Satire in the South African context is often spoken about as if it stepped off the boat with Pieter-Dirk Uys and Zapiro. In reality, though, South Africa has a satirical tradition that runs back far further. One of the great South African political cartoonists, Daniel Boonzaier, was poking fun at the country’s politicians in the late 19th century. Herman Charles Bosman satirised the prejudices of the rural Afrikaner community, through the mouthpiece of his sly narrator Oom Schalk Lourens in the early 20th century.
Within the Afrikaans tradition, and that of Xhosa, Zulu and the other official languages, satire has an extensive pedigree also. The cultural critic Chris Thurman has compared the role of the imbongi, or praise singer, to that of the “fool” within Renaissance literature: to entertain, but also to speak truth to power; to use humour as a way of packaging up a harsher critique than would otherwise be tolerated.
Pieter-Dirk Uys’s Evita Bezuidenhout persona, developed during Apartheid as a vehicle for humorous criticism of the regime, is heralded as South Africa’s best-known and loved white woman. More recently, the comedian Loyiso Gola’s “Late Night News” TV show, which offers a satirical look at the week’s current events in the style of American Jon Stewart, has won dedicated fans and large viewing audiences for eTV. So it’s clearly not true to say that satire does not have a place in South Africa, and particularly that there is no public appetite for it.
Yet it is true to say that satire does not occupy the same cultural space in South Africa as in many other countries. The UK’s Spitting Image puppet show, which gained audiences of up to 16 million per week, was a huge mainstream hit. South Africa’s version – ZA News – is relegated to the Top TV satellite service rather than being carried by a terrestrial channel. It is to some degree understandable that broadcasters would balk at carrying particularly trenchant satire of South Africa’s political elite: as Zapiro’s legal woes have shown, such broadcasting is not consequence-free. Blade Nzimande’s recent call for an “insult law” to protect President Jacob Zuma is another case in point. In such an environment, can satire truly flourish?
But perhaps there is more to it than the preciousness of the political elites. South Africa is also a country which likes its black and whites. Nuance, and grey areas, are often sacrificed in the strident public debate. Satire is complex; it’s not true, but in its best form it attempts to make a point that is very much true. But at Hayibo we often found that the mere fact of the news articles’ “fabrication” was enough to perplex and occasionally anger people.
Perhaps this is because the stakes often seem very high: in a country where so much of the news is disturbing, to be presented by something which purports to be fact but is actually made up can be threatening. There’s the fact, too, that many South Africans have an ingrained distrust of even mainstream media – something Hayibo took a poke at in the tagline “the second-best source of made-up news after the SABC”.
And then there’s the fact that in times of perceived crisis, humour can seem an unaffordable luxury. In Apartheid years, those South African writers who tried to use irony as a way of delivering a veiled critique of the government were sometimes viewed by other writers as cowardly: shying away from their responsibility to deliver an unambiguous criticism. Jeremy Cronin – now Deputy Minister of Public Works, but also a fine poet – once wrote, in a review of Bosman’s work: “Irony, as Roland Barthes has noted, remains safe, it keeps its distance […] There are too many knowing winks travelling between narrator and reader…We find ourselves laughing when sometimes we should, perhaps, be asking questions.”
Cronin wasn’t referring to satirical products in the vein of Hayibo here, but there are nonetheless probably many who would sympathise with his view. Both irony and satire are, to paraphrase a literary critic, games for snobs: they are predicated on writer and reader being on the same side, the “knowing wink” being transmitted and received in the form of laughter and appreciation. And some things just aren’t funny. The day after the Marikana massacre, for instance, Hayibo editor Tom Eaton took the decision not to publish a Hayibo story. “We do not feel that it is appropriate to be making comedy so soon after a national tragedy,” Eaton wrote.
If that’s the case, though, some would argue that it’s hard to draw the line. What is appropriate fodder for satire? It’s actually quite a hard question. Death would seem in general to be off-limits, but then again, Hayibo ran an article on the occasion of Steve Jobs’ death, titled “Earth mourns Jobs, but fanboy God ‘totally stoked’ to have him in Heaven”, which was largely greeted – correctly – as a tribute to Jobs rather than an attempt to trivialise his life. In my three years as a writer for Hayibo, I was only ever advised by Eaton to steer away from one topic: Wouter Basson. Because, Eaton eloquently explained, “I’m scared of him”.
In general, when Hayibo invoked anger, it was because people failed to identify a story as satire, rather than because they were an ardent defender of the subject of the joke. One particularly memorable email, received in January of this year, referred to Hayibo as “the most inhuman disgusting website ever” and “probably one of the many reasons racism is growing amongst blacks and whites”. The article that had angered the reader was titled “ANC turns 100, is confused and incontinent but resting peacefully”, and the problem, it emerged, was that the reader had confused the word “guerrilla” with “gorilla”.
Then there was the occasion in May this year, shortly after the Spear saga, that Hayibo ran a piece titled “Art critics demand governing role as Zuma painting buyer ‘just likes penises’”. The article played with the idea that the German collector who bought the painting “had not realised it was a satirical portrait of the president. ‘I just like huge black penises’, explained Gunther Knutsach”. Gunter Knutsach – if nothing else, surely the name gives the joke away. But lo, an email was received: “I'm looking for the contact number of the German art collector, Gunther Knutsach. Is it possible that the journalist who wrote the story about the Zuma painting-debacle could provide me with his contact details?”
There were also stories that went viral largely on the basis of people believing them to be true. One of the first Hayibo stories to explode in this manner was from 2009 – “Vagina a myth, say Saudi scientists” – which satirised the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia by claiming that a group of Saudi “viziers, all experts in modern Saudi scientific fields such as astrology, water divination and alchemy”, had established that the existence of a female sexual organ was a lie promulgated by the West to prop up their belief that women could enjoy sex. That article spread like wildfire in the USA, circulated as fact.
More recently, in December of 2011, an article titled “‘Yes We Know It’s Christmas’, say African musicians as they finally record a response to Band Aid”, which proposed that a group of unemployed South African musicians had joined together to release a response to the Bob Geldof song “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, had a similar effect. In this case, in fact, one Norwegian researcher applied for funding to carry out a study on the fictional band in South Africa, and was only informed that they did not exist shortly before his departure.
There was always an enjoyable kind of mischief attached to these misunderstandings, but Hayibo’s aim was primarily to make people laugh, and if possible serve up some kind of social critique while doing so. Eaton says that Hayibo was an “equal up-yours discriminator”, in that it tried to poke fun without fear or favour. While the ANC was a constant source of story ideas, the DA certainly wasn’t safe either. Julius Malema was a satirist’s gift, but the likes of Helen Zille and Lindiwe Mazibuko also didn’t get away unparodied.
Hayibo’s continued failure to secure long-term support from corporate advertisers suggests an appetite for playing it safe among decision-makers, which does South Africa’s public space no favours. But as Eaton and co-founder Ant Pascoe have made clear, the decision to shut down the site for good was motivated partly by financial considerations but also a sense of exhaustion among its writers. Sometimes it’s hard to keep finding the funny in current events which frequently seem profoundly disturbing. Pieter-Dirk Uys once said that “satire is 51% humour and 49% anger”. In contemporary South Africa, that’s a ratio which occasionally seems quite difficult to maintain.