Carl Joshua Ncube was away in the resort town of Victoria Falls, more than 430 miles from Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, when his countrymen took to the streets in mid-November last year to protest former president Robert Mugabe’s rule.
For several years now, Ncube, who calls himself the “biggest Zimbabwean stand-up comedian in the world,” has used humor as a tool to poke fun—ever so carefully—at the government. His pointed jokes targeted the 93-year-old Mugabe, who came to power in 1980 when Ncube was just a year old. Through his stand-up routines and late night show, Ncube bemoaned the state of the nation, besides the physical and mental capabilities of the world’s oldest statesman.
When cabinet ministers gifted Mugabe a wheelchair to easily navigate around his office, Ncube compared it to the one used by Charles Xavier in the Marvel fictional superheroes film X-Men. He also likened the ambitious former first lady Grace to the power-hungry Olivia Pope character in the political drama Scandal. Recognizing laughter as a potent weapon, Ncube made fun of the national carrier Air Zimbabwe, saying it couldn’t be attacked by terrorists because it didn’t even have a regular schedule.
In 2016, Ncube broke an unofficial world record by performing 31 comedy shows in a week. And as he became a permanent fixture in Zimbabwean, African, and global comic circles, the fear of Mugabe’s reach always lingered. The comedian received both veiled and outright death threats not just from government agents but also from businesspeople and clergymen. In August, a few months before Mugabe was ousted, he recounted these fears while speaking at TED Global in Arusha, Tanzania. “My sense of humor has nothing to do with how happy I am,” he said. “It’s actually a symptom that I am afraid.”
In Victoria Falls, Ncube was preparing to travel to Malawi to open a show for the UK-based comedian Daliso Chaponda. But as the military placed Mugabe under house arrest and Zimbabweans marched through townships and suburbs, Ncube watched as something akin to his “expiry date” approached. The man whose actions he used as a muse to build his career was about to be deposed. And despite the historic nature of the moment, it posed an unpredictable one for Ncube’s nascent career.
“I literally had no jokes for this show that I was going to,” says Ncube, who is inspired by Michael McIntyre, Dave Chappelle, and Trevor Noah. And as he flew to the capital Lilongwe, he “realized that my entire comedy career had almost died because all of my jokes were based on my fear of Robert Mugabe [and] now he wasn’t there.”
For those living under tyranny, comedy has always been an effective form to resist and propel social movements says Joseph Nyanoti, a professor of journalism at the United States International University-Africa who researches popular culture. In recent years, the power of Laughtivism—or using laughter as a tool of activism—has also become prominent in both Africa and across the world.
In post-revolution Tunisia, the image of a real unnamed baguette-toting protester inspired the creation of comic character Captain Khobza (khobz is bread in Arabic) to satirize the ruling class’s economic dominance. In Egypt, Bassem Youssef, usually called the Jon Stewart of Egypt, produced skits making fun of former president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. In Kenya, the XYZ puppet show continues to spotlight the corrupt political elite. And In Libya, comedians like Milood Amroni for years made well-crafted jokes about Muammar Gaddafi.
But even as these jesters and their works thrived, the penultimate question has always been: what happens when the object of ridicule or the main focus of cultural protest exits the stage?
Up until last year, Zimbabwe knew no other leader since gaining independence. And through a series of controversial and populist policies, Mugabe pulled the southern African nation economically and politically to the ground. The country experienced hyperinflation; millions of people faced food shortages; a currency crisis left one US dollar with three different values, and people lined up outside banks to get cash. The current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa even supported a law guaranteeing the “dignity” of Mugabe—hence protecting him from insults.
Yet under these repressive and problematic conditions comedy mushroomed in the last few years, with comics becoming bolder as Mugabe grew older. The transformation especially took place on social media platforms including YouTube where companies like Magamba TV and Rooftop Promotions streamed cutting-edge political satire. Comedy clubs and festivals also sprang, and in a male-dominated field, female comedians like Sharon Chideu and Samantha Kureya pushed the fold even further.
With Mugabe gone, comedian Clive Chigubu says this is the best chance they have ever had in driving not only the conversation but also the direction the country takes next. Deepening his engagement in political discourse, Chigubu will in late February hold a show titled Laugh After 37 Years. While many politicians remain “paranoid” about humor he says, “the change of our political scene will definitely have us talking more about our politicians.”
Ncube says he is intent on addressing other topics in his stand-ups, and centering them around issues like tribalism, sexuality, corruption, gender bias, child abuse, and conservation. But he also wants to engage authorities—including Mnangagwa himself— and discuss the place of comedy in a time of change.
“We have to co-exist. We have a role to play in each other’s life,” he said, adding that he and other Zimbabwean comics “represent an idea, an idea of freedom; freedom of speech.”
Yet to truly garner influence and inspire a new generation, both Ncube and Chigubu note that there will have to be a complete turnaround of the business. This will include establishing comedy clubs across Zimbabwean cities in an effort to help grow the comedy circuit, increase the appetite for comedy consumption, and attract regional, continental, and global talent.
Improving the ecosystem will also help Ncube help more people succeed in the competitive industry—and say one last joke about Mugabe, which came faster than he expected. “I would have loved to explore it for another three years but I feel for my people more than I feel for my comedy,” he said. “It’ an outcome that we were very happy with.”