Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Laughing off Apartheid: Comedy at the Twilight of White Minority Rule

Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Laughing off Apartheid: Comedy at the Twilight of White Minority Rule

Article excerpt

Over the course of the 1980s, as the curtain fell on apartheid in South Africa, something peculiar happened: people started laughing. Two comedies, The Cosby Show (1984-1992), an American "sit-com" (situational comedy), and The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), one of the few South African films to successfully penetrate foreign markets, saturated popular media. While in South Africa and virtually everywhere else it was broadcast, The Cosby Show consistently landed at the top of the weekly television charts, The Gods Must Be Crazy became "the biggest foreign box-office success hit in U. S. movie history," as well as a smash elsewhere in the world (Havens 395; Gugler 76). Both at home and throughout the globe, the striking popularity of the comedies helped frame an understanding of African and black diasporic identity in popular consciousness. In an odd way, then, as South Africa struggled to end the bitter legacy of white minority rule, a novel strain of "black comedy" triumphed. What was behind this phenomenon? Why, at the twilight of apartheid, did comedy prominently featuring black actors suddenly assume heightened visibility and prominence?

Broadly considered, at least within South Africa itself, the success of The Gods Must Be Crazy and The Cosby Show suggests that an important shift was taking place in the nation's dynamic cultural scene. Until the 1980s, comedy had remained relatively barren in the region. In place of comedy, the predominate narrative in South Africa - the so-called "Jim Goes to Jo'burg" narrative, portraying a black commoner's ("Jim") journey from the countryside to Johannesburg - had been uniformly tragic. Introduced into the plots of novels, plays, and films, this narrative design was often utilized to convey the crippling consequences of apartheid's "color line." For example, in Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), provincial Africans, searching for work and a better life in "The City of Gold" (as Johannesburg is often called), face insurmountable duress. Traveling from rural Lesotho to the devouring city, Paton's characters stumble across every possible form of urban vice: alcoholism, prostitution, theft, and, eventually, murder. Twice adapted into a feature-length film, authences were literally asked to "Cry" for Africans in peril. Although less patronizing and melodramatic, black writing often portrayed this country-to-the-city topos through a similarly humorless lens. R. R. R. Dhlomo's An Africa ? Tragedy (1928), one of the earliest novels by a black South African writer, offers a numbing sketch of the poverty, addiction, and crime that migrant workers faced. The "Tragedy" in Dhlomo's title spoke for itself: Africans moving to Johannesburg, as many inevitably did to escape rural destitution and landlessness, were sure to meet tragic ends.

As South Africa slouched toward democratic rule, however, the widespread popularity of The Cosby Show and The Gods Must Be Crazy intimated that an important transformation was taking shape. If an earlier generation portrayed African arrival in the city by way of tragedy, these two productions - one an import, the other principally an export - were now envisioning this same arrival through a comic prism. To ease tensions during a difficult period of political transition, perhaps it should seem obvious that a drama of lightness, of humor and comic catharsis, would replace the old "Jim Goes to Jo'burg" trope.

Yet comedy revealed a darkness of its own. As I argue in this essay, the escapist qualities of The Cosby Show and The Gods Must Be Crazy not only distracted authences from South Africa's momentous occasion, they also replaced the leading actors of the struggle, the political activists and unionized workers of the anti-apartheid movement, with disquieting impostors. In fact, considered together, the two comedies appear to have buoyed a model of black identity long supported by the ruling National Party. Rising to power in 1948, the National Party accommodated mere cookie cutter impressions of black identity: first and most strategically, the impression of a black primitive, which suggested that the African mind was not yet developed enough to assume a position of power in the modern city, amidst global circuits of capital; and, second, especially as the years wore on, the impression of a black bourgeoisie cut off from, and perhaps even hostile to, a militant working class. …

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