The Funny Thing About Race in South Africa

It’s 1948 and it’s the first day of apartheid in South Africa. A jazzy tune is playing, the sun is shining and some white people are lying on blankets on a grassy embankment. A familiar sign pops up: “Whites Only.” The camera pans onto a young black man who is taking his place on the lawn as a security officer approaches.

“Apartheid? Ahhh, it’s today?” he says, as he’s being led off the screen. “Man, I thought it was next week.”

It’s an incisive indictment of the ridiculousness of the apartheid state. And that’s how “The Bantu Hour,” part “Late Night Show,” part “Saturday Night Live”-style comedy sketch, serves up its show: raw, brash, searing and achingly funny. Hosted by jazz legend Hugh Masekela and popular comedian Kagiso Lediga, the show debuted on South African television in November with a warning label: “We would like to inform the viewer that the word ‘Bantu’ is not a derogatory word for black people but it is actually an Nguni noun meaning ‘people,'” the screen reads at the start of every show. “BANTU MEANS PEOPLE … all people.”

Race pulses through the South African comedy scene, an industry which has exploded from virtually non-existent at the end of apartheid in 1994 to the ascent of a local figure to the world’s top comedy post at “The Daily Show.”

As Lediga points out: “Trevor Noah didn’t fall from the sky. He came from a thriving comedy culture.”

Noah’s observations about race and ethnicity have been the core of much of his comedy over the years; his father was white, from Switzerland, and his mother was black, a Xhosa woman, a mixed racial marriage that was a crime during the apartheid era under which he grew up. “Well, you know how the Swiss love chocolate,” he jokes.

But why, 22 years after the dawn of South Africa’s democracy, does race remain center stage?

“It was law to be racist here,” says Lediga, who is black. “And it was yesterday. Nelson Mandela died just two years ago. Race is a big defining characteristic of the culture, and the effects of it are going to be here for a long time. There is anger, and there is no unified cultural-ness among the races. The comedy is a reflection of that. We are a racist place and when people talk about race we laugh a lot.”

In fact, one of the most well-known comedy nights is called “Blacks Only,” which has been running annually across the country for the past 12 years. This year’s theme? #MonkeysMustFall. It’s a play on both the ongoing “Fees Must Fall” protests at universities, about the prohibitive cost of tuition and calls for decolonization, and a recent national scandal where a white real estate agent called black people “monkeys” on social media.

Lediga started doing comedy when he was a student at the University of Cape Town, performing, like most comedians in the late 1990s, to predominately white audiences. By 22, he had dropped out of university and started his own TV show. “The Pure Monate Show” reached cult status in its brief run. Set in his grandmother’s kitchen, Lediga and comedian friends performed raw comedy skits.

“In the beginning, you had to come on stage with a car radio and say that I stole this in the parking lot,” he says of those early days.

Nik Rabinowitz remembers when he and Lediga started out there were only a handful of places to perform stand-up.

“The joke was about the black guy, white guy and colored guy or Indian guy,” Rabinowitz recalls. “The flavor of it was nation-building or reconciliation or talking about the past, but it had a good energy about it. Now it’s got a different flavor, there’s an edge to it.”

Rabinowitz, who is white, speaks Xhosa and injects a lot of characterizations into his performances. He says he thinks a lot about whom jokes come at the expense of.

“It’s a delicate thing to play with,” he says. “Who is the butt of the joke and what are we playing into? Because that table of white 40-plus males might be taking my joke the wrong way.”

The comedians agree that one thing South Africans of different races seem to have in common is that they can be a very un-PC bunch.

“We are a bit behind in certain conversations,” says Rabinowitz. “A few months ago I did something in Durban where the Indian comic, in front of 5,000 people, said something pretty racist about black people being stupid and the crowd was loving it.”

Patriarchy dominates here, too, and jokes with heavy doses of misogyny aren’t uncommon. In 2014, Noah was at the middle of a social media storm after posting a tweet that some believed was sexist, though he recently told Terry Gross on National Public Radio that it was a comment between him and his girlfriend at the time which was taken out of context.

Still, women like Celeste Ntuli are challenging the male-dominated scene. Her one-woman show is a journey into sex, culture and the single Zulu girl.

“People tell me, ‘Wow, for a Zulu girl you too talk too much, you don’t shy away from sex’,” Ntuli says. “Typical Zulu girls are born and made to be perfect wives; there are polygamous relationships in our culture. I talk about things that are traditional, and I question whether some things still apply.”

Ntuli also talks about what it is like to be a black woman in South Africa – and educating white audiences about African culture along the way.

“We don’t come from that same space in terms of culture and norms and value,” she says. “Respect is No. 1 to Zulus. Most white South Africans don’t get respect. Sometimes we call people ‘ma’am’, and they think we are doing that submissive thing. No, it’s respect. I have people telling me, ‘I never thought about that’.”

Ntuli is one of the comedians who crosses between performing in English to mixed crowds, and performing in Zulu, one of the country’s 11 official languages. Performing in the vernacular is a phenomenon which has only gained popularity in the past few years.

One of the major players on that scene is Mashabela Galane, who performs in Pedi, another one of the country’s official languages. Galane doesn’t get big name sponsors for his shows like comedians who perform in English. But with nearly 40,000 followers on Facebook, his self-promoted shows pack venues. He says he focuses less on race than he does on stereotypes between the various tribes.

“People won’t find it funny if I talk about global warming,” Galane says of his crowds, which are drawn heavily from urban townships dominated by Africans or from the country’s rural areas. “You have to talk about something people wake up to every day, something you see in the other tribe.”

Like what?

“For example, men from Limpopo are gifted,” he says with a straight face about the province where he grew up. “But they are not that beautiful. You see, God came to Limpopo and said, ‘Do you want the face or a big manhood?’ If you want handsome and beautiful, go to the Xhosas, they are handsome but they didn’t get the manhood.”

Take that, Trevor Noah.

This article was published on April 16, 2016 in US News & World Report.