Deafened by the dark laughter of our times

Zapiro and Uys

South Africa in chaos: tragic or hilarious? Satirical performer Pieter-Dirk Uys and cartoonist Zapiro confront the identities and sensitivities of South Africa and its political turmoil, provoking outrage and praise

AS anxious South Africans take sides for or against President Jacob Zuma and his clinging to power, it is often artists who show the true nature of the dilemmas. Ever since the worst days of apartheid one of the best has been Pieter-Dirk Uys, who lampooned and enraged apartheid leaders such as PW Botha. His latest show at Montecasino last week, Echo of a Noise, shines a light on the torment of having to choose who you are and what you believe in as an individual or society.

Illustrious cartoonist Zapiro – Jonathan Shapiro – in his latest work this week, shows how Zuma has ‘raped’ the country and handed it to his patron the Gupta family. The cartoon has evoked outrage as well as high praise for its use of violent sex against a black woman as a metaphor for the plight of this country. It follows a previous cartoon in 2008 about the president ‘raping’ the justice system, which resulted in serious threats by Zuma to sue him.

The racial monster is rising again – the truth is, it never left, but was hidden for a while under the spell of Mandela – exploited by Zuma’s rants against whites and ‘white monopoly capital’ to hide his government’s corruption and ineptitude. South Africans are questioning their identity and how to relate to fellow South Africans who may be different. Sadly, many know only to shout at each other rather than listen.

Uys, who developed a stage persona as an Afrikaans woman, Evita Bezuidenhout, needs no introduction here. In his current show he tells the story of his own life, on a set containing a single black plastic chair in which he sits for an hour and a half facing the audience, as a 71-year-old man, stripped of make-up and wigs, in the intimate way one talks to a friend.

He didn’t know when he was a child growing up in Pinelands near Cape Town that his mother, a gifted pianist, had come from Germany in the 1930s to escape the anti-Jewish tide before the war. She brought her piano with her. She married an Afrikaner, Hannes Uys, who believed in church, discipline and racial separation. Hannes was the church organist and a piano teacher. Pieter’s sister Tessa later became a world-renowned concert pianist, returning the piano to its origins in Berlin in subsequent years. Mozart’s spirit filled their house.

Their coloured domestic maid, Sannie, was a central character in his life, adding to the rich mix of identities he grew up with.

One day a visitor arrived for his mother, a childhood friend from Europe. He hears them speaking German as they drink tea. He asks the woman what the tattooed numbers on her wrist are – perhaps a telephone number? She smiles wryly and says yes, and perhaps he should call that number? She couldn’t begin to explain to such a young boy what had happened in Germany.

Uys recounts how his mother confided to a German friend who had helped her immigrate to South Africa, about how to make sense of the laws forbidding blacks to sit on park benches, work in certain jobs and live in certain areas, when similar laws against Jews were what she had fled Germany to escape. She suffered from depression and later committed suicide by jumping off a cliff at Chapman’s Peak.

Uys found apartheid South Africa both tragic and ironic and even made us laugh at its absurdity. Zapiro has similarly portrayed the multiple identities of the country with all their ironies and sensitivities, but very few people are laughing.

Hard choices face South Africans today about who they are, as they did when Uys was growing up. Will those who still believe in a great country eject Zuma and his evil and heal what he has damaged?

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

  • For a review of Echo of a Noise click here

The hilarious back-story of the “Saxonwold shebeen”

sheila-schler

Whose house is this anyway? South African theatre people have created hilarious scenarios, portraying through humour and satire the intricacies of race, and how well-heeled white South Africans and others grapple with their ingrained attitudes.

WHAT would you do if you woke up one morning in the servants’ quarters of your wealthy house, put there by your maid while you were asleep? Meet Sheila Shler, the creation of veteran South African actor Robert Colman through a facebook channel. Sheila is a complex character who appears in post-apartheid South Africa, 22 years after democracy. She is a well-to-do white “madam” who owns a house in the elite Johannesburg neighbourhood of Saxonwold.

According to the plot, she was recently moved from the main house to live in the servants’ quarters by her black maid Tryfeena, who has established a shebeen (African pub) in the primary residence. Colman, dressed in drag and playing the part of a confused Sheila who stares directly into the camera and whose facial expressions speak volumes about the challenges of her new inverted life, has produced six short episodes thus far, with more promised.

The plot is sidesplitting yet deadly serious. It is a take-off on one of the major political dramas of 2016 surrounding the infamous billionaire Gupta family which lives in a veritable palace in Saxonwold. The family has been accused of state capture – the bribing and influencing of politicians and government officials, from President Jacob Zuma downwards, for their business interests.

The sub-plot is a public statement by former Eskom CEO Brian Molefe who was suspected of being implicated in the Guptas’ network, that he had not visited their house. When his visit to the area was proved by cellphone records and documented in an ominous public protector’s report on state capture, he admitted he had been in Saxonwold, but said he might have been visiting a local shebeen in the area. It was received with astonishment by the country.

Colman has converted the incident into political satire, digging into the pathologies of South African society with humour and irony. Sheila, talking in her upper-class Johannesburg northern-suburbs accent, bemoans her fate, but is trying hard to understand the social and political dynamics that brought her to this situation. She talks about doing a course with Racists Anonymous and how it feels to have to address her former maid as “madam”.

Previous great names in South African satire include Evita Bezuidenhout, a caricature during apartheid of an Afrikaans woman from a conservative background who embodies aspects of her racist origins but has a subtle understanding of its absurdity. She is the creation of theatre personality PieterDirk Uys, who during apartheid lampooned politicians such as former President PW Botha. Evita was so well-known by anti-apartheid movements – she was called the “most famous white woman in South Africa” – that she had an official meeting with Nelson Mandela after he came out of jail.

When future historians look back on 2017, they will say major parts of the world expected it to be a bumpy ride. The previous year had shaken up the establishment’s complacency, providing political shocks and placing people like US president-elect Donald Trump and his ilk in positions of power in America, the UK and other European countries, with their xenophobia, populism and disdain for the liberal democracies built since World War Two.

Apprehension about this year applies also to South Africa for its own reasons. A major characteristic of 2016 was re-emergence of overt racism – it had never disappeared, but under Mandela’s rainbow nation spell had been submerged and politically incorrect.

But last year, highly publicised incidents ranged from white Durban estate agent Penny Sparrow’s tweet about blacks being like monkeys; Afrikaans farmers placing a black man in a coffin, threatening to set it alight and publishing a video on social media boasting of their act; EFF leader Julius Malema’s consistent anti-white rhetoric; and students at university campuses displaying posters with the words “fuck the whites”. South Africans fear racist antagonism will accelerate, stoked by populist politicians and thoughtless people using social media for their diatribes.

One thing South Africans have in their favour, however, is a basic decency and sense of humour. Coleman’s character Sheila Shler taps into that.

The society has a long way to go before apartheid’s racial legacy is overcome. A character like Sheila cannot solve it, but can hold up a mirror making people laugh uproariously in recognition of themselves, while being thoughtful about it. We look forward to more episodes of Sheila.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)

Beware the seductiveness of crafty leaders

MALEMA 2

Populist EFF leader Julius Malema’s threats of violence to unseat President Jacob Zuma has some South Africans warning about a civil war (Photo by Gallo Images / Foto24 / Denzil Maregele)

ECONOMIC Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema’s threat in an Al Jazeera interview on Sunday to remove President Jacob Zuma’s government through the “barrel of a gun”, should sound an alarm as South Africa marks Freedom Day this week and Jews mark Holocaust Day next Thursday. The kneejerk resort to violence that has overtaken South African politics among students, trade unionists, taxi operators, shack dwellers and others – many of whom are actually campaigning for worthy causes – is taking this country down a dangerous road which will be hard to reverse.

Malema said the ANC used violence to suppress dissent, such as ejecting his party from parliament after they heckled Zuma: “Part of the revolutionary duty is to fight and we are not ashamed if the need arises for us to take up arms and fight.”

Dangerous words. An ANC statement said it would pursue legal action against Malema’s “inflammatory, treasonable and seditious” words.

Alarm bells are ringing in some quarters, such as the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) which called on political parties to avoid statements that could incite civil war. Bishop Abel Gabuza‚ the SACBC Justice and Peace Commission chair‚ responded to Malema’s “war rhetoric… We have seen the evil consequences of civil war in other African countries‚ including massive loss of lives‚ a refugee crisis and irreparable damage to the economy.”

South Africa has today a robust constitution, a judiciary which has repeatedly proved its independence, a free press and other institutions which, although under attack from some quarters, still function as they should. The ANC and Zuma certainly deserve to be removed from power as soon as possible after so crassly betraying the country’s dreams, but in a manner that strengthens its democratic institutions rather than weakening them – through the courts, the press, the public protector, and non-violent civilian protests.

Words lead to actions. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi thugs were energised by the charismatic Fuhrer’s use of words – such as the iconic “sieg heil!” which means “hail victory!” – calling for action against Jews and others in his path to absolute power. He wrote ‘Mein Kampf’, and went on to rule Europe.

During the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 the Hutu extremists set up radio stations and newspapers which broadcast hate propaganda, urging people to “weed out the cockroaches”, words which were translated into the killing of 800 000 Tutsis in 100 days.

In the absence of inspiring leaders, one hears wry comments these days about “President Julius Malema” one day occupying the country’s highest office, which rightly scares many South Africans. A chilling performance  in 2014 by satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys called “Adapt or Fly” already predicted the scenario in its opening scene by displaying a Malema–like doll being given advice to assist him on his rise to power by Hitler, impersonated by Uys. The show was a walk through South African history since 1945, drawing a disturbing analogy between Germany in the early 1930s and South Africa today.

When the ANC was contemplating throwing Malema out of the party in 2011 for bringing it into disrepute – before he founded the EFF – Uys commented: “Julius Malema says: ‘We must control the economy – it’s in the hands of the whites.’ Hitler said: ‘We must control the economy – it’s in the hand of the Jews.’”

Hitler, said Uys, appealed with his populist rhetoric to the millions of Germans who had no jobs, after the First World War. Malema appeals in a similar way “to the millions of South Africans who don’t have a job after the apartheid era.”

Of all the politicians in South Africa today, Malema is by far the most charismatic, evoking smiles and even some fondness for his boisterous campaigns pointing at issues of serious concern to the country, including his attacks against Zuma and the ANC. Tolerance for his extreme rhetoric comes even from people who would be the first to suffer under a government run by him.

Beware of the craftiness of seductive politicians who woo people with their charisma into overlooking their thuggishness, and then move into the power centre. Hitler came to power through exploiting German democracy, combined with thuggery.

Malema demands loudly today that Zuma must adhere strictly to the constitution, and most South Africans applaud him for this. But will he also insist on strict adherence to the constitution when he is in power and others oppose him?

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email geoffs@icon.co.za)

Zuma’s wrecking ball gives SA satirists a field day

Zuma_Nkandla(P)

Protests against SA Pres Jacob Zuma are simmering for corruption and mismanagement, calling for his removal. In the photo, his private home, which was upgraded using R246m of state money.

Even satirists and comedians sometimes stop joking when things are really critical. Like the financial disaster president Jacob Zuma brought on South Africa last week by sacking respected finance minister Nhlanhla Nene who had opposed his monetary profligacy, replacing him with a compliant novice and plunging the country into a panic about impending bankruptcy and junk status. The country’s finest satirist, Pieter-Dirk Uys, known for his daring lampooning during apartheid of President PW Botha and other pillars of the white regime, was stony-faced when interviewed about the country’s decline under the ANC.

The rand plummeted to its lowest levels ever. Investors panicked and sent their money elsewhere, thinking the country was heading over a fiscal cliff. Billions were lost on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in a day, and billions more flew out of South Africa.

Uys has a supreme ability to find humour in uncanny situations. During the interview, however, he said icily with hardly a trace of humour: “A lot of the suspicion is that [if] you cross the line, you get elbowed aside [by Zuma]… But they [the government] work for us, we don’t work for them! They are not the Royal Family; they all look a little bit like Prince Charles, but they are not the Royal Family. That’s the legacy of apartheid among most South Africans – we still treat politicians like gods. They are not.”

ANTI ZUMA MARCH JHB 16 DEC 2015 (84) CROPPED

At a rally of thousands in Johannesburg, former Cosatu leader Zwelinzima Vavi demanded the ANC fire Zuma

One positive thing the resulting cacophony of public protest against Zuma showed, is that South Africa is not (yet) a dictatorship. But his disregard for the citizens’ well-being, deploying buddies in key positions with fat salaries and turning a blind eye to massive corruption, points ominously in that direction. A collective cheer erupted from South Africans when he did an about-turn on Sunday after receiving petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatories, letters of protest from the most respected intellectuals, and a virtual political revolt within his own party. Embarrassed, he hastily installed a more qualified man – a previous finance minister, Pravin Gordhan.

Another satirist who took on Zuma was cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro – aka Zapiro – who also has solid anti-apartheid credentials. His cartoon in the Mail and Guardian last week displayed serious concern as much as humour. Zapiro has long seen Zuma, who was once a hero of the liberation struggle, as a tragi-comical figure, and created an iconic image of the president with a shower-head mounted on his skull. This derived from the occasion when Zuma – before becoming president – said in court during a trial for rape that after having sex with an HIV-positive woman, he had showered, thinking this would reduce his risk of being infected.

In Zapiro’s cartoon last week, Zuma is a wrecking ball swinging on a chain – with his close friend, SAA head Dudu Myeni perched on it – sweeping Nene aside and demolishing the SA economy. The shower head was there, of course, lodged between Myeni’s thighs like a phallus – there are rumours the two are having an affair. The message, though, was deadly serious: Zuma is wrecking the country.

Uys and Zapiro are both Jewish, but have little to do with the mainstream Jewish community. For some SA Jews, Zapiro is persona non grata because of his stinging portrayals of Jewish and Israel-related issues. A 2010 cartoon, for example, evoked outrage among rightwing Jews when it showed former SA Judge Richard Goldstone staring forlornly through a Johannesburg synagogue window from the outside, as his grandson had his barmitzvah inside, the ceremony being presided over by the chief rabbi and officials of the SA Zionist federation and the shul; the phrase “Israel right or wrong” was pasted on the shul’s wall. This was after Goldstone’s UN-sponsored report had criticised Israel for possible human rights violations during the 2009 Gaza war. The judge had been threatened with pickets if he dared attend the barmitzvah.

However, Zapiro will be supported by most Jewish South Africans for his take on Zuma and the ANC government’s incompetence. A controversial Zapiro cartoon in 2008 showed Zuma loosening his trousers while his powerful political friends hold ‘Lady Justice’ down, saying: “Go for it, boss.” It was at a time when Zuma and his allies were threatening the judiciary in order to get corruption charges against him dropped, so he could become president. After the cartoon’s appearance, Zuma said he would sue Zapiro for R4m for defamation, but later withdrew.

Zuma has been exposed as a corrupt blunderer, out of his depth, who openly giggled in parliament when questioned about why state money was spent upgrading his private homestead, Nkandla. His tenure as president has been compared by black and white commentators to the destructiveness of the apartheid era – the ultimate slur. Many feel the country is teetering on the edge of becoming a banana republic.

But South Africa recovered from apartheid, and will recover from the Zuma wrecking ball. The likes of Zapiro and Uys, and similar determined voices who helped defeat apartheid, will be with us long after the giggling president is history.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist and author based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was Editor of the SA Jewish Report for 16 years, from 1999-2014)