In Stitches: Exploring vernacular comedy in South Africa

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SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE:

Written by Hannah Rafkin and Meg Robbins.

U.S.-based Hannah Rafkin and Meg Robbins directed and produced In Stitches, a documentary on vernacular stand-up comedy in South Africa. The film follows Noko Moswete, Luphelo Kodwa, and Zicco Sithole, up-and-coming comics who are bringing the healing power of laughter to those who need it most in post-apartheid South Africa. It was chosen as an official selection at this year’s Encounters South African International Documentary Festival, Jozi Film Festival and Muizenberg Festival.

When we arrived in Johannesburg to begin filming In Stitches, we soon realised just how much variety exists within the genre. You can attend upwards of three shows any given night in Gauteng alone, each with a unique vibe. There are the hip spots in Braamfontein and Maboneng, full of exuberant young people, where comics gather in the back to watch their friends’ sets and debrief after the show. There are larger, swankier clubs set within casinos, where people come to celebrate special occasions or enjoy date nights. (Here, audiences are mostly white and racially-charged jokes get the biggest laughs.) There are sold-out shows in big arenas, advertised on billboards along the highway. And, as we were to learn when we arrived, there are vernacular comedy shows, where you can hear performances in four or five languages on any given night. At these shows, the laughter is different—deeper, more real, more urgent.

In the aftermath of apartheid, stand-up comedy boomed in South Africa. The old cliché held up: laughter truly was the best medicine. By the turn of the millennium, comedians like David Kau, Loyiso Gola and Kagiso Lediga were in full force. They joined the ranks of a handful of popular white comedians, but soon, black comics outnumbered their white counterparts. Over the years, stand-up has continued to become more inclusive—more women onstage, less reliance on racial stereotypes for punchlines, and more geographically diverse venues. But despite these strides, a major injustice remained: stand-up was only performed in English. Consider that 80 per cent of the population speaks an African language as their mother tongue, while only 9.6 per cent speaks English as their mother tongue. The vast majority of South African citizens have been excluded from this powerful art form.

But vernacular comedians are flipping the script. In Stitches focuses on three up-and-coming comics who unapologetically crack jokes in Pedi, Xhosa and Zulu. Noko Moswete, Luphelo Kodwa, and Zicco Sithole are revolutionising the industry, insisting upon their right to representation, centring stories that have long been relegated to the fringes, and bringing laughter to those that need it most. Audiences can’t get enough. Whether in a 5 000-seat theatre or a tiny shebeen, these shows buzz with unparalleled energy somewhere between a rock concert and a sermon. Many audience members are experiencing stand-up comedy for the first time. People roll on the floor laughing, literally.

In discussions with comedians and audience members, one theme kept resurfacing: relating. It’s not just that vernacular audiences understand the words being spoken. It’s that they can relate to the context, relate to the lived experience, relate to the myriad details that defy translation. They can also relate to the person onstage, the one standing in the spotlight. And that’s a powerful thing.

The first time we saw South African stand-up comedy, we were hooked. It was 2015. We were studying abroad at the University of Cape Town, Trevor Noah had just been tapped to host The Daily Show, and the #FeesMustFall movement was taking the country by storm. By day, we watched as demonstrators filled the streets, echoing protests of generations past. By night, we listened as comedians dug into complex national issues onstage, addressing wounds of a colonial legacy. In a way, we learned more about South Africa in comedy clubs than we did in our classrooms.

As the United States became increasingly polarised around the election of Donald Trump in 2016, comedians played an important role in helping people process the inexplicable. We were curious about this role, and kept returning to the topic of South African comedy in our discussions. After graduating from university in 2017, we decided to return—this time to Johannesburg—to make a documentary about stand-up in South Africa. We got our fair share of dumb questions from people in the States as we geared up to begin filming. Many were shocked to hear that stand-up comedy exists in Africa. Many asked us if we’d be seeing lions. (Obviously not. Lions are prohibited from comedy clubs.)

But these dumb questions reveal a depressing truth: Americans remain staggeringly ignorant about Africa. Many are even convinced that Africa is a single country. This lack of awareness is no thanks to our president and his moronic commentary about “shithole countries”. But it also has a lot to do with the international media’s representation of Africa. Beyond animal-centric stories (The Lion King, Planet Earth), African narratives that reach U.S. audiences tend to be tales of struggle that prominently feature the redemption/heroism of a white male (Blood Diamond, Invictus)—though the release of Black Panther made strides toward shifting the dialogue. Documentaries that Americans watch about Africa—more often than not, tear-jerking narratives of poverty and devastation—also contribute to a one-dimensional understanding of the continent. Americans aren’t used to seeing African characters who feel joy, who have agency, who lead modern lives. In Stitches aims to evoke laughter rather than tears, following funny, talented, career-oriented individuals as they fight to take to the stage in South Africa’s most bustling city.

But the work of vernacular comedians is not easy. Though audiences are coming out to vernacular shows in huge numbers, surpassing crowds at English comedy shows, these artists still face major challenges in pursuing their craft. Between inevitable rough sets, begging bookers for stage time, funding travel costs and establishing a fanbase, being a comedian is difficult in any language. But the struggle is more pronounced for vernacular comedians, as they don’t have access to the tightly-knit network of agents, managers, producers, and bookers that work with English-speaking comics. Media outlets aren’t nearly as eager to spotlight their events or profile new talent. In the absence of that infrastructure, vernacular comedians have built an industry from the ground up to address a demonstrated need for laughter and storytelling. Necessity is the mother of invention and they are carving out their own performance spaces in townships, rural areas and, increasingly, city centres.

Onstage and offstage, vernacular comedians also combat the persistent racist notion that indigenous languages are primitive, uncivilised and unprofessional. Of course, the thorny problem of language in South Africa goes far deeper than just the comedy scene. Language has been wielded as a tool of division and disenfranchisement for centuries, first by colonial powers and then by the apartheid regime. Under National Party rule, people were geographically divided based on the languages they spoke and thrust into inferior Bantu education systems—tactics to keep black South Africans outside of urban society. Today, the constitution technically recognises eleven official languages, but the nine African languages are only truly official on paper. In practice, English still dominates South Africa. It is the language of government, commerce, education and entertainment, and is viewed as the sole pathway towards economic and social uplift. Meanwhile, mother tongues remain relegated to domestic spheres, banished from political discourse, the workplace, universities and the mainstream media. The ripple effects of apartheid-era policies are still felt today: the reign of English and Afrikaans reflects a society still engineered to meet the interests of the speakers of these languages (the white minority), while the suppression of African languages reflects the continued disenfranchisement of South Africa’s black majority.

In light of this ongoing injustice, the achievement of vernacular comedy is all the more powerful. In bringing their mother tongues into the spotlight, they are enforcing their constitutional rights, proving that these languages are indeed official. They are showing young people that they can speak in the language most comfortable to them and still achieve a successful career—and perhaps even stardom. They are celebrating freedom of expression, restructuring their society and, ultimately, demanding that the South African democracy put its money where its mouth is.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

As native English speakers, we move through the world with ease. It is no coincidence that English speakers have such low rates of multilingualism – almost everywhere we go, people talk to us in our language. Across the world, people have watched our movies and TV shows, listened to our music and followed our sports teams. It’s crucial that we centre the voices that have been silenced, that we sit back and try to relate. It is humbling and elucidating to shed this linguistic privilege, even for an hour, to completely immerse yourself in something you don’t fully understand.

What better vehicle for empathy than stand-up comedy? Laughter is the best medicine, after all.

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