Racism is inherent in comedy - we need to acknowledge that | Says South African satirist Conrad Koch © Stan Kaplan

Racism is inherent in comedy - we need to acknowledge that

Says South African satirist Conrad Koch

Comedy’s power is its licence to say the unsayable. It should be the freest speech there is, but in many ways it isn’t.

As a white political comedian in post-apartheid South Africa I have grappled with comedy’s relationship with racism and power for my entire career.

History is written by the victor, and comedians are part of it. As comedians we have a say in how society understands racism, apartheid, colonialism and slavery. But because power in a society also dictates what is sayable we are constrained by what our audiences and bookers can cope with. Hannah Gadbsy alludes to it in that searing special: artists are closely associated with power. The pressure to make it safe is often economically and mentally insurmountable.

So let’s be clear on the status quo. I live in what the World Bank officially described as the most unequal society on earth. Most South Africans live on £2 a day or less (the upper bound poverty line). In Cape Town there are families who live in shacks in the freezing cold of our rainy winters, and the only toilets are a bucket next to the bed or a public toilet around corner, which you use at the risk of rape.

In 2012 the South African government shot down 34 striking miners who worked for an English-owned platinum mine called Lonmin and were striking for a living wage, for the right to feed their kids, at a place called Marikana. Apartheid and colonialism didn’t end, they just changed tactics.

The truth is the advantages of the West, from the NHS to a functioning justice system, were for the most part paid for by the extracted land, labour and mineral wealth of the Global South, by the deliberate destruction of the Indian economy to our advantage, by the enslavement of millions of Africans, and the genocide of native Australians, Americans, etc. It’s not a coincidence that this inequality exists, Cecil John Rhodes and the like literally planned it, and it’s still happening.

But remarkably you will seldom hear any mainstream or even alternative comedy about this, because the truth is comedy that gets profile and prestige is almost entirely dictated by who Netflix and Co know pay their subscriptions: rich (and, in the West, mainly white) people. Netflix doesn’t care about anyone living in shacks. Economic power almost entirely dictates what comedians say, to the degree that we stop even seeing that we are doing it.

In global terms, I don’t see there being a ‘culture war’ between the left and right, and some people in the ‘middle’. There are literally billions of colonised Others who have almost no say in this conversation and a tiny sliver of humanity with wealth, many of them living on ill-gotten privilege.

This shapes what we see as ‘good’ comedy. Comedy is a very privileged activity. It requires people with money to see it or stream it. For example, the Edinburgh Festival could not happen in South Africa. We lack the massive middle class needed for anything of that size. And the truth is that what we like, what we see as tasteful is a product of shared social norms and agreements that are backed up by economic power. If you only see comedy of a certain type, you will eventually develop a taste for it. What is seen as ‘good’ comedy internationally is a product of a racist, classist and sexist global economy. Are impoverished Africans getting a say? No, they’re not.

Currently in comedy we are obsessed with a freedom of speech debate around wokeness, but from my perspective the entire system is racist. So the politically aware ones on the ‘left’ will rightly be enraged at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s racist blackface party outfits, but you will never hear mention of the Canadian mining companies with operations in Africa leaving a fraction of their profits (sometimes less than 2 per cent) in Africa. Neo-colonialism leaves millions of Africans impoverished, and is by far the bigger crime, but makes for less trendy tweets. To some degree we are all in on this racist scam.

It’s not just about saying the unsayable, it’s about creating work that is more than just a ‘ritual of rebellion’, as they call it in anthropology. Lightly poking at the King to let off some social catharsis, as most TV satire does doesn’t disrupt the status quo, it enforces it (I’m a TV satirist, and am blaming myself here too). We need to be doing comedy that drags the murder of 34 striking South African miners to the front of the global conversation. We need to be asking how the IMF still lends wealth stolen from Africa and Asia back to them? We need to be asking why we have not had reparations for apartheid, slavery and colonialism? But who would pay to see such comedy? Exactly.

Yes, we have more diversity in what comedians we see on TV, and have a long way to go in even that, but just because a Black comic is speaking doesn’t mean they are free to speak, or that they will say what must be said. I live in a country where the party of Nelson Mandela, the ANC, has in many ways itself been subsumed by colonial wealth. As long as the taste-makers of comedy, and its most powerful markets are rich and white creating work that truly confronts this unjust status quo is close to impossible.

What does this mean for comedians? The usual response from white people when we hear this type of thing is fragility and outrage. We think we are being blamed. It’s not blame, it’s just a description of the status quo. It’s unfair to think comedy can fix the whole of western society’s evils, but at the very least we should not be fooling ourselves about how racism has shaped our industry.

• Conrad Koch’s White Noise will be at the Pleasance Courtyard at 9.45pm from August 3 to 29.

Published: 4 Jul 2022

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