Africa's puppet governments
Jenni Hulse: Despite official objections, and threats of libel suits, Spitting Image style satire is proving a hit in African countries
26 Nov 09

This is a guest post by Jenni Hulse

xyz show

In Africa, where media repression is widespread and state-controlled broadcasters the norm, the success of a familiar form of televised political satire offers new hope for freedom of speech. South Africa’s ZA News and Kenya’s The XYZ Show are recognisable descendents of the UK’s Spitting Image and France’s Les Guignols, using latex puppets to ridicule major politicians and celebrities. Like their European predecessors, both shows are huge hits in their native countries, controversial in their content and provoke mixed reactions from the politicians they lampoon.

It is no coincidence that The XYZ Show and ZA News were both masterminded by political cartoonists. Print media in Kenya and South Africa enjoy relatively high levels of freedom and satirical cartoons, published in major dailies, are an important and popular form of political criticism.

Godfrey Mwampembwa, better known as Gado, is a long-standing cartoonist with Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper, freedom of speech campaigner and the driving creative force behind The XYZ Show. Given the public obsession with politics and a long history of political stage comedy in Kenya, Mwampembwa rightly predicted that there would be a ready audience for his satire.

Puppets for ZA News were modelled on caricatures by Mail & Guardian cartoonist, Jonathan Shapiro, who goes by his pen-name Zapiro. Shapiro is well-known for his controversial cartoons that highlight political corruption in South Africa. He was sued by ANC President Jacob Zuma last year for cartoons referring to his acquittal on rape charges.

But it has not been a smooth transition from page to screen for either Mwampembwa or Shapiro, and both shows proved a hard sell. ZA News is currently being broadcast online after its original commissioners, the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), pulled out of production in April, claiming South Africa was not ready for satire. Since only 10 per cent of the population have access to the internet, ZA News is being deprived of a potentially much larger audience. Similarly, Kenyan broadcasters and sponsors were initially wary of Mwampembwa’s proposal for The XYZ Show, fearing legal action under the country’s notoriously stringent libel laws. The programme was eventually picked up by private station Citizen Television and has been broadcasting since May, but only after receiving foreign funding.

Despite initial uncertainty, both programmes now provide an interesting platform for political comment in Africa. Thierry Cassuto , executive producer of ZA News told the BBC: “Politicians are never really under scrutiny and are never really asked hard questions. With our show we are creating a mini stage where we are asking those questions.” On The XYZ Show’s blog, viewers are invited to post questions to the puppet counterparts of major politicians. The show’s mission statement resolves to “deepen freedom of the press in Kenya by pushing the boundaries of how much criticism of the political class is acceptable.”

And targets for criticism are certainly not in short supply. On ZA News, President of the ANC Youth league Julius Malema is depicted brandishing a Pedi-language dictionary, after he claimed that Caster Semenya, the athlete whose gender was the subject of an official inquiry, could not be a hermaphrodite because “there is no such word in the Pedi dictionary”. The XYZ Show features a doctor who explains Kenyan MPs’ inability to avoid corruption as the result of a mental disease called “corrutophilia”.