Comedian Conrad Koch, who once also faced allegations of using blackface, reflects on Leon Schuster, race and the politics of privilege.’I grew up loving Leon Schuster, he’s an icon of our racist society’.
When Showmax announced that it would be removing “racially insensitive” content from its offering, including many Leon Schuster movies, the public response was uproarious. While many applauded this decision, Schuster’s fans, black and white, don’t feel his portrayal of black characters – in full blackface, with hyperbolized stereotypical African accents, often referred to as ‘blaccent’ – is racist. In fact Schuster himself has said: “I really don’t want to harm anyone. I don’t want us to laugh at each other, I want us to laugh with each other”.
If you don’t know Leon Schuster’s work, the basics are that he’s a white comic actor who made a huge name for himself in South Africa, during apartheid and after, doing candid camera type pranks. He’s created hit movies, many involving him playing a black character, or, in his Mr. Bones movies, a white character with a ‘blaccent’. His Mama Jack character is no doubt in many ways very transphobic and sexist.
I grew up loving Leon Schuster. He’s an icon of our racist society. In fact, unlearning the racism, unpacking what apartheid taught me as a white South African, is something I still work at. I am still a racist and get up every day and try to do better. I know this will take the rest of my life. However, I stopped loving most of Leon Schuster’s work years ago, and having made some of the same racist choices he has, am both the best and worst person to comment.
“It’s not racist if we’re all laughing”
We need to start with the argument that it’s not racist if we are “all laughing together”. This argument is in itself racist and shallow. The reason it has so much traction is that in South Africa, apartheid denial is so normal, it’s basically a way of life.
Blackface has been part of white supremacy’s lexicon for centuries. The laws that oppressed African Americans post-slavery were called “Jim Crow”, named after a blackface character played by a white performer, called Jim Crow. Blackface confirmed oppressive white racist stereotypes of black people as lazy, aggressive, hyper-sexualized, untrustworthy, and savage, etc.
The impact of seeing black people as less human and therefore less deserving of human rights is literally that black people die. Whether it’s by police brutality, like Collins Khoza or George Floyd, or normalised structural racism, like Michael Komape, who drowned in a pit latrine installed at his school.
I am not saying Leon Schuster’s jokes are killing black people. I am saying that portrayals of black people as less than normalises it, and has done so for centuries.
Most people assume that we just are unique individuals whose sense of humour is a product of our personalities alone. This is untrue. Anthropologically, humour is a social event. It is something learned through upbringing as a way to enforce group norms, to let group members know who has “in” and “out” group status, and control people who break group rules.
In South African we, as middle class and white people, generally find comedy stereotypes of typically working class/second language black, Indian and coloured English accents absolutely hilarious. Listen to a humorous radio ad next time you hear one. In general the white/Model C accent will deliver the payload of important content and the “racialised” accent will be what we laugh at (or the overly effeminate gay stereotype accent, in Netflorist’s case).
In comedy clubs you’ll get a giggle at a Sea Point stereotype, but a well-placed eish or aweh will get a roar. You don’t even need jokes, as the white South African born, Australia-based YouTuber, Kevin Fraser, has shown. You can literally just portray black people as buffoons and middle-class South Africans will love you for it.
And the reason for that, in my view, is apartheid. Similarly, as far as I am concerned, white comedians doing black accents for laughs is blackface, with or without the make-up. And to be honest, the portrayal of Afrikaans people by English comedians has often also been deeply problematic.
We need to realise that humour’s power lies in its ability to frame aggression as play. People can’t get offended because it implies that they are humourless, even if the joke makes them feel isolated, unwelcome and is a clear social statement of who counts. It’s not play for them, but pointing it out means breaking the social fabric and risking ostracism, for people who already often lack group centrality.
The Case Against Leon Schuster
Of course, as always, it is also not this simple. Leon Schuster’s core product is an easy shtick. You just make a black character look foolish and, like comedy heroine, South Africans socialised by years of apartheid bigotry will lap it up.
A way comedians globally explain it is in terms of “punching up” and “punching down”. If we laugh at people who, in general terms, have less economic and social power, people of colour, women, gay people, poor people, etc, it is easier to get a laugh, but it’s also, usually, bad comedy.
Leon Schuster’s work becomes complex when his earlier Candid Camera gags are bought into consideration. The candid camera jokes created some truly great moments showing up South African foibles and prejudices. However, as the brilliant Cape Town comedian, Stuart Taylor, points out it was only afterwards that we realised that Leon Schuster’s black candid camera characters would be let off by the white candid camera targets when he revealed himself to be a white man in disguise.
Black people couldn’t do that. The violence, usually averted and diffused when Schuster’s whiteness is revealed, is part of the joke.
This is where I need to turn the gaze onto myself. I too have used racial stereotypes. I have since learnt not to. Chester Missing was not intended to be that. Chester Missing was a conduit to channel my learnings from my Master’s Degree in anthropology using satire.
The intent was not to hyperbolise his identity. He was meant to hold me to account for my privilege, and to never make his accent or stereotypes the joke, which as far as I was concerned (my opinions on these things change daily) was the cornerstone of what made blackface hurtful – it otherises. It also silences black people, so I am not off the hook.
In fact because of Chester’s progressive politics (go watch a Jeff Dunham clip if you need a comparison) it never occurred to us it was blackface, which of course, it is. White man, black puppet. I think you’re being spectacularly disingenuous if you leave it at that – because that black puppet stood against racism. To the point that my street address got put online and my family were threatened. This is no Ahmed the Dead Terrorist. But, being nice doesn’t mean it’s not furthering white supremacy, as Steve Biko warned. I struggle with that dynamic on a daily basis.
When the question of blackface was brought up after the ANC conference in Mangaung, we deliberated for weeks, and under the guidance of the team at Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola, and Kagiso Lediga, decided to keep him brown. I had not intended for Chester Missing to appear on his own on TV – that kind of just happened. In time I changed his voice to be closer to my own accent, and dubbed over his own LNN interviews to avoid any obviously racialised inflections. I also made the actual puppet so pale as to white passing. The intention was to make his racial claim in political position to me alone, to subvert as much of the appropriation as possible.
I also dealt with it in my live shows by making Chester call me out for it, to subvert it as much as possible in the dialogue. My shows were already tough on apartheid privilege. I scared a lot of white people. Of course that doesn’t mean it isn’t blackface, or that it could continue indefinitely. The path to seeing what is right was not, and is still not easy.
There were three problems with Chester Missing being brown.
Firstly, whether I was driving a progressive agenda or not, a white guy with a black puppet is racist. What right do I have to speak for black people? But if I call out racism, like in my current show, is that also speaking for black people? I know the racists love telling me that it is.
Secondly, while I wasn’t making his identity the joke, coloured people have been treated as exaggerated stereotypes, as jovial and other, etc, by white people for generations. There is no way I was not adding to that, although it was not obvious to me at the time.
Thirdly, the narrative of Chester calling me out for blackface was played out. I was done with that conversation and the only way to move on was to either cancel Chester or make him white, as I explained in detail at the time. Chester is my comedy voice. It’s how I would sound if I did stand up. A new character would sound like him.
Another reason I made Chester white is because continuously self-reflecting at that level is incredibly draining. I needed to be able to do jokes that were just for fun, and, there was no way to morally do that with a black puppet. He became white in 2015 as part of a show called Missing, where he accused me of making him black to get gigs, and dealt with the question of appropriation. He’s been calling me out for my privilege as a white puppet ever since.
I completely apologise for thinking I had the right to appropriate coloured identity, and for assuming to speak for black people, however much I angle it as satire. Of course the more important question of what privilege I gleaned from it needs to be subverted and given back. I have been doing that for years, and will continue to. Time and time again black people are not seen, and are created through white eyes.
I know Rob Van Vuuren apologised for playing a black character in Leon Schuster’s Schucks! Your Country Needs You. I also think that apology eventually means fuck all, other than the fact that it means a certain audience will love him less. I think it’s an important statement that he did so, and am amazed at the many white people who seem to be more offended by the apology than by the blackface itself!
But it is not enough, for either of us. Rob and I already have the privilege of apartheid, and now get privilege for pointing out our privilege. White people should not be congratulated for not being racist. Not being racist should be normal.
Our role now as white comedians, as far as I am concerned, is to put our white audiences on notice. To let them know that we are not their allies in race, that we as white South Africans need to face what apartheid gave us, and use our talents to help other white people do the same, to dismantle the social networks of privilege that sustain the status quo. We need to do so with humility and kindness. It is possible to change.
It’s hard work, and it’s often terrifying, but it’s nothing compared to what black South Africans have gone through, and are going through. The fluffiness of rainbow nation nation-building needs to be updated with something far more rigorous. We must bring people together, but not sell out to the economic power of easy laughs. I am hoping Leon Schuster will do the same, that he will learn that his success is a product of gaps he got because of apartheid and his skin colour and that he will apply his comic skills to helping us do better to face our history and subsequent current inequality, so we can actually one day “laugh together”.
I also hope that MultiChoice will do much more than performatively kick blackface movies off Showmax, but with their historical ties to Naspers, don’t hold your breath.
– Conrad is South Africa’s top comedy ventriloquist and you can view his work on this website.
– Arts24 is part of Media24 which is owned by Naspers.