah, the host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” Noah’s January 20, riff on Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump is an example of South African standup comedy at its best, with the added dimension of an African “seeing us as others see us.” One example is his comment that America is such a great place because “…presidents might have term limits but Sarah Palin is forever.”

In fact, comedy has been an instrument of popular protest and social transformation since the anti-apartheid movement, and it is becoming even more influential in contemporary South Africa. It flourishes in an environment of near-absolute freedom of speech. Lyn Snodgrass, the Head of the Department of Political and Conflict Studies at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, argues that a new generation of South African comedians is increasingly popular, and, in their search for laughs, provide a biting social and political critique during a particularly unsettled political period. She argues that South African comedians – often outrageous – are “hallmarks of a robust democracy.” Snodgrass cites Pew Research Center research that talk show hosts and comedians are a significant source of political information in the United States—particularly among Millennials—and that the same is true in South Africa.

Snodgrass focuses on young, black comedians. However, there are comedians from nearly all racial groups and permutations. Trevor Noah is of mixed race. Nic Rabinowitz is described as “the world’s leading Xhosa-speaking Jewish comedian,” and his impersonation of national icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu is far from “politically correct.” The political establishment within the governing African National Congress (ANC) should pay attention to comedians, as their constituents certainly are. And, often the target of comedic barbs, President Jacob Zuma should be worried.

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

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