JOHANNESBURG - This is a funny time to be alive.

Nowhere more so, it seems, than here in South Africa. The nation's flair for gallows humor means that many South Africans' first instinct in tough times is to crack a joke.

This is, after all, hardly South Africa's first crisis. For months, the nation has struggled to keep a reliable electricity supply. Youth unemployment is in the double digits. Gender-based violence is an everyday occurrence. And, hanging ominously over everything is the dead-but-not-forgotten specter of the racist apartheid system.

'You're all dying today' 

In recent months, social media have been flooded with memes, skits and jokes about the growing threat of the novel coronavirus. Sometimes, the jokes also poke at South Africa's serious challenges, like its persistent inequalities.  

In one particularly pointed YouTube video, an overwhelmed public hospital nurse barks at patients: "OK, please do not panic, but you're all dying today."  

Mind you, South Africa is taking the viral threat seriously as its caseload vaults over 200. The nation has banned travelers from high-risk countries like Italy, China and the United States.

The new ban on large gatherings appears to have been heeded, with the normally buzzing streets of Johannesburg nearly deserted this week. The national airline on Friday shut down all international routes as airport officials in Johannesburg refused to let arriving foreigners disembark.  

That Big Ace breaks it down 

But for insight into why many South Africans seem to find the direst of situations so funny, I turned to an expert in all things social media: 20-year-old Kamva Mzinzi.  

Kamva Mzinzi (Photo Courtesy of Thabo Phora)

Mzinzi sometimes works with VOA as a production assistant with our Johannesburg cameraman, but his main passion lies in comedy and performing magic, under the alias That Big Ace. I value his company on video shoots because he is a ray of sunshine in an often dark world.

He says he's been amused by the flood of memes that juxtapose a very serious President Cyril Ramaphosa warning the nation about coronavirus with kicky music.

He explains: "Our president on Sunday, he said his speech, giving us tips about what to do and what to not do during this coronavirus," he said. "And he said one way of greeting other people is with the elbow. And people have been remixing that with songs, like, South African house music, and it's been really funny. I haven't been not laughing at that meme. Every time they put a different song I laugh harder."

'No choice but to keep laughing'

Humor also is an important part of the mainstream media. Political cartoonist Carlos Amato draws for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and the New Frame website.

"I suppose it's just the frequency of the challenges we face," he said by phone from his home. "We have no choice but to keep laughing. Because, you know, the whole history in this country is one long, terrible situation with occasional moments of uplifting hope. 

"So it's just something that South Africans do as soon as something ridiculous or ridiculously awful happens. We talk about it and we draw cartoons and we make memes and jokes and share hilarious videos and kind of celebrate the absurdity of life in South Africa."  

But, he said, there is a serious side to the jokes. They keep people thinking, and they make them feel better about the bleakness of the situation.  

"Quite often I have pangs of guilt at the triviality of what I do," he said. "But I suppose the role is to keep people expressing themselves and keep people thinking in fresh ways about the issues of the day. And with the coronavirus crisis, it's about making people feel like things are going to be OK because we're still in a position to laugh." 

At this stage in the spread of the virus, South Africa is roughly where Italy was two weeks ago. The nation's battle to stave off infection is likely to be long and difficult, littered with unforeseen challenges and punctuated with moments of triumph of the human spirit. It's the kind of grueling, trying, absurd situation where you don't know whether to laugh or cry.  

Here in South Africa, we choose to laugh.

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