Comrades, Let Us Have Levity

2013-02-04 07:24

The way the humourist Casey Motsisi tells it, the incident occurred one Joburg afternoon in 1955, when he, the writer Henry Nxumalo, and another friend, were on their way to a shebeen in Malay Camp, a township, for a glass of something.

“As we walked,” he recalled years later, “an African tore past us, running, perhaps, to catch a train. A white man coming from the opposite direction bullied him out of the pavement into the street by jabbing him viciously in the ribs with his elbow.”

As you and I would, the three stopped to stare; the odds were favouring the African: he was ‘young, powerfully built’, the other man no more than a ‘tottering elder in his late fifties’. Motsisi expected the black youth to fly into a rage.

“But he did not do anything like that. Instead he spun around, looked at the white man, and said: ‘Ai, this European is fond of playing,’ and trotted away.”

Unwarranted bigotry, acquiescence, levity — we know the African’s response left Motsisi ‘disappointed’, but such were the harsh oddities of apartheid that soon, in his columns at the Drum magazine, the journalist came to regard such reactions very proper. So proper, this young writer now ventures, that a modern reader must acknowledge (as validation for its therapeutic capacity) that Motsisi’s humour probably sustained him — just as much of his Drum coterie, including Can Themba, Nat Nakasa, and Es’kia Mphahlele, left for exile — until his death at age 45, in 1977.

This says a lot about the need for humour.

It makes, moreover, a case for levity.

Lampooning . . . the sort of tragicomic-politicised sketch as Motsisi’s “If Bugs Were Men”, in which with much talk on filling up on blood and lean times when prisons weren’t as full of black men, the two most intellectual ‘mosquitos’ (my amendment) in Africa deliberate on their political ambitions and a future where the ecological hierarchy has been turned upside down.

If anything, the recent controversy surrounding FNB’s “You can help” campaign — in which the governing ANC accused the banking giant of “hiding behind innocent faces of young people” to push a “treasonous”, “political statement” — does not augur well for those of us who take joy in being able to get the political joke.

Writers of parody are, to be clear, journalism’s social workers. Their satire, when a good night’s sleep fails to purge one of daily discomforts, is, if not a tonic intrusion into our lives, a means to ‘mete out punishment’ (writer Joyce Carol Oates) to our tyrants, ‘turning laughter into a weapon’ (critic Mikhail Bakhtin). In need of evidence, we look no further than Motsisi, whose brand of public journalism can be glimpsed in Jonathan Shapiro, Pieter-Dirk Uys, the ever-resourceful Ben Trovato); humour, Motsisi showed us, could be, as scholar Bruno van Dyk says, a ‘fitting reaction to the madness’.

To be certain, there is ample proof to extrapolate which side Motsisi would belong to in the current struggle to do away with the “secrecy bill”, which threatens the output of humourists as much as it does the work of investigative journalists. Sure, Motsisi must have known the usefulness of humour could only go so far — he was, as he would say, one of those who were always “doing battle with the bottles”, no doubt a contributor to his early call to the deathbed — and that the gory fight for total freedom for black Africans could never be a laughing matter.

But see, all that I have said here I have done so only because the story of the white man unkindly jabbing at the black man served to underline, in Motsisi’s mind, a laudable rationale. Even though it had occurred years before he finally wrote about it, Motsisi could not forget the piece of wisdom with which he walked away from the incident, wisdom he decided to share at length in his article, an article that — despite all of the days’ untold cruelties on native Africans — bore the headline, “May We Never Lose That Sense of Humour.”

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