Send in the Clowns

I love clowns. They are part of ancient tradition in entertainment that makes us look at ourselves and laugh, thus throwing our true nature into stark but non-threatening relief. In many repressive societies, clowns are the only ones who can question authority with impunity or provoke independent thought without fear of censure; such is the power of humour. Even Shakespeare regularly used the character of the clown, fool or jester in his tragedies to draw out various themes and to provide some much needed comic interludes.

But quite apart from their historical and metaphysical function, a clown’s purpose is to make us laugh. And that’s why I love Julius Malema and Jon Qwelane. Those guys are hysterical!

No really, I dive into the papers every day, eagerly searching for the goofy headline that is inevitably credited to one of these jokers. Malema, as head of the ANC Youth League, is the most obviously prolific: ‘Zuma will rule in Orange (prison overalls)’, ‘We will kill for Zuma’ and my personal favourite, ‘Zuma wants Winnie Mandela as vice-president’. All right, I made the last one up, but you gotta admit it’s funny.

Even though I thoroughly appreciate Malema’s unusual brand of comedy, this is exactly the kind of stuff that drives fear into the hearts of many ordinary South Africans who are already reeling from a bad news tsunami. Every time Malema speaks, another 100 people decide to emigrate. And it’s also perfect news fodder for scare-mongering editors who know that the more sensational the headline, the more papers they’ll sell.

And so Malema yammers away, reveling in all the attention he is getting for himself. He also seems to have realized that the more outrageous his statements are, the more column inches he gets. It’s a neat little gig he’s got going for himself. He uses the press and the press uses him. Only the credibility of the ANC is suffering.

But that’s a small price to pay for such effective self-promotion. And it doesn’t matter that everyone is laughing at him, or shaking their heads in disbelief. In public relations, it’s a well-known truth that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. After all, it doesn’t matter what people say, as long as they’re talking about you. Nowadays, this is known the Paris Hilton Paradox.

Then we come to good old Jon Qwelane. He is a similar beast to Malema, except that he is in the media and he needs notoriety to get readers, not votes.

Qwelane is clearly an intermittently intelligent person. He writes well. He is forthright. He has some controversial opinions, which is fine. However, I think he may have gone a bit too far with his latest column on homosexuality. He just doesn’t dig it, apparently, and resents the fact that the constitution has given these abominations the right to marry.

OK. Not the most enlightened attitude, but certainly not unique. The question is, why did he choose to write about it in such a public forum? Why doesn’t he do what most reactionary conservatives do and mutter about it in hushed, bitter tones at the bar with his mates?

I think that the reason for this sudden outpouring of hateful bile is that Qwelane has been out of the spotlight for a while, so he decided to follow Malema’s example by saying something so blatantly outrageous that it couldn’t be ignored.

Now everyone is talking about him. Protesters are gathering in several cities across South Africa. Readers are furious. Action is being called for. But at least Qwelane’s back in the headlines. So, even if he gets fired (and, frankly, if David Bullard got fired for his column, so should Qwelane), he is famous again and should have no trouble finding a new home at another publication that is eager to harness his penchant for being outrageous.

So, that’s why I like Malema and Qwelane. They are the best comedy pair since Laurel and Hardy and they make me laugh out loud. To paraphrase the great Stephen Sondheim, ‘Isn’t it rich? Aren’t they a pair? Us here at last on the ground, them in mid-air. Send in the Clowns. There’s ought to be clowns. Don’t bother, they’re here’. IMHO.

[Originally posted 26/07/2008]

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