Saturday, 1 November 2014

Why it's racist to blame black people for apartheid, duh.

Steve Hofmeyr, that asinine blonde amoeba, is using the world’s most simplistic rhetoric device to avoid culpability for his bigotry: he’s going ‘prove it’. It’s an old, hack trick that has its strength in the idea of incommensurability. We don’t share a common set of agreements over what constitutes prejudice, so in Stevevillefontein just about nothing is racist, unless that exact same thing happens to a particular type of right wing white person *, then it’s nuclear meltdown stage 9. How do they pull off being a victim and oppressor at the same time? Being a dominatrix in AfriForum (Steve’s official fan club) must be very confusing.

As you may or may not have heard, depending on whether you care for the intellectual Jurassic Park that is Stevo’s twitter feed, Steve believes that “Blacks were the architects of apartheid”. So then now, I know in the common sense world the rest of us live in it’s patently obvious that this is racist, but nope, not for The Steve and his merry band of morons. So now, painfully, I will explain why it’s fuggen racist.

Just to be clear, I am not explaining this for Steve. His head is too far up his own ass to hear us anyway. I am explaining this so fence sitters will stop sitting. The discourse that Steve is spewing is part of a cultural narrative that maintains the insane inequality we face today. When a white bigot with huge public presence starts telling black people apartheid was their fault it’s time for us to block his access to socially accepted public platforms. With the minimum of publicity we need to tell his umlungustan that they have a right to a racist mindset, but it’s gonna cost them. Kyknet, I will be asking your CEO for an LNN interview about what side of this line you are choosing. Neutrality on this is not neutral.

Is “Blacks were the architects of apartheid. Go figure.” racist?

Firstly, what’s racism? Simply put, racism isn’t the consciousness of race as much as it’s the prejudice against people based on race. As every B grade quasi intellectual white conservative type likes to whine, yes, in South Africa we obsess on race when the problem is often both class and race, but that move has been well explored as a white-guy-avoids-the-race-issue move. If this is confusing Andile Mngxitama lays it down here: http://mg.co.za/article/2014-09-26-class-theory-finally-decolonised

Next, what is apartheid? Apartheid was a system of laws that did some wonderful things to black people, to name just a few:

It took away their land and wealth in the Land Act.

It totally deprived them of any effective vote – no political rights.

It made black people live in ridiculously small rural outbacks with no way to eek a living but to come hundreds of kilometers to work on white owned mines, etc, for a pittance while their families scraped by in poverty.

It gave black people substandard education for decades, and even tried to force them to learn in Afrikaans, often a 3rd language. How the F do you learn algebra in a 3rd language? Imagine we made your kids learn in Shangaan Steve?

It blocked them from ever being able to advance in their career. To this day 75% of SA CEOs are white. We also on average earn 6 times more than black people, so our paranoia that we are under attacked is simply untrue.

It bullied them into peripheral city outskirts where they had to get back to by a certain time or face jail or deportation to homelands.

It made people carry evil little books called passbooks, which if you didn’t have meant jail.

So, for the sake of common human decency, let’s agree at least that apartheid was itself racist. So now, “Blacks were the architects of apartheid”. Obviously they didn’t vote for apartheid themselves? And obviously they didn’t send the trucks that dragged people screaming from their homes? Yup, this is that wonderful dynamic sexist pricks do when they blame the victim instead of the rapist. Basically Steve is telling us it’s black people’s fault because they were asking for it, in their tight pants and short skirts. If you are a Steve fan right now and you do not feel the deepest sense of shame then you should seek help because your soul has been expropriated without compensation.

However, Steve tried to build some credibility around this claptrap on his Facebook page. First, he said ‘go figure’ at the end, which he thinks means it’s our fault that we didn’t see it like he sees it. If Juju said “All whites must die. Go figure”, Steve’s little brain would have exploded all over his Pick n Pay sponsored face, so no.

Steve then tried to explain that if nobody wants to play with you, then it's probably your fault. Ja, Steve, I am going to shove that logic so far down your throat you gonna have to sing through your privileged behind.

Let’s go. Steve said: “If the world doesn’t buy into African systems, mentality and reputation, it isn’t always their fault”. Let’s start with the awkward fact that he stole his entire language from black people. Afrikaans was first written in Arabic by an Iman translating the Koran. Salaam alaikum, Oom Steve.

If you want more info: http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2014-08-14-i-will-touch-you-on-your-language-rescuing-afrikaans-from-the-right-wing/

Second, cultural assimilation in our country happened at the end of a gun, a historical truth Steve and his team just love to ignore. Secondly Afrikaans boer culture, as it went through SeSotho and SiPedi lands took on a variety of African cultural features to survive. Damn that must annoy him. However, what we really need to unpack is the incredible bigotry underlying the cultural superiority he’s invoking, white supremacist that he is.

Steve’s argument is older even than the language he’s saying it in. Colonialists arrived here and needed to explain their place in the world in terms of both their claimed decent Christian values (I know, hilarious), their interaction with the newly discovered Darwinian science of evolution, and their desire to exploit these ‘new’ lands to the absolute maximum. They saw themselves as being at the peak of an evolutionary hierarchy: everyone else was closer to being an animal. It’s much easier to brutally steal a country if the people living there have been denigrated to animal status. Black people could try and climb this hierarchy by adopting western cultural norms – we are just so generous. We also did kindly stuff like force them to hut pay tax or go to jail, so they had to involve themselves in our economy, an economy in which they would never be given access or equal social status. Assimilation to western norms was not a choice for black people. So saying that we didn’t assimilate to African norms is both untrue, and severely assholish.

However, the XXX strength racism Steve’s using here is that he still buys into the black-people-are-closer-to-animals rhetoric. His entire discourse is one that suggests that black people are less evolved.

For e.g.: ‘If women, toddlers and grannies complain about your contribution to the rape rate, it isn’t always their fault’. Firstly, this statement is a bald faced misrepresentation, as the people who work in gender rights can attest to. Secondly, he is selling the old idea of black men’s sexual insatiability, which comes directly from the animal-like narrative. Gender violence is a huge problem in our country. Using it to serve a narrow right wing agenda is evil.

Regarding the mythological cultural evolutionary hierarchy, apart from the fact that Africans were building universities when Steve and my ancestors were still grunting around in bear skins, western colonial domination and sciences were a result of ideas they jacked from everywhere else and just being more vicious. If Steve wants to apply his own logic to himself he will find that stuff like penicillin, electricity, railways, etc, actually happened while his dudes were busy voortrekking themselves so they could keep their slaves, so all they invented really was biltong. Of course, I would never apply Steve’s bigoted logic, so I completely reject that last sentence. Stop being such a self-hater, Steve.

I hope the millions of awesome, warm, hard working white Afrikaans people, including the likes of Max Du Preez, Zelda la Grange, Antjie Krog, Pieter-Dirk Uys, etc, can take the incredible contributions their culture has brought to the world away from this schmuck of a bigot.

So, yes, we have proved, that “Blacks were the architects of apartheid” was supremely racist. Pick n Pay will realize this eventually, because if Steve had said, “Jews were the architects of the Holocaust” he would be out on his ass by now.


Finally Steve said in his excuse of a FB update that “If folk did not want to share a country with you, why is it always their fault?” We will remind him of these words as we remove his sponsors from him one by one. No bakkie, no cry, eh, Steve? Go figure.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Dear white supremacists,

Dear white supremacists,

Ok, I lied, this isn’t a letter to white supremacists, it’s about them. Because to be frank, their entire game plan is to be the voice for a privileged, self righteous community of bigots. So the less you listen to them the less power they have. However, this doesn’t mean they should be left in peace. In my opinion, here’s why.

The racism that counts in South Africa is structural racism, the way in which after apartheid poor black people, who were disenfranchised as a group, are being left to resolve a violently unfair status quo as individuals. Don’t get me wrong, this is more complex than white to black. The ANC has Lindiwe Sisulu saying under-40 year olds shouldn’t get houses, as if the effects of apartheid just magically vanish.

However, the fact is that in SA us white people have a hugely skewed degree of economic clout, so our prejudices do have an impact. Take Cape Town’s top chop, JP Smith, who was apparently cool with  the  R7mill spent on toilets around the Greenpoint stadium area for the World Cup, while allegedly the budget for new toilets in informal settlements this year for the entire city is R20mill. If poor people want to not be raped on the way to poo they should move to Greenpoint. Why can’t they pull their shit together man? The logic that it’s OK to have millions spent on parks in one part of Cape Town, while other parts of Cape Town are still stuck in the 1980s is classic structural racism. The logic that the golf course in Greenpoint hasn’t been turned into low cost housing so poor people can be near work is structural racism. The cultural battle in SA is for us to expose this at every turn, to denormalize privilege.

The problem is that the idea of relative white wealth and black poverty have become everyday, so we don’t see the insanity in front of us. The trouble with this, in my view, is that the most outrageous prejudice becomes acceptable, and asking for common sense to prevail starts sounding radical.
Take talk radio. The overriding social agreement is that everyone should have a say and we should all cumulatively take the outcome of this ‘debate’ as reasonable. This is classic liberalism, the belief in equality. Of course it’s very, very prejudiced, because it assumes that everyone has the resources (time, airtime, access to public platforms, etc) and therefore the same voice. We don’t, and pretending that we do allows the debate to be severely skewed in favour of those with resources, which in South Africa is violently problematic. 

It’s how we can have someone SMSing 702/Cape Talk to say shack dwellers should build their shacks further apart to avoid fires and that they have no respect for people who don’t look after themselves (true story). Because you know how much choice people in shacks have over where to live. In this case Redi Tlhabi and a few callers came down heavily on this imbecile. The trouble, however, is for the most part media platforms do not reject such madness, because we want to seem open minded, and think everyone should have a say. As a result the internal logic of SA’s middle class public debate is often profoundly anti-poor and in turn structurally racist.

Enter white supremacists. As an example take Steve Hofmeyr, a hugely successful wealthy white South African entertainer, who tweeted the other day that “Sorry to offend but in my books Blacks were the architects of apartheid. Go figure”. Of course we all went at him, giving him the exact profile he needs in the conservative apartheid-missing community that pays his bills. I even had one guy suggest I should give Steve a chance to explain himself, because even bigots need a chance.

Let’s look at the facts. Steve has consistently expressed denial over his privilege and over apartheid. He has allegedly said he doesn’t think Sharpeville was a human rights atrocity, he gives his white audiences apartheid hard-ons by singing Die Stem at every available opportunity, he consistently regurgitates untruths about white poverty and violent crime on farms (Africacheck.org has blown his lies out of the water). His language, Afrikaans, is one of the most spoken in SA, but he acts like it’s vanishing, partly because the majority of Afrikaans speakers in SA are black. Steve Hofmeyr is one amongst many cultural pillars in the architecture of how white South Africans maintain the spoils apartheid gave us. This last one, “Blacks were the architects of apartheid”, is full blown apartheid denial, no matter how you spin it. He, of course, has the right to express his opinion, however if he is maintaining a bigoted status quo this should come with social consequences, severe ones. The normalization effects of this thinking are let off the hook by our society getting enraged but effectively doing nothing.

He can say what he wants, but companies and sponsors should be taken to task for their tacit support. For example, in a few weeks Steve will be appearing at the Afrikaans is Groot festival sponsored by Land Rover and Pick n Pay. Are these brands cool with being associated with an apartheid denialist and white supremacist? Would they be cool with paying for a Holocaust denialist to perform? Corporate South Africa never had to explain their collusion with apartheid, so the very, very least they can do is refuse a platform to its most prominent denialist. In simple terms, the status quo is biased and changing that requires taking a stand.

We cumulatively called on his bakkie sponsor, Williams Hunt, to recall the car in the light of his bigotry, they did so. Of course, this brings up the question of censorship. Steve should be free to say what he likes, but we should be free to reject any degree of normalization within that. On twitter his followers have this delightfully ignorant term “libtard”, which, because combining “liberal” and “retard” is the limit of their wit. Ironically, what I am suggesting is that we are too liberal (or perhaps not liberal enough), and as a result prejudiced. His followers believe in power without conscience, but want the liberal idea of balanced ‘debate’ accorded him. Debating Steve Hofmeyr is pointless, he’s to stupid to know he’s stupid, and in social discourse that is already anti-poor just skews towards more bigotry. I believe the answer is ostracism. His supporters need to stop being such libtards.

In a similar vein I believe the people running our various media platforms need to be far more assertive about how they handle the blatant racism that happens there (the white homeland that is Media24's comments section), and radio presenters should expose caller bigotry far more assertively, issues which would require more thought than I am aiming for here. Who calls the shots on what is sayable is always dangerous.

One other term in the arsenal of white supremacist language is “politically correct”, the idea that one must curtail your opinions because of social sanction. Ironically what I am saying is be less politically correct, be rude to the powerful. It’s much harder than the crap that masquerades as non-PC, which in truth usually plays directly into the hands of those with power. Of course this applies as much to my own work as it does to Steve Hofmeyr, so if I ever say: “Blacks were the architects of apartheid”, feel free to boycott me.


Thursday, 2 October 2014

An open letter to 'Diversity'.

I hate the word ‘diversity’. It’s usually a lame attempt to whitewash any actual dialogue, because if you have a problem with an unjust status quo, and reject the ‘let’s all get along’ Cool Aid, then you have defined yourself as being against diversity, unicorns and rainbows.

In the last few weeks I have performed at Potchefstroom University, Nelson Mandela Bay University and the University of Stellenbosch, and do many corporate gigs, radio and TV interviews, and my own one man shows, all relating to this painfully weird topic. The problem is I am not certain what the way forward is.

I did comedy at Stellenbosch on the same day the university decided to let off the blackface people. Yes, my career is explosively ironic. I pointed out that us white South Africans seem to often opine that 20 years is enough to fix apartheid, but for some reason we don’t all think its enough for students to realize that we shouldn’t be putting shoe polish on our faces. Do we need a blackface patrol: “Groenewald, step away from the nugget”? And yes, Comrade Chester told me (I told myself, in case you haven’t gotten the hang of this ventriloquism thing) that the reason he and I were there is because this is the one place on earth where they let you off for blackface. I also said that diversity is another way of saying “the black people are coming”, because we all suspect where Stellenbosch University’s cultural normative setting is calibrated to.

Then again, the problem with this entire thing is simplistic narratives, which include simplistic narratives of black victims and white oppressors. I later found out that many of the people who initially chose the seemingly all white comedy at Stellenbosch ‘Diversity’ Week this year were Black (politically).

The problem with diversity discourse is that it usually excludes any real discussion of power and history. What it does is force through a socially acceptable solution that really just silences those without power. Diversity is a product of the post-94 Rainbow Nation rhetoric, of the discourse that Born Frees are becoming post-racial, and that us old (I am 37) bigots all just need to get over it.

The problem is that young people living in shacks with no opportunity of work are Born Free in the same way free range chickens are free, and the discourse that they are free is in many ways tantamount to apartheid denial. Don’t get me wrong, there is loads of evidence that also places much lack of progress strongly at the feet of the ruling party and their economic schizophrenia, but that’s only part of the picture, and racism towards the ANC is an old habit that’s easiest solved if acknowledged. My point though is that for myself, a white apartheid beneficiary to even begin talking about diversity requires us to look, with ruthless honesty, at why I am not the one living in a shack.

That being said, there are loads of places where kids and adults don’t have apartheid’s emotional baggage, but the truth is these environments are often very middle class, and often require huge degrees of obliviousness to real world dynamics. We can love each other in an historical conscious way, but just because you live in Ubuntuland doesn’t mean at all that you have really solved the problem.

Part of the problem is that normalized western culture, in which white people have had by far the most powerful say, disguises itself as ‘normal’, when in fact it is extremely culturally specific. That’s why angry activist types rant about whiteness hiding itself, because they are right.

To use a misogynist, but expressive phrase, the inability by many white South Africans to acknowledge their/our own privilege and footdragging about making it an essential part of the diversity discussion is cockblocking getting anywhere in this debate. If you have been watching, this is exactly what Helen Zille most needs to deal with in her denialist version of non-racialism.

In real terms this means that when I stand there in front of students of all races at one of these ‘diversity’ events I have to be hard on my own white privilege, and that of the audience, so that the discussion can continue. This gets awkward, because, while I would really, really like to have more chilled, relaxed fun humour about ‘diversity’, what I would effectively be doing is letting our whiteness off its sneaky hook. I, being a part of that system, cant afford to do that. A black comedian could, perhaps. However, I being a white guy saying this, with his puppet as a dramatic device (see last post for THAT discussion), do have a certain impact, because it can, maybe, create social pressure for other white people to be more reflexive… oh the halo that I bear.

So here’s my problem. At the one event a white lady with her “coloured” friend felt I had been too strong in dealing with the students’ white privilege. She said “I had my friend to help me understand that I benefitted [and am benefitting] from apartheid” (again see last post if you think this is at all in question. It isn’t.). In other words, we must be gentler on white people because then they are more likely to get it, as though black people haven’t been insanely tolerant enough already. And I am not condoning mindless abuse (trust me, I have had my fair share), or any sort of generalized idea that you can say anything about white people apart from the simple fact of privilege.

The trouble is, that’s exactly where this whole rainbow nation screw up started, people not being frank with white people that yes, political power has been opened up, but the conversation is far, far from over. The problem, as always, is that the more I say what white people are uncomfortable to hear the less they will want to listen, and the more I cushion it the less honest the conversation becomes.

Don’t get me wrong, there are loads of white people who completely get it right, in my head-up-my-own-ass-anthropological-opinion, but then again there are many who do not. In fact there are many black people who are also oblivious to how apartheid affected their lives, and who have mastered our prejudices well, ahem, Jimmy Manyi. And, no I do not feel guilty about apartheid, because it really wasn't my choice. How I respond to it, however, is. So, how do we drive a way forward that builds consciousness, but also builds reconciliation?

I had a senior DA politician tell me he agrees with my main drive, but that part of the problem is that white people are scared. Let’s call it the Oscar Pistorius Syndrome. The evidence is overwhelming that they don’t need to be scared, and to be honest how much time should we be spending reassuring a section of our population who has been getting special treatment for 350 years?

So, I still don’t know how to create reconciliation. I suspect it has something to do with ‘nation building’, but this is now way above my paygrade. Maybe I should become a veejay, because they seem to know fucking everything.

* As a footnote, I know Andile Mngxitama would say, its simple, reconciliation can only happen when we return what was stolen. I respect and in many ways buy that argument, if not the strategy, but with 6% the EFF can’t expropriate farms, they can just do timeshare.
* For those of you wanting to go on about ‘reverse racism’, watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dw_mRaIHb-M

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Some thoughts on race, SA comedy, blackface and Chester Missing.



I want to talk about race in SA humour, because as an anthropologist and political comedian I am in a unique position, and also, most importantly, I want to open up my thinking on Chester Missing, the brown puppet of this white man. This piece is long. What I want to say is not simple.

Let’s start with a crash course in the politics of race comedy. Race is a construct, first mobilized by white people during colonialism to create an imaginary evolutionary hierarchy between them and everyone else. However, now that people have been oppressed because of race deciding we must all randomly stop talking about race (a naive kind of non-racialism that is popular in some SA middle class) is tantamount to telling people to stop talking about colonialism, apartheid and why the millions of South Africans who live in shacks today generally don’t look like me (I am a white South African).

Many white South Africans are oblivious to the extreme structural and life injustices racialism/apartheid dealt most black people. It’s the small burdens, e.g. the parents who struggled during the 70s and 80s, and who you now have to support, that really hold apartheid’s economic legacy (just one of millions of examples). The simple fact is that if you are born white in SA your life is almost undoubtedly easier than if you had been born black. The idea that affirmative action has significantly made things harder for us white people is just plain false. We are more employed, and have more access to business leadership than any other race group. This historically skewed status quo filters into how our comedy industry works and what South Africans laugh at.

White people often believe they have no race, because their norms are the norms we see in most Western movies, news, print, etc, and are invisible. We tend to see ourselves as ‘normal’.

For example, tagged onto race are of course a whole range of cultural and physical attributes, that in truth we still give credibility to because apartheid indoctrinated all of us. These are perceptions: like all Indian people sound the same, black people arrive late, and a myriad of more subtle biases. The trouble is that we then make assumptions about people’s competence, trustworthiness, and ability to do a job based on these prejudices. Of course we would swear blind that we don’t, but we do. For example a problem with subtle unconscious social bias is that, surprise, surprise, us white people kept all the positive stereotypes for ourselves. How many positive perceptions are there around the rubric ‘coloured’, really? Some of the world’s most inspiring people are mixed race, but for some reason the stereotype doesn’t allow for that.

We believe that reinforced idea about race, stereotypes, are just a joke, but really they aren’t. Beliefs are the products of recurrently reinforced perceptions / opinions. For example, if your white / middle class manager has to make a decision about whether to employ you or someone else he/she will be influenced by how well they relate to you and how they interpret your cultural behaviours, based on unconscious perceptions. It’s a well researched, and blatantly obvious fact that the closer you are to your boss culturally the more likely you will be to get the job. That’s why many black people (Indian, mixed, African, or whatever) change their manner and tone when they arrive in the workplace, because they need to fit in with the dominant status quo. If 70% of our senior management in corporate SA are still white no prizes for guessing what status quo that is.

Of course race is not culture, but the two are connected. In general being middle class in South Africa means being skilled in western norms. This is why we have black people accusing other black people of acting white. Of course this is itself bigotry because Black is a political position inherited from our history, not how you sound. Assuming all people of a race must sound the same is racism. Dankie Verwoerd. However, it’s also fair comment because the more middle class/white a black person sounds the more social capital they will have in corridors of economic power. Our problem is that because of our sordid history sounding like a second language English speaker (i.e. usually having an accent) has become associated with the lesser, and with often with being working class. We conflate class and race so we don’t acknowledge that when we laugh at accents it is often not just racism, it’s classism: laughing at poor people. Nice.

You see western culture has had a 500 year marketing campaign trying to make itself seem normalized and more evolved, to justify how they exploited everyone else. This is the problem in South African comedy. Most of our audiences are middle class, because comedy costs money to get to and get into, so we often trade in mocking people’s accents, or black comedians will exaggerate their accents for middle class audiences. Just because the audience is black doesn’t mean they cant be classist / Afropessimist. Or we make easy associations of race (white people do this, black people do that) which audiences, well trained by the apartheid government, buy into. If you do a working class accent for a working class audience it isn’t as funny, because it’s normal. If you listen closely you will see our comedians often exaggerate their accents on the punchline to drive the laughter.

Socially humor is a primary way of denigrating and issuing social sanction against threats to group norms. This is why the comedy that mocks white / western accents and culture is so much less searing, because it hasn’t had centuries of prejudice to build on, and because the audiences and the normative media culture in SA makes how I sound more normal and credible, not funny and strange.

The problem isn’t just an individual comedian being prejudiced at one gig, it’s that culturally this happening again and again is how racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and normalized bigotry such as what happened at the TUKS campus become enabled. This is why it’s so offensive that people even proposed debating the racism of the event. Only in a status quo that is normalized to some level of racism is that debate acceptable. On the other hand that people are surprised that this racism exists in SA seems outrageously na├»ve. It’s racism central out there people. I know. I am doing comedy there.

This is why, in my view, the only ethical thing a comedian can do is speak back to this status quo, the more so the more privileged you are. There is an irritating habit in some media to think that speaking back to power means only Zuma jokes. White people have the money. Zuma is only half the picture.

Also, there isn’t an “I’m-not-a-political-comedian” option. If you crack jokes you are normalizing something, because your jokes rely on culture to be funny. Always. There are no exceptions.

So, as a white comedian speaking back to power and dealing with culture in SA, the only place for race in my work needs to be to 1) break down the idea of race as a credible construct – how black people can swim, and white people can dance, 2) point out the fact that even though race is fictitious there are huge inequalities people bear because of race (pointing out white privilege), 3) dealing with how culture comes into this, speaking back to western norms. For a black comedian this is about Black Consciousness and comedy / culturally sensitive identity work a la Marc Lottering. For a white comedian this is about dealing with white privilege.

For example, Jacob Zuma must be taken to task for Nkandla. However, there are also dynamics around laughing at an elderly Zulu man who went to jail during apartheid. So continuously joking about how many wives he has is enforcing western cultural norms. If the audience is themselves Black/Zulu I have more leeway because I know they probably will laugh for the right reasons, but primarily my comedy needs to be at how Jacob Zuma has 4 wives, but Larry King had 8, many of them at the same time, to destabilize this idea that Jacob Zuma’s lifestyle is exotic and strange.

This does not mean comedians can’t make any cultural referenced accents, but that it needs to be done consciously. There is a sort of imagined community we create, where we build positive identity with accent and character. Marc Lottering, for example, has been the leader in this, with his usually nuanced, culturally specific characters. I am not talking about this here though. It’s very dangerous in the wrong hands, and can lead to racial essentialism (i.e. idea that all black/whatever people are the same).

Enter Chester Missing, blackface problem that he is:

Chester Missing as we now know him was a product of my MA in social anthropology and working with a director to speak back to myself and to deal with race and current affairs in a more politically conscious, but accessible way. He was designed to be current, modern looking and racially ambiguous (his design is inspired by vinyl toys), but would sound like he might be ‘coloured’, deliberately diffuse and not exaggerated. An earlier version of him was more clearly ‘coloured’, i.e.  engaging cultural references like ‘hoe lyk it’, but that dropped as I became more aware of what I was doing, as well as a more ‘neutral’ accent (yes, my neutral isn’t neutral). The only reason to reference race is of course because we live in a country where most people are black, and a white man speaking back to himself about SA politics and race via a Black puppet has cultural traction.

Of course, as we developed Chester his character became hinged more and more on his real problem, which surprisingly is not being Black / black (Black: political position, black: assumed cultural attributes). Chester’s problem is that he is a puppet. The reality is that Chester didn’t experience apartheid, other than through my own privileged little life. Chester did experience living in a suitcase, and does have to deal with the burden that he can never do anything other than with me. His puppet problems became a useful metaphor for SA race relations and politics.

In my mind, as I was building, he could create an explosive satirical way of portraying SA society, and at the same time undermining stereotypes of Blackness, and speak back to privilege, me playing the role of the racially oblivious white liberal, and him the intelligent, socially conscious agent of change. It’s a debate with two people that are actually one person.

Of course I understand how dangerous this is – a white guy with a black puppet has a violently sordid history. Even now the world's most famous ventriloquist act is blackface: Jeff Dunham's Achmed the dead terrorist, an American laughing at a dead Muslim. That's just hilarious.

At the time I never saw myself like that at all, because those were not my cultural references. I read post structuralist feminist, subaltern and post-colonial social anthropology and then wrote jokes with it. When you do material on stage you can immediately see what the audience laughs at. They laugh at what Chester says, his material, not how he speaks. He specifically does not do the things people do to make people laugh at coloured / black voices (Aweh, eish, naai my bru, etc). This is not to say how he speaks is not in question, merely that it’s not simplistic, and I am very aware of the dynamics. Feel free to let me know when I get it wrong.

With the advent of LNN Kagiso and Loy needed someone with progressive political content, and we built from there. Him being on screen alone without me was a last minute thing, because doing ventriloquism written on the same day as its performed is restrictively hard, and it was fun giving the puppet guy a life of his own, kind of an interesting twist in his revolution against me. We never expected him to get so big, that I can assure you.

Of course, as Chester himself got more public acclaim the question of my whiteness became more and more contentious, for good reason, because with fame comes normalizing power. For some the shock at my whiteness was just naivety – it’s not like I have been hiding under a rock in my live work, and trust me, when Blade Nzimande, Bantu Holomisa, Zwelinzima Vavi, Mosiuoa Lekota, Trevor Manuel, etc, see me arrive for the interview they know I am white… duh. Some people thought I was hiding. They didn’t think that through. The reason these senior politicians were playing along is that if you actually engage with my work, instead of an imaginary idea of it, I am quite clearly not trying to use the puppet to mock and undermine black people, just power. We did find it entertaining that people were fine with Chester saying these progressive things until they found out that I am white.

Bear in mind, the main people guiding me re Chester were Kagiso Lediga, and the LNN crew, and the people coming up with the questions are black (for some reason people always assume the guy in charge of the posse of black satirists is the one white guy. It’s hilarious).

This isn’t a let-the-white-guy-off card, merely that in our actual LNN world this race thing is not one-dimensional. I once had Thuli Madonsela wait an extra ten minutes after a radio interview to get another photo with Chester, so really, come now. Most of my income comes from corporate work where I talk about apartheid, Eurocentrsim, etc, as well as more mundane politics, directly to the people who most need to hear it, not on some blog read only by people who already agree.

However, this does not mean that the status quo is not problematic. In spite of my certainty above, I do question my work all the time, because I am under absolutely no delusion about the completely unjust status quo I have and am benefitting from (in terms of SA history) and that with a ‘blackhand’ (as Kags calls it) puppet I could be very close to the point where I could be confirming the injustice.

My thinking re Chester Missing referencing black identity is as follows:

1)    He is designed to look racially ambivalent, so he could be painted another colour, and of course still be him. Maybe paper white? Maybe Chester the light purple guy, to remind us all that he is just a puppet, and take him out of the human template?
2)    Right now I am working more on him taking exactly my accent, but in his register. The only reason he has any accent at all is because I just haven’t spent the rehearsal time getting the ventriloquism right.
3)    Should Chester end? I know it sounds sad, but if he might be affirming a bigoted status quo then what am I doing this for?

On the one hand I ask myself ‘Why should a white person not use a Black character if that character is used as a foil for his own whiteness?’ Bear in mind, my public audiences are more and more completely black, and when they are white I do deal with my whiteness.

Surely being Afrocentric involves making work that is accessible to Africans? As an artist it is my job to create work relevant to my world. My puppet has 130000 twitter followers, most of whom are black. But then again, apparently black people also love Leon Schuster #thatawkwardmoment.

Why blackface IS a concern. The main problem for me is that it sometimes makes my comedy feel a bit brutal. Because I need to expose some very uncomfortable truths if I am going to have a Black character and not fall into naturalized racial assumptions. I have to smack white people hard every time, to the point that some of my Black comedian friends think I should chill. It doesn't help to question race if I am scaring people away, and the truth is the SA situation is about more than just race. It could be better if Chester were not painted brown / black.

Part of the problem is people seem to really, really like Chester as he is. I once had a few thousand EFF supporters chanting “Chester, Chester, Chester” of their own accord. Chester is asking questions most people can't, and the leaders of all political parties are getting in on it. With the questions around satire in SA do we really want to get rid of / change a satirical object most politicians will talk to? A dynamic is that (because we are SA) some people assume that he can ask these questions because he's black. This borders on imbecilic. As I have pointed out, how would some of SA brightest political minds be fooled into thinking I am black? So if Uncle Gweezy is fine with me, what's the problem?

There are political apparatchiks who question why a white guy is asking these questions of black leaders at all. I disregard them, because the truth is I am extremely vigilant about driving a historically conscious neutrality and have a great team guiding that. To expect us not to ask questions at all is just plain unreasonable. Cosatu themselves regularly reference Chester as the kind of freedom of expression that they fought for (that could be good and bad, hehehe).

But I am still stuck, particularly in my live work away from the Blackness of LNN, with the problem of Chester’s blackness. I have learned the hard way that for the most part our society is too culturally unaware to tell the difference between comedy that laughs at identity and comedy that does not. Hence Leon Schuster’s Mama Jack is somehow OK. That is exactly the problem. There could be a degree to which, by invoking any racial signifiers via Chester I am enabling Leon Schuster and the mindset that leads to these TUKS students (to be fair to Leon Schuster, he had a few candid camera pieces where he did seriously take the piss out of white hegemony, but that’s another conversation)? I think it’s far fetched in that I attack those exact power dynamics incessantly, but we have a history on blackface racism in SA.

More importantly, if Chester Missing truly is speaking back to power then we must ask how a white guy performing a black character can really ever liberate? It is true that the tools of the oppressor can never be used to liberate the oppressed, although they can be used as a Trojan horse to get the idea across. Are you going into corporate boardrooms and talking about apartheid? I am. I’d like to be a bit less intense about it though.

My problem with this ‘white people can’t liberate’ is that the same could be said for white people in general, leading to the Black Consciousnessish idea that white people should stick to white people stuff. It’s 2014, so that’s not really feasible. But it is true that with Chester having black cultural signifiers (skin tone and accent, and very occasionally self claims of Black) I am confirming something of the status quo merely by existing, and I really do struggle with that.

Our last one man show The Chester Missing Roadshow (it’s doing one more tour, see it if you can) dealt with this head one – he rejected race and then claimed it as a political position to expose me, because I am exploiting him, and accused me in front of 3000 people at Blacks Only of doing blackface. They gave us a standing ovation #justsaying. However, there are only so many times I can have that particular conversation so maybe now my character and I need to move forward?

The solution I prefer currently is to make him purple and work on his voice. The advantage would be that he could exist as what he is, the oppressed puppet-in-a-suitcase of a white man, not as this dude who has to continuously counter the prejudice his blackface-like signifiers (voice and paint colour) this might invoke. What will I do? What balance is right? Fuck knows.

Comedy is am amazing way for South Africans to re-imagine themselves in a historically conscious, inclusive way. I am very grateful to everyone who has helped me in my part so far.

Thanks for reading this very long piece of navel gazing. I don’t do online debates because they tend to just be bullying with spelling mistakes, which is why I haven't left the comments section open, but you are welcome to email me: conradkoch@mweb.co.za, or harass me on Facebook or Twitter. I might answer, or I might not. Sharp.