A CLAMMY, expectant silence gripped the audience. After half an hour of increasingly raucous laughter, the banter had just swung abruptly into what you might call emphatically awkward territory.“So,” said David Kibuuka, standing at the microphone with a raffish grin at a recent comedy night in a Johannesburg bar. “What if Nelson Mandela died right now?”
It takes a certain nerve for anyone to raise that particular subject in public in South Africa these days. The 94-year-old anti-apartheid icon’s health is shrouded in a reverent, protective cloud of discretion.
But Kibuuka, a 32-year-old Ugandan-born comedian, relishes the fine art of tightrope walking.
“Mandela dying? People are just going ‘please let this be funny so you don’t offend my soul’. And I like that feeling,” said Kibuuka, relaxing over a coffee a few days later, having swung his audience back onside with accomplished ease.
“That’s the thing about comedy –– you can say the craziest things and put a laugh at the end and (the audience) can’t do anything.”
South Africa’s turbulent past, enduring racial complexities, and gaffe-prone political elites offer plenty of raw material for satire and comedy, as well as plenty of opportunities to cause offense.
And Kibuuka –– the only, he believes, foreign African comedian in the country –– often likes to play on his outsider status to hold a mirror up to his adoptive nation and make jokes about things that other comics might ignore or avoid.
Not that he’s making a big deal of it. “Basically, whatever’s funny…” But he insists there are “no taboos”.
“Comedy is the one (thing) that allows us to do the racial thing. That’s why comedy here is so race based. It’s the only outlet where people can legitimately laugh without being taken to court,” he said.
“But I’m not antagonistic. Even in life. I want people to have a good time. That’s why I’m ‘Dave’ on stage –– like, ‘Dave the neighbour –– can I borrow your lawn mower?’”
David’s father, a gynaecologist, brought the family from Kampala, Uganda, to South Africa in the early 1980s.
“I was coming from Idi Amin to apartheid, so it was going to be a chaotic time,” he said.
But after endless moves, to new countries and new schools, “things stabilised, like the history of this place stabilised,” and soon the head boy had become a financial studies graduate and, with indecent speed, a successful stand-up comedian –– “I’ve never had a job. I’ve earned all my income from comedy.”
He now has a regular spot as a roving, often ranting, foreign correspondent on South Africa’s loose approximation of the US satirical news show The Daily Show.
The show allows Kibuuka to play on various regional stereotypes –– thieving Nigerians for example –– in a country that remains all too preoccupied with itself and often startlingly ignorant about the rest of the continent. Oh yes, and he invariably has to take a swipe at South Africa too.