JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - This is Part One of a five-part series on South African comedians Continue to Parts: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5
The audience inside the Johannesburg theater cackled as a bombastic orchestral version of Uganda’s national anthem assaulted their ears. This was followed by a booming announcement: “He’s the most successful comedian to ever come out of Kampala, via Krugersdorp and [the northern Johannesburg district] Fourways. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mr. David Kibuuka!”View full gallery
A smiling Kibuuka, tall and dressed in casual pants and a white collared shirt, then ambled clumsily onstage. From the riotous applause it was immediately clear that he was no amateur struggling to break into South Africa’s entertainment scene.
The crowd had recognized the man who arrived in Krugersdorp, a small town outside Johannesburg, with his parents as a “petrified” 10-year-old from the Ugandan capital 18 years ago, as one of South Africa’s foremost comedians.
As someone with a keen eye to lingering class and race issues, Kibuuka launched into banter about political rallies in his adopted homeland. He focused initially on supporters of the ruling party, the African National Congress, or ANC, which is backed largely by South Africa’s black majority.
“They can’t just shout ‘A-N-C! A-N-C!’ all day long. That would be boring. So then…they start shouting things that blacks can instinctively relate to, like –
‘I say chicken, you say wings – Chicken! Wings!” Kibuuka screamed.
He then turned his attention to South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, or DA, which is supported by many of the country’s white citizens.
“If it’s a DA rally, people will shout, ‘I say chicken, you say a la king!’ Kibuuka announced in a polished accent designed to mimic that of a privileged white South African of English ancestry. He then added, “I don’t even know what chicken a la king is! I don’t know any black people who eat chicken a la king. What is it?”
An audience member responded, “It’s chicken in a white sauce.” As the audience erupted in laughter at the wordplay with its racial undertones, Kibuuka froze and stared at them with a goofy, bemused expression on his face.
Important political satire
While he has in recent years established himself as one of South Africa’s finest standup comedians, Kibuuka has also starred in several popular television shows and films in the country.
He played the lead in the hit 2006 South African film comedy Bunny Chow, which won awards at film festivals in Los Angeles, Toronto, Melbourne and Cape Town. The film centers on the adventures of three comedians going to South Africa’s biggest rock music festival.
Kibuuka shares the stage regularly with leading international comedians around the world, like at the Heavyweight Comedy Jam in London.
“But my favorite places to perform are in South Africa – because there’s always so much beer around. South Africans can drink beer like nowhere else on this planet. That’s why I love them so much,” he deadpanned in an interview with VOA following a recent performance.
Much of Kibuuka’s work lampoons greedy and corrupt African politicians.
“Look, political satire is healthy for any society,” he said. He’s convinced that it’s essential for African comedians to satirize their governments on stage and on TV and film.
“If white comedians do it, especially white foreign comedians, black audiences would switch off. They wouldn’t listen to the comedy and the underlying messages; they’d just see another white person on stage criticizing blacks. I’m not saying that’s right, but that’s what would happen,” Kibuuka insisted.
Late Night News
To millions of South Africans he’s instantly recognizable as the pompous, cynical foreign correspondent on the e.tv comedy show, The Late Night News, in which Kibuuka stars with fellow comedian Loyiso Gola.
“Dave the reporter” is embittered, sarcastic and seems to dislike everything he witnesses, and everyone he meets, in the foreign cities he visits on assignment. Gola, as the TV news presenter, begins most shows by asking Kibuuka’s character, “So, Dave, how is it there?” to which the foreign correspondent responds with a four letter expletive to reflect his disdain for the place.
In one episode “Dave” reported from Nigeria’s capital, Lagos, where he’d just met President Goodluck Jonathan.
“He really does have good luck. He gets to the top in lucky ways,” said ‘Dave.’ “Like when he was the deputy governor of Bayelsa state, the then-governor was taken to court, so guess who was promoted to governor? Goodluck Jonathan. Then when he was deputy president, the then-president got sick for six months, then kicked the bucket. So guess who was promoted to president? Goodluck Jonathan.”
Kibuuka’s character “Dave” also jokes about Nigeria’s reputation for corruption, especially fraudsters who engage in “419”, the Nigerian Criminal Code name for confidence scams. Tabloids are full of stories of unsuspecting foreigners who are lured by on-line appeals to send money into what are bogus accounts, or to enter into lucrative, but non-existent, investments.
Asked if he had offended South Africa’s large Nigerian expat population, Kibuuka replied, “Not at all. Nigerians are very funny people and they enjoy laughing at themselves. In fact, many still stop me in the street and tell me I must visit their country more often. They even tell me what jokes I should use about Nigerians….”
All those free burgers….
The Late Night News has made Kibuuka famous in South Africa, but he initially didn’t want the “Dave” role. He joked that e.tv then attempted to bribe him with an iPod, a book, and a DVD featuring American rocker Jon Bon Jovi, to appear on the show.
“I was like, ‘Why did you give me this DVD?’ And then they were like, ‘We thought you liked rock music.’”
Kibuuka said he then discussed the show with its producer, who informed him that the first episode would involve “Dave, a foreign correspondent” traveling to India to report on that country’s chaotic hosting of the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
“Then I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go to India [because I hate it]’ ….And he was like, ‘Then be like that! Be the person who hates his job and hates everything about this whole thing.’ Then it just freed me, because I was like, ‘Ok, cool.’”
Kibuuka is no stranger to hating a job. Before becoming a celebrity he worked as a waiter at one of South Africa’s leading franchise family restaurants.
“It was very prestigious,” he said mockingly. “The free burgers, the well-behaved children.… People talk about mushroom sauce – mushroom sauce was an everyday thing in my life! I took it for granted, but that had to come to an end….”
Asked whether he was fired from his restaurant job, Kibuuka replied, “No. I was relieved of my duties.… But I can’t say why.”
Class and race satire
The unique interactions between all the different races, classes and nationalities in South Africa, which is still struggling to come to terms with its divisive apartheid past, provide rich material for Kibuuka’s satiric comedy.
“With some of the stuff I do, if a white comedian did it he’d be called a racist. If a white guy stands on a stage and speaks in a common black South African accent about his love of fried chicken, he’d be called a racist. But when I do it, blacks in the audience crack up laughing and it resonates with them,” he explained.
Kibuuka maintained that his work is about “humanizing and not denigrating” people of different races and classes, and “freeing” them to laugh at themselves and at one another’s habits and “stereotypes” without humiliating or belittling them.
“Stereotypes are not wrong; it’s just that we use stereotypes in the wrong way,” he stated. “Like [a stereotype] is black people love chicken. And people go, ‘Black people love chicken, black people love chicken’ [as if that’s a bad thing]. Yes, but the thing is that if you don’t love chicken then there’s something wrong with you because chicken tastes good!”
Kibuuka continued, “I don’t like it when white people mock black people’s love of fried chicken, as if that’s such a bad thing. And I don’t like it when black people mock white South Africans’ love of [upmarket store] Woolworths, as if that’s such a bad thing. I don’t like it when stereotypes are used as negatives.”
Kibuuka said the fact that he’s from Uganda gives him a special advantage when doing comedy about relations between South Africans of different races.
“It’s almost like I’m observing the interactions between all of these things, and I’m sort of in it – but not in it. It allows me to be like a referee sometimes, which is pretty cool.”
The comedian said he’s regarded as a foreigner wherever he goes – even in Kampala.
“It’s crazy. I’ve been in South Africa for 18 years and I’ve been out of Uganda for 20. I’m now a South African [citizen] but to South Africans I am not a South African person…. Ugandan people also say, ‘That guy’s not a Ugandan person.’”
Kibuuka said when he returns to Uganda, and observes the rituals and customs of life in the East African nation, he often steps back and thinks, “What the hell is going on here?”
He reflected, “I’m now an observer everywhere. People will go, ‘But you don’t belong anywhere.’”
However, he considered this sense of not belonging anywhere to be a “good thing. It allows me to be a chameleon, sort of….”
Ignorance about Africa
In his work Kibuuka sometimes jokes about the general South African populace’s lack of knowledge about the rest of Africa. He said when he tells South Africans that he’s from Uganda, some –who don’t know Uganda is an Anglophone country – reply, “Oh wow, so you speak French?”
He said South Africans generally don’t know much about the rest of Africa partly because of their country’s apartheid past.
“For a long time South Africans didn’t see themselves as Africans – both black and white South Africans. It [South Africa] was so isolated,” commented Kibuuka.
“South Africa was a pariah state, cut off from the rest of Africa. Also, it was so rich that it could afford to be isolated from the rest of the continent. And the white rulers didn’t want to be associated with black Africa anyway. All of this reinforced South African ignorance about the rest of Africa, and we’re still dealing with the consequences.”
He pointed out that the fact that South Africa is vastly more developed in terms of infrastructure and technology than the rest of Africa tends to “lend an air of superiority” to some in the economic powerhouse, who then brand the rest of the continent inferior and not worth knowing about.
But Kibuuka said the dramatic influx of people from all corners of Africa into South Africa in the past two decades means that the country is now “irreversibly” part of the continent…. Even if some of its citizens choose to ignore this.
“Things are improving. I’ve met many South African kids who are very accepting of Africans from elsewhere,” said Kibuuka.
A definitive aspect of the comedian’s work is his friendly interaction with individual members of his audiences, who he often invites to participate directly in his shows.
At a recent performance he asked a young man in the audience, “Are you a ginger?” in reference to the man’s red hair. When the man replied in the affirmative, Kibuuka said, “Recently I realized that white people are so prejudiced that if there were no black people, gingers would be considered the black people of the white race.”
The audience, including the red-haired gentleman, howled with laughter.
Kibuuka said he singles out members of his audiences for attention in a “non-threatening” way and never to insult or to degrade them.
“I don’t like antagonizing audiences because I like [my show] to be a pleasant experience. See my name – Dave? Dave is your [friendly] neighbor. I like that feeling of people seeing me as just a regular guy up there on stage.”
He said he communicates directly with an individual member of an audience only when he has a “very deep sense” that it’ll have a positive effect on his show.
“So when I talk to the audience member and we’re together as a team, it makes the audience feel better, because they’re expecting me to make him feel bad and then the audience steps away…. But when I’m like, ‘No, we’re together,’ but I’m also teasing [him]; it’s also a teasing thing, then it’s a better experience for everybody.”
Kibuuka said when he talks directly with a specific audience member, people experiencing his show gain more confidence in him as a comedian.
“It demonstrates to them that you are prepared to deal with that person’s response, no matter what it may be. You’re putting yourself on the line as a performer. Because you have to deal with their response, there’s an element of spontaneity that you’re keeping because they could say anything.”
Kibuuka constantly emphasized that he never expected the success he’s achieved so far in comedy in South Africa.
“Life is being so good to me and comedy is being so good to me, and that’s because I’ve found who I am as a comedian and I’m respecting my audiences,” he said.
Listen to report on comedian David Kibuuka