When Jon Stewart’s (The Daily Show host from 1999-2015) replacement was announced to be a relatively unknown South African comedian, Trevor Noah, I was a bit baffled. So, I revved up the fingertips and Google’d and Youtube’d till I had formed a comprehensive understanding of what Noah stood for and became exposed to the somewhat zany details of his experiences during the Apartheid. I then pondered: what do I know about South Africa other than diamonds, Nelson Mandela and the Proteas (the South African National Cricket Team)?
Noah was making the rounds of the UK and US after hitting it somewhat big in South Africa with his standup comedy tour spanning topics such as growing up as a mixed-race outsider in South Africa in the 80s. When he spoke of his incredulous experience as a mixed-race child in racist South Africa, I was dumbfounded. Racism has always been a far away menace to me only appearing in my history books; to me, it was a tall-tale of an epoch that had already passed and the evils that were, the slave riders of the US or the anti-semitic Hitler or the Indian-hating British were all a concern of the past. Yet, here was Noah talking of a time in the recent past and hearing his account upfront and in heartbreaking (albeit funny) detail was a humbling experience.
There were many figureheads on the path to South Africa’s exit from Apartheid era and a lesser-known figurehead was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I stumbled upon his interview with Craig Ferguson on his late-night talk show one day when I was wondering, who the hell is James Corden and where is Craig Ferguson – cue to my Wiki-ing Ferguson and reading about his Peabody-winning show with Desmond Tutu. I had to watch the interview!
Ferguson starts off the show calling himself a “vulgar lounge entertainer” who was “mystified” that Tutu had even agreed to appear on his show. Ferguson does an upstanding job interviewing Tutu whilst acknowledging his many accomplishments. Father Tutu then begins to paint a picture of the heinous living conditions during the Pretorian government that suppressed the black majority of South Africa for decades – black women would be raped if they stepped out of their camps, there was no running water, etc. Tutu was then asked whether his faith ever wavered because of the oppression, he answered that instead, he found faith and inspiration when he saw how people rallying and making the most out of their dire circumstances. He is a simple yet engaging man and one of the most powerful words he says is that “evil is just evil” – it doesn’t take away from the good or in other words, there is both good and bad, but you must not dwell only on the bad.
When Mandela ascended to power in 1994, the prominent theme of his speech was that of reconciliation with all South Africans – both black and white – and he vowed to leave behind the injustices of the past and enter into an egalitarian society. Tutu was asked if reconciliation was hard and he quips that it wasn’t; in fact, another inspirational spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama believes that the path to freedom is through forgiveness and South Africa entered into the 20th century.
I can’t really end this blog post without bringing up the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite controversy but my quip is that we could learn a few things from Mandela and Tutu and even the Dalai Lama – progress takes time and the only way to tackle it is with sheer determination and plenty of patience. The world has come a long way but as there will always be good and evil in the world – it is wishful to think that all evil can be eradicated at once so, let’s try to rally and work with what we have – as the brave black South Africans did for so long.
Sadia Sarwar is an upcoming author with plenty of opinions and rarefied tastes. Follow her on @sadiamhsarwar.