Ricky Gervais, controversial British comedian and notorious Emmys host, infamous for his dark humour and cutting jabs, has this to say about laughter in hard times: “If you can't joke about the most horrendous things in the world, what's the point of jokes? What’s the point in having humour? Humour is to get us over terrible things.”
Gervais might be the king of gallows humour, but if a country wore the crown it would have to be South Africa. Our nation has had its fair share of terrible times, from the atrocities of apartheid to the current challenges we face – widespread corruption, crime and unemployment, to name a few. We can’t even keep the lights on for more than a week at a time, for Zuma’s sake. But through it all, we’ve kept smiles on our faces, hilarious headlines on our front pages and one-liners popping across the Twitterverse.
To truly get a feel for our country’s unique ability to laugh when others would cry, let’s look to the unofficial voice-of-the-nation: South African-born fast-food chain Nando’s. In 2016, South Africa was in the midst of its biggest corruption scandal to date: our then-president Jacob Zuma was heavily implicated in the Gupta family-led looting of our nation’s resources, now known as “State Capture”. As the scandal was uncovered, it became apparent that the country had lost billions to this criminal enterprise. Others may have sat back and kept quiet, stoically waiting until the whole thing had blown over (if it ever did) – but not Nando’s. Because that’s not the Saffa way. Instead, they released a video, equal parts hilarious and heartfelt, that united South Africans of all colours and creeds by expressing a sentiment we all shared: “South Africans. We can fix our s#*t.” The ad referenced a string of momentous occasions for our country – both good and bad – and expressed to perfection how we have a habit of pulling ourselves through hard times with a smile, coming out stronger on the other side.
Now, not to blow our own vuvuzela, but were another country to experience what have – with a new, world-shattering headline coming to the fore on a near daily basis? They’d be curled up under the dining room table, miserably sucking maple syrup straight from the bottle. No offence, Canada.
Don’t believe me? Just cast your memory back to 2018, when US king of cool Pharrell Williams toured our sunny shores. One morning, just as the sun was just peeking its head over the picturesque landscape, the musician known for being “Happy” was introduced to SA’s ubiquitous Hadeda Ibis, a bird with a voice as loud as a chainsaw and as beautiful as its beak is small. Now, while I myself have been known to chase these annoying avians away in the early hours of the morning, I almost always do it with a smile, as there’s something unexpectedly endearing about these most irritating of birds: all they do is laugh. In the most obnoxious way possible, they are a true reflection of the cackle that lurks just below the surface every day in South Africa, and in a country so diverse, one thing that we all have in common is that we are tormented by these birds.
And then came Covid-19. The pandemic of 2020/2021 put enormous strain on almost every person on the planet, but for South Africa – with our under-resourced healthcare system and widespread inequality – the danger was understandably terrifying. Did that stop us from laughing our way through the tough times? You best believe not!
When doom and gloom began to settle over us, we welcomed it like a well-worn blanket, smiling as we snuggled deeper and sniggered from meme to joke to skit to song… with none tickling our fancy more than when Max Hurrell’s remixing of government minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (yep, former spouse of THAT Zuma) in her now-infamous decree banning the selling of tobacco products, “When people zol” (“zol” being a hand-rolled cigarette). This dopest of dope tracks had everyone – including the more-than-a-little miffed smokers – singing along. Even the minister herself saw the bright side of the burning debate.
Now, there’s much speculation as to how South African citizens have the gumption to giggle through challenges like high-schoolers at a sleepover. Reasons abound, from coping mechanisms hard-wired into our fledgeling democracy to an attempt to retain agency in a world that’s fundamentally out of our control. But the cause isn’t really what’s important. As we take this trip around the globe, being inspired by one another’s stories and learning from other cultures, if there’s one piece of advice that South Africa has to offer it’s this: “Why cry, when you could laugh instead?”