Laughing all the way to Nkandla
Satire (noun): the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticise people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.
Jokes are seldom in good taste, especially when the target is a politician, and especially one who has a fire pool, chicken coop, an amphitheatre and a kraal built at taxpayers' expense.
Heard the one about Nkandla's fire pool? How do you put out a fire at Nkandla? Get the president's obese nephew Khulubuse to jump into it.
And then there are the spoofs ...
"Your tax touched Msholozi's life. He thanks you and we thank you," says an advert on spoof news website ZA News. It plays on a similar revenue service campaign thanking taxpayers for changing lives. A puppet Zuma sits in front of a picture of his Nkandla homestead and says: "I have four lovely wives and I think 21 children. I feel really blessed. Most amazing is how I have been able to provide my family, extended family and relatives with a better life. It was the best investment that taxpayers have ever made."
Satire is something South Africans are good at, and have consistently used to question their leaders. Pieter-Dirk Uys used it to devastating effect in the dying days of apartheid, calling it "a weapon of mass destruction". Prisoners in Robben Island used his shows to get information on the real state of the country.
Former president Nelson Mandela was a fan. In the first years of his rule he was given a free pass by comedians. In the latter years of his presidency, Madiba once phoned cartoonist Zapiro to complain that he could not read his cartoons while he was in Cape Town. After ascertaining that it was no prank, Zapiro asked why the president still looked for his cartoons when they had become so critical of the ANC. "But it is your job," responded Madiba.
He was the only president of a democratic South Africa to escape the attention of stand-up comedians and cartoonists. But, according to the funny people, his successors have provided so much material that even members of the public have stepped up to pepper them with jokes.
Zuma already had Zapiro's shower head attached to his head in cartoons before he ascended to the highest office in the land.
April Fool's Day and the earlier release of the Nkandla report coincided to show how little respect people now have for their leaders. One tweeted: "The worst #AprilFoolsDay joke to be played on SAfricans is one that never ended – it's sitting in Nkandla. Joke's on us."
A meme quickly went around about the president on his phone, asking Oscar Pistorius's defence lawyer Barry Roux: "Barry, how fast can you wrap this Oscar thing up?"
When someone tweeted: "Today Thuli Madonsela releases the Nkandla report. It's gonna be hot," comedian Trevor Noah replied: "Hot enough to use the fire pool?"
Puppet master Chester Missing twisted the ANC's elections slogan about having a good story to tell to include Nkandla. "It turns out the guy who actually has a good story to tell is the Nkandla architect. He got R16-million for his troubles."
In a piece for ZA News he mocked the president's statement that he had not been aware of what happened at his home: "Obviously when he saw that he now owned a chicken run, cattle kraal, tuckshop and pool, he thought: 'Wow, lucky I saved the Shaik money.'"
Last week satire went viral with the YouTube release of Nkandla Style, a parody of the Korean smash-hit Gangnam Style. It took a vicious stab at the president. "Yes, I’m swimming in your money but I don't know, I don't know. Skinny dipping with all my honeys in my fire pool." It raced to 300 000 views in a few days, thanks to the insatiable demand for anything Nkandla-related. It was taken down but a new version mixed in clips of the president dancing: "I am the big kahuna, the mighty induna."
For Nik Rabinowitz, South Africa's foremost Jewish, isiXhosa-speaking stand-up, the comedian's job is to get straight to the heart of social issues. If that requires belittling a president then that is what is required. His Nkandla satire is more philosophical: "Confucius’s fifth-century Nkandla prediction: The strength of the nation derives from integrity of the home."
The anger that people have about Nkandla has led to a cynical tone in comedy. Doctor-turned-comedian Riaad Moosa proposes wringing a positive outcome from the Nkandla outrage: "I suggest taxpayers get a timeshare deal. Rotate through Nkandla, Pine Lake Marina and Club Mykonos."
Underscoring the laughter is the power of humour. In Milan Kundera's The Joke – a satirical novel meant to undermine communist rule in Eastern Europe – the main character says: "No great movement designed to change the world can bear to be laughed at or belittled, because laughter is a rust that corrodes everything."
The fall of the Berlin Wall spawned the advent of "laughtervism", with political schools teaching the power of satire to overthrow governments. In 2000 Serbians forced Slobodan Milosevic to resign, after undermining him with humour.
Srda Popovic, one of the brains behind the movement, said in an interview with Slate that humour is critical in making the opposition bolder: "People were afraid, and humour was useful in breaking that fear." George Orwell similarly praised the power of satire: "Every joke is a tiny revolution."
There is, however, an opposing school of thought – people make fun of their leaders because they do not have the power to change them. Iraqi writer Khalid Kishtainy said: "People joke about their oppressors, not to overthrow them but to endure them."
So perhaps South Africans are laughing because they do not know what else to do about the status quo. Or they could be participating in a movement that undermines the ruling party and its president.