Jacob Zuma's ANC a target for South African satirists

A wave of comedians are poking fun at the South African president before next week's poll

The smartly dressed audience filing into Johannesburg's Market Theatre is a mix of young and old, black and white. For the next two hours, their reactions will be a combination of laughter, murmurs of approval and sharp intakes of breath.

It is not a normal response to Macbeth, but this is no ordinary Macbeth. The Scottish play has become the South African play: for King Duncan, read Nelson Mandela; for Macbeth, his successor Thabo Mbeki; and for Macduff, the man set to become president of the country this week, Jacob Zuma.

MacBeki: A Farce to be Reckoned With lampoons the nation's leaders with fearless brio, likening the internecine warfare in the governing African National Congress to the bloody power struggle in Shakespeare's tragedy. It suggests that political satire is flourishing in South Africa in ways unthinkable elsewhere on the continent.

Comedians, TV shows and newspaper columnists and cartoonists have provided some of the most scathing criticism of Zuma and the ANC ahead of Wednesday's general election, the result of which is a foregone conclusion.

They have been compared to an unofficial opposition in an adolescent democracy. In MacBeki, the Mandela figure is bamboozled into giving up the throne by a magic iPod that exploits his weakness for pop stars such as Celine Dion. The Mbeki character, looking unnervingly close to the real thing, is a remote Shakespeare-quoting intellectual more concerned with power than the virus ravaging the country.

Nor is there any mercy for Zuma. Three years ago, while standing trial for the rape of an HIV-positive woman, the politician, who did not wear a condom, said the sex was consensual and he then took a shower to minimise his chances of contracting the virus. Zuma was acquitted of rape, but health campaigners were incensed - he is a former head of the National Aids Council.

At the Market Theatre last week there were howls of knowing laughter from the audience when Zuma's stage persona was asked: "Did you protect your penetrative member? Your machine gun?" He replied: "I have no need of a plastic bag. After the act, I took a shower."

The play's author is Pieter-Dirk Uys, a gay performer whose other shows include Elections & Erections. It features his cross-dressing alter ego, Evita Bezuidenhout, a politicised version of Dame Edna Everage who will interview Desmond Tutu on election night.

"Satire is not a very familiar alphabet in Africa," he said. "In the last 15 years of democracy, I've been celebrating my freedom; we tend to forget how free we are and how far we've come. But if Zuma tries to curtail freedom of speech, he's going to be busy, because we'll bite him whenever we can."

Uys, 63, believes he reaches beyond the disaffected members of the white middle class. He travels around the country visiting schools to raise awareness of Aids. "The kids in townships react because their parents and grandparents have seen me on TV. I get a lot of reaction from non-white people."

Perhaps the biggest thorn in the side of the powerful is Zapiro, a cartoonist whose real name is Jonathan Shapiro. "Under apartheid, cartoons I did and newspapers I worked for were banned," Shapiro said. "But I've had a tremendous amount of freedom in the past 15 years to publish cartoons that other cartoonists and editors from around the world have told me they would struggle to get published, even in democratic societies."

Shapiro's contributions repeatedly depicted a shower head above Zuma, constantly reminding readers of the HIV gaffe, and have become a popular and much imitated running joke that infuriates the ANC president.

Shapiro, 50, said: "I always think of Steve Bell [of the Guardian] and his cartoons of John Major wearing his underpants outside his trousers. When I first put the shower on Zuma's head, I didn't think of it as a permanent fixture. But it had a very positive response and I decided to keep it there. I'm amazed that it's been talked about in high circles."

But he is fighting two lawsuits from Zuma over cartoons relating to the rape trial and a dramatic depiction of the rape of Justice. His planned Spitting Image-style satirical puppet show was recently cancelled by the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation). There are wider fears that a Zuma presidency could threaten press freedom. A recent ANC plan for a media appeals tribunal provoked an outcry from editors.

Last week the SABC promised its Special Assignment strand would look at the state of political satire and ask: "Is a slow, chilling effect taking hold of political humour in South Africa?" But the show was cancelled - for legal reasons.


David Smith in Johannesburg

The GuardianTramp

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