When you write about Africa, make sure to always include sad and starving characters, advises Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainana in his famously ironic essay “How to write about Africa”, which takes aim at Western prejudices. He adds, “Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances”.
In the same way that everyday laughter has been excluded from all-too-familiar depictions of the continent, African humour and satire as a form of social and political engagement remains underexplored. Although it may not always enjoy the same recognition as in other regions around the world, Africa does have a longstanding satirical tradition. The role of the praise singer, such as the imbongi in southern Africa or the griot in parts of West Africa, has been compared to that of the ancient Greek comedy playwright or the medieval court jester: a figure who entertains but also speaks truth to power by using humour to present views that would otherwise not be tolerated. Today, South African Trevor Noah’s stint as host of The Daily Show, the political cartoons of East Africa’s Godfrey Mwampembwa (otherwise known as Gado), and internationally successful Nollywood films show that satire is alive and vibrant across the continent.
However, African satire has never had an easy existence. In many parts of the continent, criminal charges – or at least the threat of them – for insult and defamation are commonplace and have a negative effect on free expression. Even in South Africa, probably the continent’s most vibrant democracy, satire faces serious backlash from those in power. For example, President Jacob Zuma sued political cartoonist Zapiro for defamation, although charges were eventually dropped; the satirical news website hayibo.com had to shut down, in part due to a lack of advertising from corporates who wanted to play it safe with government; and Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande called for an “insult law” following the exhibition of a painting by local artist Brett Murray that depicted Zuma with his genitals exposed.
Jesters, at once powerful and fragile, have always been subject to punishment when the royal sense of humour failed. However, as Samm Farai Monro from Zimbabwe’s satirical Zambezi News puts it, “you can’t kill satire because you can’t kill people’s sense of humour and their sense of justice”. The popularity of Zambezi News is itself a notable example of how social media has fundamentally changed the playing field, especially in repressive political contexts. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube explode with satirical writing and pictures as professional comedians and ordinary citizens alike creatively reinterpret the politics of the day. The court jester is not a lone figure anymore; today there are many.
Satire may not necessarily change politics but, as most articles in this edition illustrate, it is a powerful tool to undermine propaganda, expose abuses of power, and ridicule cultural and social taboos. As with any form of power, however, satire comes with its own dangers and dark sides. As Sisonke Msimang reminds us: “At its worst … satire can degenerate into crude racism and sexism and amplify the biases of those who use it to mock others.” Her contribution, along with Rebecca Davis’ article, unearths some of satire’s internal power dynamics and hierarchies shaped by colonialism, racism and patriarchy. It is not only political rulers who control access to the public, and censorship can work in subtle ways. Prior to the social media, many satirists worked at the whim of media editors, TV producers, and theatre managers. Since opportunities, provided or denied, can decide the fate of an artist, much remains to be discovered in the hidden histories of African satire.