Oh Shucks, an accidental blackface hero

I don’t expect to make it out alive of this one but I’m gonna try anyway. From the jump let’s make it clear that I don’t, by any stretch of the imagination, believe that Leon Schuster is not racist. What I do believe is that he was able to capture what another white filmmaker, Werner Hertzog, calls “the inexplicable magic of cinema”. Schuster’s white protective shield allowed him into spaces that no one else would have ever been able to explore under the guise of humour. I’m talking early Schuster, by the way: from You Must Be Joking to Panic Mechanic Schuster. ’Cause that’s the last Schuster movie I watched, to be honest: I had to grow up and wear wokeness at some point in my life.

Before we get into all of it, I’d just like to unpack some jargon for context. There’s a thing called “houdklapping” — or at least there was; I mean, it’s probably still a thing. Jacques Pauw’s novel Little Ice Cream Boy, actually explores this. “Houd” is wood in Afrikaans, and “houdkop is a term specially designated for black people. You ever say “touch wood” and proceed to tap on your head? Well, Afrikaaner racism believes this of black people.

Anyway, houdklapping is a thing where young Afrikaaner adolescents ― and I’m sure some adults suffering arrested development ― would drive through townships in bakkies, armed with cricket bats and other weapons, to randomly assault people who were simply minding their own business. They’re like driveby shootings, except by white boys swinging randomly at people’s heads and driving off. Yeah, it’s fun,‘’cause houdkops don’t feel pain or like, they don’t show it or something. Pretoria is a hotbed for this kind of mess, best exemplified by the case of The Waterkloof Four.

Now I’m not here to defend Schuster or his career, rather to highlight his early ability to expose the festering wound that the rainbow tried to plaster, whether he knew it or not. Having grown up in Pretoria in the mid ’90s, I stared into the face of unbridled white rage more times than I can count. So, when Schuster did a skit in which he built a shack on a golf course in Windgate Park, I couldn’t help but be in awe of how brilliantly such a simple blackfaced get-up and temporary structure could hit one of our country’s biggest nerves. Imagine!

In 1996, the Windgate management allowed Schuster to set up a shack on their course, build a fire on it, and then harass golfers, who must have had some serious shit to talk about at that stage ―  like how to sell off as much land as cheaply as possible to each other. You want land? Schuster beat you to the punchline.

The dude’s blackface cover was so deep that he actually took on the daily beatings that black people faced for their “insolence”, “inefficiency” or “downright laziness”. Yeah, he was a  messy slew of stereotypes sellotaped together for the cheap seats. But that’s all the cheap seats could afford and did they not enjoy it? My family sat in those cheap seats and we fucking loved it.

I have two parents who were both the first in their families to go to university. Guess what movies they wanted to get on a Friday night after slogging in the office the entire week? Guess what our family Friday night downtime consisted of? My man Shucks! On the real though, Shucks made comedy that, for its time, was super forward; he ventured into territories that no one dared to touch. If we ever had a white comedian who came close to realising that satire worked only when it punched up, it would have to have been my man Schuster.

Just as everyone (whites)  was losing their fucking minds about what was gonna happen when the blacks came to power and busy preparing their bunkers, Schuster was playing on those fears. While black people were being beaten for absolutely no reason and people (whites) claimed ignorance of the fact, Schuster was exposing that. And guess what? He was the only person in South African cinema who could, ’cause he’s a white man. You ever watch a Schuster skit where the white people he’s pranking stop to realise that it’s him and they all start laughing, cause it’s not a stupid savage but someone who they can relate to just winding them up for a lag? Is that not magic?

Nope, my friends, it is not magic, as Jesse Williams so eloquently summarised black people as being. Instead, what Schuster did was tragic comedy. He highlighted the reality that most South Africans faced: white rage that manifested itself as violence of all forms. White people laughed at the fact that they were duped into believing that another white person could be viewed as black. To them, he played us so well. We laughed at how easy it was for white people to get angry and beat us.

There are also a number of skits ― in which Schuster highlights the moral bankruptcy of South Africa as a country ― that a lot of liberal white people would view as an embarrassing depiction and a lot of black people would view as fair as their skin.

“Gaffer!”, an enraged Schuster screams in one of his Panic Mechanic skits. Most of us obviously think he’s saying “kaffir”, ’cause we’re used to hearing the word. Seriously, unless you were working in, or studying film, what else would it sound like as a South African? We see his white rage as he continues to scream the word in the direction of a bemused “newly freed” Desmond Dube. He’s charging in his direction repeating the word; as he gets to him, Dube rightfully knocks him the fuck out, only to learn that there’s a gaffer role on set, which he sees only when he crouches to check out Schuster with the word “Gaffer” written on the back of his T-shirt. Either way, he deserved the knockout to my mind. Surely the gaffer has an actual name. Anyway, in 1996 the use of the word “kaffir” wasn’t as silently parsed as it is now, so the skit works okay. (Shouts out Vicki Momberg’s cornrows)

Schuster’s white skin benefits him to no end and he’s performed some of the most egregious racial stereotypes I’ve had the displeasure of viewing. His blackface also gave him access into a South African psyche that we were suddenly trying to make disappear from world view, a far more troubling state than anyone could have ever explained. His blackface exposed just how okay we are with all of it and how normalised race tensions are in South Africa. As long as it’s white hitting on black it’s funny, his comedy harks. A black comedian trying to gain access into the same spaces that provoked white rage would have surely been dead.  

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Phumlani Pikoli
Phumlani Pikoli is a multidisciplinary artist. He had his multi-sensory exhibition with the British Council in South Africa and Tmrw Mixed Reality Workshop, based on his acclaimed debut collection of short stories, The Fatuous State of Severity In January 2020. His debut novel Born Freeloaders was released in 2019 and published by Pan Macmillan.

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