TV Vanities, From Hlaudi To Trump

Why politics in South Africa and the United States demand satirical television

05/12/2016 05:56 SAST | Updated 05/12/2016 14:21 SAST

Look, it is not like this is the first time Hlaudi Motsoeneng has likened himself to The Messiah. Back in September the now fallen Chief Operations Officer (COO) of the South African National Broadcaster (SABC) said, "I believe in myself. I believe everywhere that I am I do miracles."

In November, outside a Cape Town court the beleaguered public figure (or miracle man) recalled Biblical teachings and named himself a saviour once more. News24's Jenni Evans reported Motsoeneng's words on saving South Africa.

"Because when you read the Bible, old people didn't believe that Jesus Christ was there to save them," he began. "I'm here to save South Africa and I have already demonstrated that I can save South Africa."

In the same week we saw video of a pastor spraying congregants with poisonous Doom insecticide I'm certain religious analogies are not the tree you want to be barking up, proverbially speaking.

South Africans interested in matters of government, politics and media will be well aware of Motsoeneng's antics as COO of the SABC. Some of his decisions carried overtly political ends, while others were in interests of developing local capacity in television production. He gave a visceral stink face sitting in a parliamentary meeting over the SABC after he invited himself along.

Certainly television is a powerful medium, with millions of South Africans watching local soapies, lottery shows, reality series and the news every night. Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd from the bad old days of oppressive, immoral government in this country recognised the power of television and kept South African eyes from the clutches of its technicolour screens.

"The government has to watch for any dangers to the people, both spiritual and physical," said Verwoerd of TV in 1964. It was more than a decade before TV sets were allowed into South African homes. At first the State considered TVs threatening devices, which would show multi-racial coupling (the horror) along with other supposedly wicked things, like Communism, homosexuality and Black Beauty.

Later the likes of nationalist Piet Meyer, former head of the Broederbond and SABC chairman, realised television was a medium to be manipulated for political ends. "We must harness all our communication media in a positive way in order to gather up Afrikaner national political energy in the struggle for survival in the future," he said in 1977.

This is all particularly interesting to me in light of a television event I attended in New York on Monday night. The International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences recognised South Africa's political satire Nation ZA. It was the only African show to garner a highly desirable International Emmy nomination. It's worth noting here the show never made it onto SABC airwaves, despite preliminary discussions between the creator of Puppet Nation ZA's predecessor ZA News and the national broadcaster.

The show's production company Both Worlds airs a number of satirical offerings online via their YouTube channel and on television. #CCNews with comedian Sne Dladla shows on Comedy Central and Puppet Nation ZA features on StarOne every Saturday night.

Several members of the show's creative team, including executive producer Thierry Cassuto, producer Tassyn Munro, writer Karen Jeynes and voice artist Aggrey Lonake, attended an International Emmys medal ceremony and the awards themselves in New York. The show lost out to Hoff the Record, which features David Hasselhoff in a very funny fictionalised account of his own life.

During the International Emmys gala creator of Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, Shonda Rhimes, received the Founders' Award. She took the opportunity to address identity groups fearful in the wake of Trump's election. "A lot of people right now are scared here, they're nervous," she said.

"People of colour, any woman who values her body and her choices, LGBTQ people, immigrants, Muslims, people with disabilities. They are afraid that their voices will no longer be heard, and they believe they are going to be silenced."

Rhimes spoke in the same venue where Donald Trump delivered his first speech as President elect of the United States on 9 November. A winning Donald Trump spoke of the "forgotten men and women" and what he would do for the United States.

Drawing on his work in business Trump said he had experience tapping potential in projects and people (based on his utterances about pussies, I suspect he prefers tapping something other than potential). "Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer," he promised.

As far as television goes, Trump has a jaw-dropping show reel of his own, thanks to fourteen seasons as host of The Apprentice. He is a showman, cognizant of his appearance on camera, and obsessed with the media's portrayal of his conduct. Recently, Trump held a meeting with television executives at his property on Fifth Avenue, the famous Trump Tower in Manhattan.

The day after Rhimes spoke of the power of television and hinted at her responsibility to millions of viewers, David Remnick of the New Yorker reported on Trump's meeting with media executives, including Gayle King (that's Oprah's bestie) and CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

Remnick wrote. "First came the obsessive Twitter rants directed at "Hamilton" and "Saturday Night Live." Then came Monday's astonishing aria of invective and resentment aimed at the media, delivered in a conference room on the twenty-fifth floor of Trump Tower."

Further to this Trump has publically berated journalists, networks, newspapers including the New York Times and sketch shows like Saturday Night Live (SNL) for their portrayal of him. Yet, the satirists continue their work, and generate often piercing political commentary with laughs.

Much of the most perceptive and accessible reporting on key news events I have seen in the last year has come from writing teams, producers and media professionals working in comedy. Think of John Oliver or Trevor Noah and what their work brings to the political debate.

Sure, South Africa's political satire Puppet Nation ZA lost out to an International Emmy on Monday night. It lost out to a man with a tan (at least the second time that has happened this year) but their satirical work continues unabated. As the team flew home, the producers were already checking in on this week's shows. As the adage says: the show must go on.

Several of the presenters and winners speaking at the International Emmys addressed the spirit of the times in American politics outright. They included host Alan Cumming who may be familiar to fans of the show The Good Wife. There is a great sense of a country in the throes of political change. At times like this we look to the satirists to provide analysis with a laugh.

Back home, with the likes of messianic Motsoeneng and the recent news of the largest trade union federation the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) openly endorsing Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa as the next head of the African National Congress (ANC) it seems there is no shortage of material for our satirists and comedians. What we lack is the will from our national broadcaster's executives to generate and air the stuff.