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.