Page last updated at 15:12 GMT, Wednesday, 15 April 2009 16:12 UK

Laughing all the way to the polls?

A man holding up a poster of a smiling Jacob Zuma

By Lucy Fleming
BBC News, South Africa

Jacob Zuma may be laughing all the way to election victory next week, but South Africans tuning into state-owned TV will not be able to enjoy any laughs at the African National Congress leader's expense.

This week the South African Broadcasting Corporation axed a special show looking at political satire in the country, two months after the TV executives put a stop to a satirical puppet show based on the caricatures of cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, known by his penname "Zapiro".

Puppets of Jacob Zuma created by Z-News
The many faces of Jacob Zuma on the satirical puppet show Z-News

The broadcaster said South Africans were not ready for satire after reportedly spending some one million rand on a pilot of Z-News, whose doll of Mr Zuma is topped by a shower head.

This is a Zapiro trademark - an ignominious reminder of Mr Zuma's testimony during his rape trial in 2006.

He was acquitted, but widely ridiculed after saying he took a shower to minimise the risk of infection after having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman.

"South Africans are definitely ready for satire, I think probably the SABC isn't," says Cape Town-based Justin Nurse.

His company Laugh It Off has recently brought out a new soap - the Zuma Shower Gel, with the tag line "feel presidential" and the precaution: "Do not think that by using this product you can wash HIV/Aids away".


"SABC and the ANC go hand in hand so it's hard to distinguish the two - I'm surprised they got that far with the SABC to begin with," Mr Nurse told the BBC.

Several months before the show was canned, Mr Zuma described the cartoonist as "totally out of order" and started legal proceedings against Mr Shapiro for defaming him in a cartoon showing him about to rape the "justice system".

The cartoon was published last September when the ANC president was still facing charges of corruption. These have since been dropped.

'My job is to offend'

But veteran satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys, who lampooned the apartheid government with his impersonations, says Mr Zuma "deserves all the laughs he can get" and such po-faced reactions are far too reminiscent of the previous regime.

Evita Bezuidenhout
Evita Bezuidenhout is campaigning to get South Africans voting

"The ANC has learnt from the old National Party and really truly they're stepping on the same footsteps," he told the BBC after his show Election and Erections, which gives a platform to his alter ego Evita Bezuidenhout.

Evita, a plain-talking Afrikaner housewife turned politician, is a South African institution, hosting her own TV show, on which she has interviewed such luminaries as Nelson Mandela.

She is heard across the airwaves - apparently "running for president", urging her public to go and vote for democracy.

"Apartheid was not funny, Aids is not funny - but hypocrisy and denial and pompousness and arrogance can be made funny. Not because it's a ha-ha joke but because you see the obscene and the absurd aspect," the cross-dressing impersonator says.

Eugene Khosa
You have your limits depending on the kind of person you are and the skin colour you have and the kind of upbringing you've had
Comedian Eugene Khosa

Mr Uys's latest stage production, written before Thabo Mbeki was ousted as president last year, is a Shakespearian-cum-ANC inspired story of a power struggle between "Macbeki" and "MacZum".

His all-star cast take a swipe at everyone in South Africa's political establishment down to journalists portrayed as the three witches.

"It's my job to really offend everyone at least once, but not all the time," he says.

For black comedian Eugene Khosa this "licence to offend" is not across the aboard.

"Pieter-Dirk Uys is a legend... He's got that licence because he used to make fun of the old regime while they were still in power," he says.

'Self censorship'

But the stand-up, who has opened up his own club in Pretoria and fronts several TV shows, says he is always mindful of his audience and practises self-censorship.

Nelson Mandela
Madiba, as Nelson Mandela is known, is felt to be off limits for some

"I've become more responsible with my comedy because sometimes it's an awakening of someone's sleeping giant inside of them," he says.

"I never say something rude, offensive or belligerent or demeaning."

He sees his role as getting people to laugh at themselves rather than at politicians per se in what he refers to as "township humour".

"People have jumped social hills so quick; some people were poor 10 years ago, now they're immensely rich but it doesn't mean they don't live in the township any more, it doesn't mean they never go to the township," he says.

"In my humour I remind people a lot about where we come from and where we're going and how far we're going to go as a people."

Culturally, he says, you need to be sensitive about how far you can go when satirising politicians.

"I think as a person you have your limits and as a comedian as well you sit there and think: 'Should I say this or shouldn't I say this?' depending on the kind of person you are and the skin colour you have, and the kind of upbringing you've had."

Hate speech?

And a gulf definitely exists between the intellectual minority that fill city theatres and the impoverished majority.

Even in metropolitan Johannesburg, some find the humour of Zapiro and Uys insulting.

Justin Nurse
It's not like comedians are walking around with AK47s on stage
Laugh It Off founder Justin Nurse

"There should be a little respect - even if your freedom of expression is compromised. What about a person's dignity?" says Lunga, a taxi driver from Soweto.

However, Mr Khosa says it is not that South Africans are not ready for satire, they are just not exposed to it.

For Laugh It Off founder Mr Nurse, this is one of the main headaches for satirists - finding an outlet - and a publisher or backer that is prepared to stick "with you through thick and thin".

"We are artists and not really businessmen," he says.

He won notoriety and a landmark ruling in 2005 after being sued for a T-Shirt "Black Labour, White Guilt" by South African Breweries, who claimed it was an infringement on their Black Label beer trademark.

A lower court initially said the design bordered on hate speech, but the Constitutional Court eventually ruled in his favour.

"One of the judges wrote that humour is the elixir of constitutional health so that was quite positive to hear," he says.

"It's not like comedians are walking around with AK47s on stage, it's not like there's any real threat or danger, it's just enlightenment," he says.

In Darling, a rural farming community north of Cape Town and Mr Uys's home-town, some agree that satire needs limits.

"The leaders of our country need respect, especially Madiba - he's a hero. Mandela is the limit," says retired security manager Jacobus Arenose.

Back in a Johannesburg theatre, one of Mr Uys biggest laughs comes when he compares the slimness of Mr Zuma's biography to volumes of other "weightier" politicians.

In a sleight of hand that might shock Darling residents, he refers to Mr Mandela's tome as the "Long Walk to Houghton" - a reference to the posh Johannesburg suburb the former president now has the freedom to live in.

Do you think satire endangers or nurtures democracy? Should satirists consider cultural issues of respect when parodying African leaders?

The following comments reflect the balance of opinion received so far:

When we produced the pilot for the Z-News puppet show we were mindful of not crossing that line of satire vs defamation but healthy democracies should always have healthy satire. Oppressive regimes always fight freedom of speech and satirical comment. These latest events are not a good sign.
Matthew Brown - Director of Z-News, Cape Town, South Africa

Freedom of speech. Freedom of speech, freedom of speech. How can a country be a democracy when the ruling government has a majority stake in the public broadcaster? The public are informed by the media, but there is no freedom of information. Sometimes it is up to comedians to give our elected leaders a good comedic spanking. These are people who have chosen a life of public service and must thus be held accountable to the public, which in part should be the media. If the jokes go too far, people will react badly to them, so that is the line the satirist must tread. But the idea that we need to respect political figures in the media because of their position is a farce! Their job is to represent and govern the people by whom they were elected and should in turn be accountable to the people. If you are offended, change the channel, don't buy the paper, or turn off the radio. That is your free choice.
bill, cape town south africa

It was wise and good of SABC to stop broadcasting such a documentary as if it has anything to do with Zapiro it would be to campaign against the ANC. If Zapiro's role was never to campaign against the ANC and JZ why is it that each and every cartoon he produces about JZ or ANC is always negative? One thing he forgets is that we South Africans on the ground remain the beneficiaries of the ANC led-Government and most of us are a living testimony of the good works of the ANC government.
Sasabona Manganye, Johannesburg

I wouldn't say that political satire is anything new in South Africa; it's just that this satire is now being published. The number of "you know you're South African when.." jokes and the ridicule of politicians has been going on for donkey's years. You will find that across the border in Zimbabwe too; the only way to survive what's happening is to find light and humour in it. I don't like politicians interfering in comedy. If they do not wish to be laughed at then they shouldn't be ignorant enough to tell HIV-positive people that Aids is a myth and that they should eat their beetroot and potatoes to stay healthy, or indeed, take a shower to prevent themselves from getting HIV. A good ability is being able to laugh at yourself and at your country and to admit your faults. I fully support highlighting politicians' comical sides. After all the only reason they are funny is because they are based on fact.K. Fourie, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

The idea that leaders deserve extra dignity and immunity from criticism has been one of the many scourges of our country and the whole of Africa. Those to whom we give power need to be ESPECIALLY monitored and ESPECIALLY criticised, and politicians like Zuma need to learn that being criticised is part of the perks/catches of the job! This grates against our culture(eg. respect for elders) but we badly need to learn to throw more fruit at our leaders, not worship them!
S Motleno, South Africa

Often a cartoon can reflect the truth much better than an entire discourse. I always scan the cartoons and find that they are a realistic picture of the undercurrent feelings doing the rounds, and that is important. Satire is a very necessary tool in a democracy. They are only NOT found in totalitarian and repressive regimes.
Andre Roux, Johannesburg South Africa

As someone who earns a living on screen, I strongly believe that when one takes the decision to open any facet of their life to the public, they should do it with their eyes open. You are effectively giving implicit permission to be praised, criticized and indeed, poked fun at. Everyone needs to behave like intelligent adults and accept the consequences of whatever we do.
Zwelethu Mazibuko, Johannesburg, South Africa

There is no universal recipe for humor. What a person finds funny is deeply rooted in culture and upbringing. All around the world there exist subtle and unique themes in comedy. South African comedians will continue to adapt their style to their audiences' liking and end up with their own brand of humor.
Matthew Geyer, Fallbrook, CA

South Africa satire is a breath of fresh air in a culture that does not like to be critical of their leaders. African rulers generally do not like to hear criticism. When Zuma makes comments in court about taking a shower to lower his risks of catching HIV then he deserves laughter at his expense. Satire plays an important role in social comment and encourages politicians not to take themselves too seriously but to also look at the message being communicated. There must be limits to what people can say but these should fall within the freedom of speech norms.
Paul Robinson, Cape Town

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