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Words that harm or heal


One TV show we enjoyed watching was In Living Colour, a comedy show that exposed and parodied racial rifts.

Picture: Richard Drew/AP Photo.

If you didn’t know us you would have wondered about my friends and I. For one thing, it probably didn’t seem as if we even liked each other very much.

There were three of us who would sometimes trade insults and laugh our heads off. And the thing is, we’d laugh harder the more offensive the insults. I suppose we could do this simply because we were friends and we knew that – despite the seemingly hateful things we said – we were only joking.

Today we are older and we are still friends; and these days, thankfully, we don’t insult each other any more. We are more mature now, and we have much more important discussions, like speaking about the best ointment for joint pain For the record, it’s the two of them that need the ointments, because unlike me, they are creaky old farts.

OK, I confess, we’d poke fun at other people too. But not so that they could hear us. I don’t know why we did it. Maybe we were immature.

One TV show we enjoyed watching was In Living Colour, a comedy show that exposed and parodied racial rifts.

In one especially offensive sketch, a white estate agent is showing an apartment to people of different races and ethnicities. And to each group she presents herself differently; telling the black man that there’s a place that sells fried chicken nearby, she tells the Asian couple that Chinatown is just a few blocks away, although they’re Korean, and to the Indian man, she says that the one window points to Mecca yes, to the Indian man.

I have also heard some offensive things said about coloureds, but when Mark Lottering says it, it’s hilarious, because so often we have to admit that it’s true.

Riaad Moosa is another maniac.

“During apartheid, the people at Home Affairs would make up questions to find out if you’re coloured or Muslim,” says Moosa. “They would ask you, ‘Do you like samoosas or koeksisters?’ If you said ‘samoosas’ you’d be sent to Lenasia, and if you said ‘koeksisters’ you were sent to ‘Ennerdale’.”

Meanwhile, Chester Missing is a ‘coloured’ puppet, operated by white comedian Conrad Koch. Some people found this offensive, saying it was just another form of ‘blackface’. But according to Kagiso Lediga, executive producer of the show Late Nite News With Loyiso Gola: “We the black writers are the voice behind the puppet – we write the script. We have the agency, not the white handler.”

It seems as if there is a fine line for comedians, but most people understand that when comedians speak about racism, though they are prodding a tender spot, they are more focused on healing through laughter than harming through bigotry. Yet even comedians can become a bit overwhelmed.

I read recently that Dave Chappelle said that he stepped away from his Comedy Central show in 2005 because he became tired of seeing white people in the audience laughing a little too hard at his jokes as if his comedy was giving them permission to mock black people.

And then recently, Adam Catzavelos, the man who caused an uproar in 2018 after a video emerged of him using the k-word while on holiday in Greece, landed up in hot water. I am tempted to suspect that he too was trying to be ‘funny’.

Catzavelos is facing the possibility of being slapped with a hefty fine. What concerns me is that to prevent South Africans from saying despicable things there are threats of fines and even jail sentences.

However, fear of punishment should not be the motive for avoiding offensive language, because all that will do is drive the resentment undercover, and we’ll have a society who say all the proper things, but, deep down, despise each other behind our fake smiles.

I wonder if the day will ever come where South Africans will be able to sit together, insult each other, and laugh our heads off.

Or even better, if we can grow up enough to discuss different balms and remedies to take away the pain that everyone in our country is obviously experiencing.