Is Chester Missing blackface?

He performs to packed-out theatres and is a regular correspondent on a satirical television news show, Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola (LNN) on South African private TV channel, Etv. He’s at times raucously funny and almost always on point. He writes, he tweets and he tjunes white okes (for the non-South Africans: he gives it straight to whites) things like: “All white South Africans have benefited from apartheid. If you try to go ‘except me’, then I am saying it to you especially.”
Chester Missing is his name and he is a racially ambiguous black guy (more on that in a bit) who uses satire to chime in on race, privilege, and other thorny political and social issues in South Africa. This has seen him rise to become the country’s “hottest new political analyst”, according to his tongue-in-cheek, self-aggrandizing bio. Standing next to him, moving his hands and mouth and giving him voice, is a white guy, Conrad Koch, a puppeteer ventriloquist and comedian.

For those unfamiliar with him (and if you haven’t figured), Chester Missing is a puppet. He is a front, a mask and, in part, a caricature. When talking race and apartheid, which he does frequently, he is an appropriation of black South Africans’ thoughts, frustrations and eye-rolling (at whites) since Apartheid’s legal and political mechanisms were dismantled 19 years ago. And as Missing’s popularity has risen, so has Koch’s, which begs the question: is Chester Missing blackface?

A good place to start would be placing Missing’s race. Until earlier this month, it was apparent to all that he is “of colour” in the sense that he is in all likelihood coloured (the South African word referring to those of mixed race) or he might be black. Financial Mail journalist Hilary Toffoli, for example, described the puppet as a “coloured cynic” and reviewers of his show ‘The Puppet Asylum’, which ran in February 2012 at The Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, took it for granted that he was coloured. What is for sure is that audiences everywhere understood that Chester Missing was not white. But earlier this month, after Koch (and Missing) were harangued for most of the week by tweets claiming, among other things, that the performance was blackface, Koch’s and Missing’s Twitter accounts disavowed the puppet’s racial identity.

“I am Chester Missing, SA’s top political analyst PUPPET. I am not of colour/black/Indian/Mayan or coloured. My puppeteer is a white,” the tweet read.

But before the furore, Koch had in interviews described the puppet as “a nonracial guy who’s of colour” or “coloured.” He’d also suggested that the ambiguity was intentional, as it allowed him to use the puppet to speak with the in-group voice of the spectrum of the South Africa’s black identities. In performances, Koch also often pulls back the veil and alludes to the possibility that this could be blackface, although not in so many words.

Koch said in an interview with the South African web publication, The Daily Maverick: “I’m a white guy using a black guy to get somewhere, literally. In my one-man show [Chester] literally says, ‘You just use the black puppet because no one wants to laugh at a lame-ass, unfunny white guy.’ It’s true.”

In addition to being a puppeteer, ventriloquist and comedian, Koch is also a social anthropologist. So even though he may have Missing make the remark for its comedic value, he surely must appreciate the kernel of truth behind it.

The curious attempt earlier this month to make the puppet completely raceless is perhaps a manifestation of Koch’s anxiety, discomfort and, I suppose, frustration at how his performance with Missing is steeped in and operating from within the context of puppetry’s history in Western culture (from which puppetry in South Africa draws heavy influence) as a tool to create and propagate grotesque racial stereotypes about black people.

Perhaps calling what Koch does with Missing blackface could be seen as harsh or misguided because, firstly, Koch has a repertoire of other characters and his stock-in-trade is appropriating voices and appearances. Secondly, blackface began as white racism’s gross misrepresentation of black bodies, mannerisms and intelligence. Not only was it untrue, it exploited and reinforced the mechanisms that denied black people rights, particularly ownership of how they were publicly portrayed and understood. Missing isn’t a product of white racism, at least not directly, nor was he created with the intention to reinforce it. He often challenges it and what it has produced, and is spot on when he does so.

In one of his columns, he tears into apartheid’s last president, FW de Klerk, and his newfound popularity among the international media (this means you, CNN and BBC) as a moral voice of sorts on the current state of South Africa.

“I would be fine with de Klerk keeping the (Nobel Peace) prize, except now he’s telling us what he thinks. Turns out he really is a bald, brainless bigot,” Missing wrote after de Klerk’s disgraceful interview with Christian Amanpour in May 2012.

He went on CNN and told the world that black people “were not disenfranchised” by the homeland vibes. Madness! What’s next? Nazis telling us about how the Holocaust was only bad for the really thin people (with respect to Jewish ous)?

But if you scratch deeper some contradictions begin to emerge. Chester Missing is by far Koch’s most popular character and Koch recognises that this in large part is due to dressing up his views as a liberal white guy in a funny black character. Whites generally don’t take kindly to another white person saying the things Missing does, and it’s unlikely that they’d pay to hear it. And blacks, among whom Missing and LNN are most popular, would rightly tell him, “Koch, we know all these things you’re telling us. Go tell this to the other white okes.”

Koch admitted in a recent interview on Johannesburg’s Radio 702 that Missing goes where he himself, as a white guy, feels afraid or is reticent to go. So whereas blackface mollified the white conscience by reinforcing concept of white supremacy, Missing, using the sleight of hand of puppetry, leaves the white conscience unflustered by hiding dissent amid the ranks behind a black face. Either way they both allow for a similar result: inaction or obliviousness on the part of whites to racial injustice created for and by whites.

If Koch wanted to be interesting, funny and advance the recognition of racial injustice at the same time, which he’s said he does, he should probably have a puppet modeled after himself: an irreverent, young white man with a rapier wit and a surprisingly refreshing take on race relations in South Africa. There are too few like him with access to a public stage.

I expect the typical response to this would be that Koch should be left alone to do comedy the way he sees fit. However, Missing’s race was an intentional choice made with both a comedic and a social objective. And race being so sensitive topic in this country has made it a such key weapon in Koch’s lampooning that it’s impossible for the socially aware to laugh vacuously at the puppet’s jokes without interrogating the assumptions underlying the performance. At the very least Chester Missing is an embodiment of the fear, unwillingness or inability of liberal-minded whites to use their own voices, faces and words to talk publicly about this country’s racialised privilege. That’s quite a burden to place on the tiny shoulders of Chester Missing.

Comments

comments

T.O. Molefe

T.O.Molefe is an essayist based in Cape Town, South Africa. His book 'For Blacks Only and Other Ways Of Being Black' will soon come.

15 Comments
  1. I think you’re over-analysing everything as usual. I’m sure Koch isn’t obsessing like this or even thinking very deeply about his material. The key test:- is it funny and original? The answer is clearly ‘yes’.

  2. the above comment reminds me of the oft-said prelude to almost every racist joke: “guys, i know it’s racist but…” being funny isn’t the acid test here…anyway. the blackface characterization is perhaps overly simplistic. I would judge the man (ahem, puppet) by his content, which can hardly be described as racist. be that as it may, i think this is a good debate to have. i’d imagine Koch DOES think about this debate, ALOT

  3. I think a white guy using a “coloured” puppet to discuss race, culture and politics is spot on and very much a part of the joke. It creates waaaay more discussion than a white liberal being a white liberal which gets dismissed far too easily.

    You’re criticising Koch for finding a model for discussing issues that affect us all in a humourous, honest and engaging way and comparing it to a history of white people laughing at and lampooning black people. I think that is a very big leap to make and rather misguided.

  4. Leave Chester alone. We may all rue the day he goes missing. The reality is that the ability of liberal-minded whites to use their own voices, faces and words to talk publicly about this country’s racialised privilege, has been disabled – in part by and through their own parochial concerns amounting to irrelevances, in part through shrill voices asserting the ‘we know best, listen to us, attitude’ and part through the fear and loathing of any voices other than ANC or african nationalists, that is being bred by ascendent racial nationalists. Chester Missing nor Conrad Koch, as far as i can surmise, fit into the parochial or the shrill. Missing and Koch are being targetted (as are ordinary citizens through the protection of state information bill and the traditional courts bill) by humourless racial nationalists and advocates of a totalising ‘africanist’ hegemony in an attempt to establish a closed society. You may be right that he should do what he does as an “irreverent, young white man with a rapier wit and a surprisingly refreshing take on race relations in South Africa”, that would no doubt be legit, but indistinguishable from a raft of other brilliant (and honest) stand up comics of all hues. Here is a guy with a special technical skill in puppeteering and ventriloquy with a developed analytic capability, incisive insight into society, wit and humour. Leave him be…

  5. @dyled said: Totally agree re “embodiment of the fear, unwillingness or inability of liberal-minded whites to use their own voices”, but not sure about leaving white conscience unflustered. doesn’t “dressing up” these views help bring them to a white audience? as opposed to a “dear white people” approach, which (however valid the argument) shuts down debate through its aggression.

    My response: Tone aside, Schutte, like Vice, was speaking as a white person to white people about whiteness. These two, and a handful of others like them, are hen’s teeth. I’m an advocate of white folk speaking to other white folk about white privilege in the same way as I am of men talking to other men about the ills of patriarchy, male privilege and sexism. This conversation isn’t happening among white South Africans and when it does, others close ranks and shout the speaker down siting tone (Schutte) or excessive guilt (Vice).

    The in-group discussion has power in that it’s a breaking of ranks and has, unfortunately, a greater credibility. The things Chester says are not new. Black people have been saying these things for years but they have fallen largely on deaf ears. Dressing up the views in a black puppet (the illusion is real, yo) does nothing to increase its audibility to white audiences. And the reason Koch dressed it up is that he, like other many white South Africans, feels afraid, unwilling or unable to talk as a white person to other white people about the effects of white domination and white racism.

    1. Thanks for the reply, T.O. (Do people call you TO? on the one occasion that we ran into each other I very nearly called you “Tom”…)

      I had grouped Koch with Schutte and Vice in the category of white people speaking to other white people about the ills of white privilege. And I suppose I had thought of Chester as something of a Trojan horse – sneaking ideas that might be dangerous to unquestioning white minds past people’s defenses in the disguise of a joke. Perhaps this is naive.

      I wonder: would you allow a distinction between, on the one hand, performances where Koch shares a stage with Chester (in these situations Koch is the overly sensitive white liberal straight man, and the joke is almost always on him) and , on the other, Chester’s TV appearances where Koch is invisible?

      You are of course right that the decision to give Chester a race (which, though ambiguous, is certainly meant to differ from Koch’s) is not politically neutral. It’s not some minor detail like dressing him in a suit. You’ve discussed Koch’s reason’s for doing this in your article, and Koch himself admits that Chester can say things that he can’t. But where Chester is a device to make Koch’s whiteliness strange, I think that he is a powerful tool. Where he is an obnoxious brown guy interviewing politicians, I am less convinced.

  6. In hindsight, and with the constant knocking of minorities, there is perhaps a new explanation. Fans of Chester are disappointed to discover that the puppet with the thick coloured accent, and fluent vocabulary of a Bantu language, is in fact white. Once over the shock, they need to come up with an explanation or critique to explain it all.

  7. “Whites generally don’t take kindly to another white person saying the things Missing does, and it’s unlikely that they’d pay to hear it. And blacks, among whom Missing and LNN are most popular, would rightly tell him, “Koch, we know all these things you’re telling us. Go tell this to the other white okes.””

    You alienated me there because I don’t fit into your generalization, so what the hell am I doing reading this? :/ It’s also a premise for what comes after – that the puppet is a site for the burial and containment of real engagement of white people’s conscience and action. Your premise doesn’t apply and so neither does your argument: How do you know that white people have not changed their attitudes and behaviour as a result of the Chester Missing act? You don’t know this. You are speculating based on your own unfounded opinion as a kind of personal wish-fulfilment. You don’t WANT to see Missing as beneficial to our society, so you have made up a story to convince me that you are right, but you alienated me. And so, just as you say “it’s impossible for the socially aware to laugh vacuously at the puppet’s jokes without interrogating the assumptions underlying the performance”, it’s also impossible to take your argument seriously seeing (after this mild “interrogation”) that it’s based on an assumption that alienates me, your reader. Cheers.

    Interrogation. It’s become such a trendy word to use lately. Everything mustbe interrogated now. Is this what they mean by the police state where we all patrol and monitor one another?

  8. Hi. Interesting piece. As you know (we chat on Twitter sometimes) I am a musical comedian known onstage as Deep Fried Man, and large amounts of my material involves satirising white attitudes, to mixed audiences. It has not been an easy route to take. I have been called, by whites and blacks alike, a ‘guilty white liberal’, most often as an insult. It is tricky satirising SA’s political landscape, as a white person. It is particularly hard for me to say anything about the ANC without seeming like a typical white person whining. My own technique for dealing with this is attempted self-awareness and self-deprication – making fun of myself for being a white person whining. This technique is met with mixed reactions and mixed levels of succes.

    Any black comic in SA who is politically savvy, Loyiso Gola for example, on the other hand, can speak truth to power in a far more effective way – he can criticize government and it is taken it for granted that he is coming from a perspective of genuine concern for South Africa rather than the way similar political criticism of the ANC may sound from a white mouth – as an inability to accept change, or an inability to accept that black people are capable of leading them, or an inability to acknowledge the role that white people had in creating the problems that the ANC is now dealing with.

    I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this – it makes sense that black comedians can more effectively satirise a largely black government than white comedians can. But it does make it quite tricky to be a white South African comedian whose work is politicised.
    This is the Zapiro syndrome. He was active (to a degree) in the fight against apartheid when it existed, and for that reason probably feels he has a right to comment on where our leadership is going wrong now. But many black people see his cartoons as reflecting typical white prejudices. No amount of saying ‘but I’m left wing’ or ‘but I fought for the end of apartheid’ will change this.

    This is the climate that Conrad / Chester is operating in. His puppet, as he admits, allows him to say things he couldn’t, and more importantly allows audiences to receive what he says with much more enthusiasm. It also allows him to gain fans from a far wider cross section of South Africa than he otherwise would.

    I don’t have a puppet to hide behind, and sometimes I wish I did.

    And I don’t say ‘hide behind’ critically – Chester Missing makes Conrad Koch far more powerful as a comedian / political analyist than he would otherwise be, and whether one thinks it’s offensive or not, his solution to being relevant as a white satirist in South Africa is effective and brilliant.

    And in my humble opinion, the fact that he is able to stir up these arguments and spark these debates means he must be doing something right.

    1. What makes it easier for Loyiso Gola and other black comedians to satirise SA’s political landscape and harder for you or Koch or other white comedians to do the same? I’m not convinced it makes sense in the same way that, say, gravity makes sense.

      Ebrahim Fakir above said: The reality is that the ability of liberal-minded whites to use their own voices, faces and words to talk publicly about this country’s racialised privilege, has been disabled – in part by and through their own parochial concerns amounting to irrelevances, in part through shrill voices asserting the ‘we know best, listen to us, attitude’ and part through the fear and loathing of any voices other than ANC or african nationalists, that is being bred by ascendent racial nationalists.

      I think he’s partway there. Underlying the disparity is socioeconomic circumstance. I read an article where a white winemaker described his farm as an “ill-gotten gain”. I thought it a powerful admission. What of white South Africa today isn’t an ill-gotten gain or a fruit of ill-gotten gains? In exchange for agreeing to end legal and political apartheid, whites negotiated furiously to hold on to their ill-gotten gains; they fought hard to keep economic and, in part, social apartheid alive—and white folks’ moral authority to speak and satirise remains marked by this decision for as long as economic and social apartheid exist. It took nearly 400 years for whites to accumulate these ill-gotten gains. If that’s any indication of how long this will last, perhaps you, too, should get a puppet.

      1. I’m not a comedian, but Deep Fried Man’s comment rings true to me as someone who does comment on South African racial politics by other means. T.O. – you ask: “What makes it easier for Loyiso Gola and other black comedians to satirise SA’s political landscape and harder for you or Koch or other white comedians to do the same? I’m not convinced it makes sense in the same way that, say, gravity makes sense.”

        So, from the perspective of a columnist & blogger who is a) white and b) critical of various elements of SA’s political landscape, including both ‘whiteness’ and ‘the idea of whiteness’, it certainly seems easier for black columnists than it is for me, on some topics. This is a simple matter of self-preservation and the increasing volume (in both senses) of online trollery and insult.

        Take the perennial “is Cape Town racist” discussion. A black columnist can claim that it is, and they will (mostly) just get shouted down by white racists. As the (to my knowledge) only white columnist who argued that Cape Town is in fact racist, I got shouted down by white racists as well as by some who style themselves as Biko-ites or somesuch, telling me I was being patronising and so forth, and that I don’t really have any right to make those claims. And then there are others like Vice who also provide reasons for me to shut up, even though I don’t find those reasons compelling.

        So, even if you think a cause important & worth advocating, there might be less second-guessing and potential pitfalls for those who are falling into the stereotype of speaking about issues they “own” (such as black comedians talking about a “black political party”). The risks are more easy to identify and combat.

        The broad point is that there are various constraints on public commentators of various sorts. Being thought a troublemaker is one, being thought a traitor another, being thought irrelevant yet another, etc. So it’s at least possible that in the complicated intersections of race & class and all that, black comics/columnists could experience different pressures than white ones do. Of course it won’t make sense in the way gravity does, but that’s a rather high bar to set.

  9. Best thing I’ve read from this is that Pieter Dirk Uys symbolises transverse success beyong colour lines.
    Beyond that, just lots of opinions which have changed nothing for me. This is mostly people splitting hairs, broaching platitudes and watering the lawn while the house is burning down. I’m trying to tie this to everyday reality, but all I get is a string of nice words.
    Folks, your use of English is spectacular and entertaining, but has changed nothing in what I (as an ordinary ticket buyer/citizen) derive from a Chester/DeepFriedMan performance.
    What I know for sure is that people don’t shut up when convinced their opinion is important enough. They (black and white people) may not quite inflect it in a way one desires, but that’s their own prerogative. T.O., you can’t prescribe how people should express themselves – at best you can only agree or disagree, but never prescribe.

      1. I cannot possibly possibly be prescribing on things you’ve ALREADY said. At best, I can observe and disagree – read my opinion again.

        You remember what I said about splitting hairs?

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