Tired jokes make for tired folks

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The difficulties of loving stand-up comedy

Comedian 1: Apparently, Jacob Zuma can’t name his successor – Why?  Is his successor a number?
Comedian 2: “I’m a white girl, so I can’t dance, but at least this is my real hair”. She adds, “If I’ve offended you, you can twerk on outta here.”

Comedians are often walking a very thin line – one joke could ruin the whole set, sometimes you have the wrong joke, sometimes it’s the wrong crowd. In such instances, how do you know when you are taking something too far? What are the limits? The pressing question (I’d imagine) is when is it too soon to make a joke about Oscar? How do you recover when the punchline misses the mark? These are the questions that keep me awake at night (well, sometimes).

I’m interested in the politics of stand-up comedy shows, mainly because they can seem so apolitical. Everyone is just there to laugh because laughing is nice and we want nice things. Then everyone goes home. Simple. But there is a lot going on, power-wise, if you can afford to sit in a big room and pay someone to make you laugh. There’s a lot going on when the audience is predominantly middle-class; when the jokes are about PVRs and panicking about crime. There’s a lot going on when the comedian talks about travels to the UK or Australia and his audience can relate.

At the same time, I’m interested in the politics of comedy because it’s making me uncomfortable to think about what I laugh at and what I don’t. On a day like today, when it seems like 100% of things that happen on Earth are horrible and not funny, I find myself questioning what (or who) I am really laughing at.

Fatigued by the unfunny

A popular formula in stand-up seems to be to appeal to people’s politically incorrect leanings: a lot of punchlines are about fat people, black people, women, queer people, etc. With this formula, you push the boundaries a bit, playing on established stereotypes. Maybe it’s popular because it’s safe: because it’s what people were thinking, but were too ‘afraid’ to express.

For me, this formula is lacking. All it really is, is throwing marginalized people under the bus. The method is tired, which is why the jokes are tired. The punchlines in this category – the ones about about Zuma, black women,  fat or disabled people – don’t amuse because they don’t require imagination. I’ve heard them already: the only difference is that before, they were dressed as slurs.

Stand-up is political to me because it’s a form of storytelling: it’s representation. I’ve been fascinated by the power of storytelling for a long time. Stories have the power to influence ideas and, in turn, human relations are determined by those ideas. That’s why it matters to me to think about who tells a story, how they tell it and for what purpose. Perhaps I’ve found myself disappointed with comedy because the stories being told don’t push enough buttons. A joke about Zuma overshadows the fact that apartheid is the reason he was unable to access education. The joke about black women twerking, told by a white woman, just reminds me that white women don’t have a great track record when it comes to showing up for black women.

Possibilities for challenging the status quo

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Last Sunday, I caught Tyson Ngubeni’s show The Dark Ages. In it, Ngubeni jokes about the colourism he’s experienced and his brushes with xenophobia, resulting from him being mistaken for a foreigner.

The stage was decorated with flags from different countries and marred by posters containing slurs like amakwerekwere. Again, I was on edge. This time it was because xenophobia and colourism are so touchy, I struggle to discuss them in day-to-day conversations. I sat nervously, trying to manage the weight of my expectations, wondering if Ngubeni would take the conversation where I hoped it would go: to the depth of the difficult place.

I thought The Dark Ages was honest and well-delivered. Ngubeni deviates from the tired-trope formula, using humour to ask questions, as opposed to playing on stereotypes. On top of that, The Dark Ages re-orients  the dominant narratives: it exposes the mistreatment foreign and dark-skinned Black people experience, explicitly. I think this critical approach to comedy is what I’ve been missing in the jokes about gay men or fat people or women. Ngubeni uses his positionality as a dark-skinned, South-African to challenge complicity. It’s refreshing, considering the multitude of comedians who poke fun at issues like racism and classism just because

Later on in the week, at The Very Big Comedy Show, I was intrigued by a group of black women, Thenx, who featured briefly. In their musical skit, they sang about the land issue, belting out – to a predominantly white audience – “You know it don’t belong to you”. The crowd seemed more than a bit uncomfortable when they started singing about the k-word, and I was shocked by their honesty.

After this encounter, I was compelled to watched their sketch comedy show Thenx Presents Aza-Nya is Five-To, which didn’t disappoint. In it, they address topical issues like patriarchy, media censorship and economic inequality through vibrant satire and song. Touching again on the matter of inequality and redistribution, they sang, “There’s a huge cake we’re supposed to share [but] the ones with the knife don’t care.”

Thenx’s confrontation is in your face, in all senses.  The peak of their performance is when one of the comedians addresses members of the audience directly, asking why we should ‘keep’ Aza-Nya (South Africa). A woman in the crowd answers, “Because it’s a nice country”. A younger man and his friends respond,”We need to work together. We need to build together”. Sharply, the comedian, asks “A nice country for who? Who is we?”. She’s not going to let us get away with falling back on the myth of the rainbow nation: the promise of unity which has obscured the face of injustice for so long. Rather, as Thenx closes, they call upon the ance-stars – Biko, Sobukwe, Malcom X – reminding us of the legacy of those who have struggled for the realization of true justice. “We know it’s time”, Thenx say.

There is so much room for more of this type of work. There’s so much potential to push the boundaries. I hope, that despite the constraints of trying to make people laugh for money, upcoming comedians can develop new concepts for their sets. As a fan of stand-up, I long for more of this kind of comedy: the type that pushes us all to question what we laugh at after the curtains fall. 

 

 

I’m not blonde on the inside

When I was in high school, my friends and I had a lot of inside jokes and quips that tied us together. Several of my friends at that time were white and blonde and one of the quips was that I was “blonde on the inside”. I’ve been thinking about that.

I was a black girl with black hair in a predominantly black country, so being blonde on the inside should not have made sense.[Kanjani, guys?!]. But it does make sense when I think about how whiteness is glorified like, everywhere, and how class privilege can really blur the line between ‘black’ and ‘white’ (to a point). Having access to particular privileges (notably a private education) meant that I had access to whiteness, and I became so well versed in it that I could be validated by my white friends as being one of them [on the inside].

[Lorato Palesa Modongo explains so excellently how being white is glorified in Botswana here ]

Choosing whiteness over blackness wasn’t a choice I was aware I was making. I felt a lot of shame in the parts of my life that didn’t seem Western or white enough so I just never mentioned them. The things I kept silent about were my way of distancing myself from blackness – an identity which, at the time, symbolized being uncivilized and backward. Being fluent in whiteness offered an illusion of safety. You could feel comfortable in your [proximity to] whiteness because it seemed to mean that you were just like ‘everyone else’ – all the ‘normal’ people you saw in films – recognized fully as a person. As I gained this ‘recognition’, I didn’t understand how it was almost always being gained at the expense of another Black person. For instance…

I remember a lot of my  classmates (of all races) used to laugh at videos of “black ghetto names” – videos mocking African-American people. As we laughed at names like Shaqonda and Bonquiqui, it never occurred to me that I was laughing at a fellow black person because I did not recognize ‘blackness’ in myself. I didn’t think I was like them. I just existed in that rainbow-nation space where race didn’t matter.

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Being at university and learning about racism changed my sense of humour. Now when someone says the word ghetto or ratchet around me, I know that [poor] black people are being mocked. And the fact that I can be in a space where someone can mock a poor black person in my [black] presence is evidence that I am being accepted into that space because I am assumed to not be like ‘other’ black people.

I don’t laugh at Bonquiqui or Shaniqua’s names  anymore because mine shouldn’t be an exception. Mocking them is mocking all of us. I can’t laugh at things that are “ghetto” or “ratchet” anymore because it’s not funny that [black] people are poor. It’s a crisis.

Having class privilege as a black person basically means that you can afford to not suffer in the same ways many other black people do. On one hand, this is met by some people in white spaces assuming that you are only in university because they needed to fill up a quota or that if you have money, your parents didn’t work hard, it was all just B.E.E etc.

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On the other hand, it can mean that people will use your position as a way of shaming other black people  – using you/your family as evidence that black people can make it if they just work hard.

Asmany have written, instead of applauding poor [and in this case, black] people who overcome poverty, we need to look at ourselves and how we contribute to those conditions. Poor [black] people aren’t poor because they don’t work hard. They’re poor because we’re rich/middle class. We’re involved in it. We are a part of the capitalist exploitation that causes poverty and we need to take responsibility for that.

We can’t really keep having conversations where we just blame Zuma for stuff. I’m not a fan of Zuma either but before we talk about Zuma or how #ZumaMustFall, can we please have some serious conversations about apartheid and how we have to deal with its mess? Let’s talk about how some of your family members are overtly racist and you don’t know how to confront them about it. Or about how trippy it is to spend like 20 years of our lives ‘not seeing colour’ only to discover that not seeing colour is part of the problem? Let’s talk about how society rewards you for being white and how the flipside of that privilege is a black person not getting the benefit of the doubt?

Sidenote: It’s weird for me that every time I post a Facebook status about racism, suddenly, it’s like I don’t have white friends on Facebook :/ Are white people just not seeing those statuses or ….?  It’s cool if you don’t want to comment on my status, I can understand why. But at the same time, why are so few white people writing their own statuses about racism? We really need to talk, y’all. And when I say we, I mean, all of us but also YOU because racism isn’t going to go away until we all actually start dealing with it 😦 

The topic of racism is really uncomfortable but I’d rather be openly uncomfortable with you than be uncomfortable because you haven’t said a single thing about Marikana and now I have to wonder what that silence means.

We’re at a point where we can’t use our interracial friendships as evidence that we are not racist. As Sisonke Msimang said, “If you’re friends with white people who don’t get it, then you’re not friends”.

I want to be friends but first, I need you to know that I’m not blonde on the inside. I’m black and I am not hiding it anymore.

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Awareness initiative needed to tackle sexual violence at Rhodes University

TW: discussion of sexual assault

Sexual assault remains a pervasive problem in society and Rhodes University is no exception. Some Rhodes students have expressed concern about the University’s lack of communication on the matter, and others feel an awareness initiative to prevent sexual assault is needed.

Survey indicates some students are aware of procedures dealing with sexual offences

In early 2015, Rhodes University society Gender Action Project* (GAP) surveyed students about various gender-related topics. A total of 124 students, all of whom had been enrolled at Rhodes for at least one year, responded.

Over 60 % of the survey respondents said they did know what to do if they experienced sexual assault at Rhodes.  Of the 62 students who responded positively, ten said they knew the procedures due to their own initiative or because they had been informed of them during student leadership training.

One respondent said, “I know, but only because I had to specifically find out, which was intimidating”.

Another respondent said, “I know that there is support available but I don’t know what steps to take. I think it would be helpful for some sort of pamphlet or easily accessible information to be spread, so that everyone knows about how to help people, not only those who are actively seeking support”.

Another response said, “The procedure isn’t known because we aren’t informed on it –  not as a house comm member during training and not as a new student entering Rhodes. We shouldn’t have to ask for these talks to be done”.

One of the respondents added, “Instances of sexual assault, abuse and rape are hushed up by the university and we as students never hear about the developments and disciplinary action taken. I think ordinary students need to be more involved and informed by the university”.

An incomplete picture: the available statistics on sexual assault at Rhodes

Rhodes University categorizes disciplinary offences into two levels: lower and higher discipline. The difference between these levels is how they are investigated. Disciplinary cases which fall under Lower Discipline, for instance, causing noise disturbances in residence, are overseen by Hall Wardens.  Cases which fall under Higher Discipline, for instance, theft and copyright infringement, are investigated by the University Prosecutors.

Offences such as sexual assault and sexual harassment are classified as Higher Disciplinary offences and thus, are investigated by the University Prosecutors. Currently, the only publically available records of sexual assault complaints at Rhodes University are those recorded by the university Prosecutors in the Higher Disciplinary case reports, which are released at the end of each semester.

According to the Higher Disciplinary case reports from the period 2011 to 2014, a total of 185 Higher Disciplinary cases were reported to and investigated by University Prosecutors.

total cases

Of these 185 cases, there were seven cases of sexual assault and/or sexual harassment recorded and investigated by the prosecutors.

Sexual assaults

Of these seven reported cases, one resulted in an investigation where an accused was found guilty. The accused was excluded from Rhodes University for one year.

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Given the low number of ‘successful’ convictions for sexual offences during 2011-2014, depicted in the Higher Disciplinary reports, Director of Student Affairs, Dr Colleen Vassiliou was asked to comment on whether these statistics reflected the scope of sexual violence at Rhodes.

She said, “The 7 cases the prosecutors dealt with would be 7 cases where students/staff possibly requested level 4 disciplinary intervention.”

Dr Vassiliou cautioned that students and staff have four options to choose in dealing with sexual assault cases, and that disciplinary action is only one of those four.

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In light of findings on sexual offenses in the Higher Disciplinary reports, the two university Prosecutors were asked to comment on the following:

  • What challenges they face when trying to prosecute cases of alleged sexual assault or harassment
  • what kind of evidence is needed to secure a conviction in a sexual assault or harassment case
  • why they would decline to prosecute in a case of sexual assault or sexual harassment
  • why sexual assault and sexual harassment could result in a mediation between the parties involved.

They declined to comment.

The difficulty with using statistics to understand the scope of sexual violence

Statistics released by the South African Police Service indicate that there were 62 649 sexual offences reported in South Africa in 2013- 2014. However, anti-rape advocacy groups often point out that police statistics are not completely accurate because many sexual offences go unreported.

According to Rape Crisis Cape Town, an organisation which supports victims of sexual violence, research has suggested that “if all rapes were reported, the figures could be as high as… 500 000” nationwide.

Organiser of the 2015 Silent Protest against Sexual Violence, Dr Lindsay Kelland also expressed concern about the reliability of statistics when it comes to the reporting of incidents of rape and sexual violence.

Kelland said due to the fear of being pitied, exposed or shunned as a result of the stigma around sexual violence, many victims choose not to report assaults to the police.

“I feel as though our in-house statistics [at Rhodes] would be even less reliable given a widespread lack of understanding on the part of Rhodes staff and students about how they go about reporting such incidents, who they report them to and the ramifications of doing so.

Over the years, these procedures have changed significantly. These changes have, I imagine, not only confused students but have also left the wardens and sub-wardens a little confused about what to do if a student comes to them with a problem.

On top of this, if one searches for this information on the Rhodes University website, one finds old policies and conflicting instructions,” Kelland said, suggesting that the university’s policies on sexual offences needed to be made clearer to students.

A new, “liberating” procedure

Currently, sexual offences are to be reported to the manager of Student Wellness, Nomangwana Mrwetyana. Mrwetyana became the manager of student wellness/harassment officer at the beginning of 2015, after the Division of Student Affairs went under review in 2014. Before this, harassment could be reported through different reporting officers within the university.

She said, “Initially complainants used to go to the Director of Student Affair’s office when the word was not yet out there.  I have seen a significant increase in the number of reports during term 2 [of 2015].

My role is to explain the various options and the complainant makes an informed decision after weighing the pros and cons of each option…The new procedure is quite liberating and gives the complainants the agency and autonomy to be able to still make choices about their lives as one is not forced into taking a particular direction.

This is obviously done in a caring manner and they are not forced to make hasty decisions.”

The scope of sexual assault at Rhodes remains unclear

Asked if the statistics on sexual assault or harassment cases recorded in the higher disciplinary reports presented an accurate idea of sexual violence at Rhodes, Mrwetyana declined to comment. The Registrar, Dr Stephen Fourie, also declined to comment.

Mrwetyana added, “I am however aware that some complainants prefer to only seek medical help, the Health Care Centre keeps such records when they are approached for medical intervention.”

Mrwetyana also keeps a confidential record of assaults reported to her. However, she said, “The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) code of conduct prohibits me from publishing such a record.”

Mrwetyana said that, in the instance that the alleged perpetrator is not a student or staff member of Rhodes University, the complainant can be referred to the police. In such situations, Mrwetyana added, the complainant would be referred to the Rhodes Legal Clinic for legal assistance.

She also said that if a student is accused of sexual assault or harassment, by two or more students, the matter would, with the complainants’ permission, be referred to the University prosecutors for investigation.

Shifting the focus from prosecution to prevention 

Although noting disappointment in the low levels of successful prosecutions reflected in the Higher Disciplinary reports, (2015) vice chairperson of Gender Action Project*, Sian Ferguson, said that the university administration needs to focus on being transparent about how they handle sexual offence cases.

She added, “I think an awareness initiative should be prioritised at the moment. Very few people truly understand the definition of sexual assault, and for that reason, it should be compulsory for all first-year students to attend a workshop on assault & the law during orientation.”

“There is no point in spending more resources or energy on punishing perpetrators when potential perpetrators aren’t made aware that their actions are wrong, and when victims don’t know how to report,” Ferguson said.

Rhodes University’s Policy on Eradicating Unfair Discrimination and Harassment is currently under review.

*Disclaimer: The author of this work is the 2015 chairperson of Gender Action Project society at Rhodes University.

Amandla.mobi: A South African advocacy platform for all

Advocacy organization, amandla.mobi is influencing how people organize, by creating accessible petitions and encouraging mobilization around social justice issues in South Africa.

Their campaigns are available in three languages and through web, mobile and mXit platforms. This accessibility is the key ingredient in their quest to “turn every cellphone into a democracy building tool”.

Their mobi platform, which can be accessed by dialling *120*4729# from any cellphone, enables citizens to partake in the organization’s petitions.

Screenshots of the mobi platform.
Screenshots of the mobi platform. Screenshot 1: mobi platform homepage, listing onging campaigns. Screenshot 2: language selection menu. Screenshot 3:  outline of the campaign against the police’s use of R-5 rifles. Screenshot 4: petition-signing menu

The pioneers of amandla.mobi, Koketso Moeti, Fezile Kanju and Paul Mason, all work full-time on this project.  Moeti, amandla.mobi’s Executive Director, describes their meeting as “a convergence of like-minded activists”.

They are motivated by their vision for a society where “you can take action on issues that affect you, and mobilize others in numbers, [driving] transparency and accountability,”.

Breaking down digital and language divides

Moeti says, “It shouldn’t be that activists with flushing toilets at home tell people without toilets in shacks why they should care about not having flushing toilets, because those affected often know best why it shouldn’t be so.

The “build it and they shall come” approach to open-data and citizen engagement tools may attract early adopters…but, citizens don’t think of tools, they think of problems and remedies.

A ‘tool’ only facilitates and if it’s value is not intuitive or explained, it’s useless.”

By running mobile and multi-lingual campaigns, amandla.mobi aims to reach as many people as possible, overcoming the issues of accessibility often linked to the digital sphere.

Moeti says, “Open data, citizen journalism and citizen empowerment tools won’t create the systemic change we need if they are only accessible to upper-class, urban, educated, English speaking activists.”

From skepticism to success

After 6 months of developing the platforms, amandla.mobi launched their first prototype mobile multilingual campaign in June 2014. Since then, they have gained a following of 13 000 people, with the mobi platform being their most popular.

“Many people thought it would not work and were skeptical that mobiles could be used this way…it took us a while to find the visionary donors we needed to get us started.” Moeti says.

Moeti says their greatest success is their campaign to secure access to free-to-air TV for low income households.

She says, “Government was going to force low-income households to pay R700 for a digital set top box, when we switch off analogue TV and were going to only subsidize households with an income lower than R2500.

Working with the SOS Coalition, our campaign managed to mobilize over 4000 poor and working class South Africans to sign the campaign from their cellphone and submit comments which were included in the submission made.”

Moeti says although government is mandated to run public consultations over decisions like this, these consultations are often poorly advertised and impractical, as they require people to send a fax or written letter.

“This time ’round decision makers were flooded with over 4000 submissions from people directly explaining why this is a problem.”

As a result, the government increased the income threshold to R3200, allowing an additional 1 million households access a free set-top box.

It’s an exciting victory,” Moeti says, “A testament to our theory of change that those most affected by decisions, when given a means to mobilize, can influence decision makers.”

Digital campaigns with real-life impacts

For the amandla.mobi creators, it’s crucial to create campaigns which include offline actions.

Their launch campaign, which advocated for the creation of a Youth desk in  Ekurhuleni Municipality, led to a meeting with the mayor. They arranged for those who had signed the petition to attend the meeting.

Currently, amandla.mobi is running a campaign to commemorate the upcoming 3rd anniversary of the Marikana massacre. They have invited members of the public to create their own events on August 16th to commemorate the anniversary.

Over 30 events have been confirmed nationwide.  To see a list of events, click this map:

map

To create an event in your area, sign up by clicking this image:

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Or click HERE to follow amandla.mobi’s updates on Facebook.

#TheEmptyChair & online backlash against anti-rape advocacy

This week, US-based New York magazine (NYmag) published an article featuring 35 women who’ve accused actor Bill Cosby of sexual assault.

The article spread like wildfire on social media, with many sharing the magazine’s powerful cover image:

NYmag

A big talking point was the empty chair pictured, which represents the 11 other women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault (and other potential victims), who are not featured in the article.

Unprecedented response

The article’s impact was bigger than the NYmag’s journalists imagined and soon, the hashtag #TheEmptyChair was trending on social media. #TheEmptyChair prompted several tweets from people expressing solidarity with victims of sexual violence.

Journalist Elon James White, who started #TheEmptyChair, received dozens of messages from victims of sexual violence, sharing their experiences.

Social media: A platform for the silenced

NYmag’s journalists commented on the increasing use of social media as a platform to speak up about rape, saying:

“… Online, there is a strong sense now that speaking up is the only thing to do, that a woman claiming her own victimhood is more powerful than any other weapon in the fight against rape.”

They also note that allegations regarding Bill Cosby’s conduct only gained momentum after a video clip of comedian Hannibal Burres speaking about the allegations went viral on social media last year.

Bill Cosby was accused of sexual assault as early as 2005 (click here for a full timeline of related events). However, even as more and more women came forward to speak about their assaults, many people still defended Cosby.

The drawbacks of anti-rape advocacy on social media

Hours after NYmag published the Cosby story, their website became inaccessible for hours after a suspected Denial of Service attack. A hacker who later took responsibility for the attack, claims the attack had nothing to do with the Cosby’s story.

Although it may be true that the motivations for the attack on NYmag’s website was unrelated to the Cosby feature, people who speak out about against sexual violence are often harassed or silenced online.

In 2014, feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, who vlogs about representations of women in gaming, fled from her home after receiving death threats.

South-African journalist and author, Charlene Smith has also encountered online harassment. She spoke to me about her experiences with a particularly relentless harasser on social media.

Smith says, “He first came after me on Facebook by messaging to my inbox crude and vicious notes. I blocked him.

He then began emailing me; I threatened to lay a charge and blocked him again. I discovered he was doing or had done the same to other outspoken rape survivors.”

Smith says the harassment continued even after she moved to the United States. This time, it was on Twitter.

She says, “He was lurking, waiting to come after me again with torrents of insults. I blocked him and reported him to Twitter. I know others who did the same.”

A complex problem

In dealing with online harassment, one challenge is that many victims do not know their attackers.  Another problem is that when online harassers are blocked, on sites like Twitter, they can start new accounts to continue the harassment.

Asked how she handles the harassment, Smith says, “Block, report and move on seems most sensible.”

She continues: “If you believe they have the capacity to track you down and physically harm you, and then go to the police, otherwise, put it down to one of the challenges of the infant internet age.”