Comedian’s African heritage charms the world.
How South Africa got put on the international comedy map by a witty genius
By Norma Young
If you were ever lost in translation as you quizzically watched faces of people roaring with laughter and
turned to the person next to you to confess, ‘I didn’t get the joke’, then it may be
small comfort to you that the same thing happened to millions of people on the night
of the 2019 Oscars ceremony.
In homes around the world, and inside the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, uncertainty
and hesitancy were the majority response to Trevor Noah’s isiXhosa commentary, except
in South Africa of course.
From Pinetown to Parys to Port Elizabeth to Pretoria, the broke out immediately after Noah said in isiXhosa: ‘Abelungu abazi uba ndiyaxoka’. He told the audience that the phrase meant, “In times like these we are stronger when we fight together than when we fight apart.” But South Africans knew what Trevor actually said was “white people don’t know that I’m lying’ and it was the biggest inside joke; where for a change, Africans were the insiders.
While the moment will continue to elicit chuckles whenever it’s recalled, it has lasting and serious significance for the country’s comics. Through his achievement of landing the hosting gig for The Daily Show, his sell-out global tours and the insider pride at the Academy Awards ceremony, Noah is clearing a pathway for other local comics.
Found in Translation
Carvin Goldstone, a Durban-based comic first met Noah in 2008. They’d both been booked to do a show at the city’s Playhouse Theatre. Goldstone was immediately impressed by Noah’s ‘intelligence, clear thinking and confidence’.
Fast forward to today and while Goldstone, the 2018 South African Comic of The Year, remains a fan of Noah’s brand of humor, he’s also appreciative of his business savvy; particularly in showcasing his African heritage. This makes for great amusement, but it also creates opportunities for others. “He opened doors by just being great in his craft,” says Goldstone. “People think it can be a fluke so audiences and promoters take the risk on us especially if we’ve received similar accolades in South Africa.
Trevor is a former South African Comic of the Year. So just on the grounds that we’ve won an award that he’s won, you can feel people ease up at the idea of booking you or having you in their country.”
Another artist who’s had opportunities open up to him thanks to Noah, is Loyiso Madinga. Having already achieved fame in South Africa, local audiences cheered proudly in early 2018 when it was announced that Noah had selected Loyiso Madinga to helm topical segments for the African broadcast of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. This laudable commitment to giving more platforms to a diversity of voices benefits performers and audiences alike, says Goldstone.
“The world is ready for new narratives. I think generally the world has heard a lot of British and American white male views on the world. So African perspectives and narratives, like Trevor’s, are very welcome.”
A Legacy of Laughter
There’s no doubt South Africans have a particular affection for Noah. His resonance however is worldwide. Born a Crime, his autobiographical comedy book, made it onto the New York Times Bestseller List, is being adapted into a film, and has been included in the curriculum at some US schools.
Noah’s international acclaim continues to grow, while South African’s still proudly lay hold of their claim to him. Even the country’s president demonstrated a desire for a Noah connection when he recently invited the comic to a sitting of parliament. A witty exchange between the two revealed their camaraderie.
After being introduced, the house erupted with cheers, whistles and applause for Noah. Glaring at his colleagues, President Cyril Ramaphosa responded to the adulation saying, ‘Trevor, I never get this type of applause, so I’m jealous’. Seated in the public gallery, Noah yelled back, ‘Whose fault is that?’. Explaining that one of the reasons why Noah was in the country was to work on his education- focused foundation, Ramaphosa thanked the comic for ‘ploughing back to the country once again’. And then made a hilarious comment that was part instruction and part request: ‘But he is also here for another purpose, to come and look at me, and all of you – and make fun of me. He has promised he is going to make fun of me’.
It’s as yet unknown how, if and when Noah will agree to tear into the president for laughs. Should he do so, it’ll likely be another wonderful inside joke.
Trevor on Travel
In his stand-up special, Afraid of the Dark, the comic shares a funny
and thought-provoking benefit of wanderlust.
“If there’s one thing you won’t waste your money on, it’s traveling,” he says.
“Travel the world. See another place. Discover a different point of view. Traveling is the
antidote to ignorance. It changes your mind, your perspective, how you believe, what you believe. And one of the greatest things you can do when you travel is travel to a country where they don’t speak your language. Going to a place where they don’t speak English, just to make you realize how insignificant you really are. You’re not the centre of the universe.”