Satire: The Power of Laughter in a Divisive World

By Gloria Mari

Satire often plays the role of shaping public opinions. It’s intended to spark conversations and court participation. Satirists have a massive responsibility to entertain and educate. Comedy and satire provide a “safe space” to address wider issues. In its purest form, satire speaks truth to power, and laughter is an excellent ice breaker for difficult conversations. But it can make for powerful enemies. 

Veteran cartoonist Godfrey ‘Gado’ Mwampembwa, probably the region’s most prolific satirist. He has published art drawing on the predatory capitalism of the 2022 Qatar World Cup, to the 2005 cartoon of a police officer using a rifle rather than a breathalyser to check a driver for sobriety. In both, stark monochromatic images use caricatures to tell on a panel on the comic book of life. 

Speaking at the inaugural Africa Media Festival, he emphasised that satire is meant to make people uncomfortable, to shake people out of numbness and complacency. In his words:  “If you’re not angering anyone, you’re doing satire wrong.” 

The impact of satire: Is it measurable?

Today’s satirists might be measured against the bar set by the Emmy award-winning show Last Week Tonight by John Oliver. The show has caused legislative changes across the US and in other parts of the world. The phenomenon has also been given the moniker “the John Oliver effect”. It’s not clear if the same impact can be measured in this region; one could argue that it’s gone in the opposite direction. 

Pioneering shows like Redykyulass in Kenya satirised the late president Daniel arap Moi’s government, but then the government that was being mocked joined the audience and laughed along – with a fleetingly menacing look at the performers, making the message clear that they were only being “allowed” to mock the political elite, but that the consequences could come without warning.

Since then, regional satire has arguably become complacent, a genre that is less of a protest piece by dissenting artists or disruptors of the status quo. Instead, it’s now just gags that rely on ethnic or gender stereotypes. It may occasionally torment the elite, but that effect is fleeting. The 2022 general election saw a rise of internet comedians creating exaggerated versions of their favourite (or least favourite) political candidates. It often came off as trite or mean. Videos showing Martha Karua as a subservient wife, rather than running mate, to 2022 presidential candidate Raila Odinga seemed in poor taste. There was no bigger message, nothing more important than simple misogyny.

Satire is supposed to be an agent of provocation, the panel heard. The online comedians who highlight the hypocrisy of prosperity gospel evangelists are more on the right track, for example, and the ones who merely imitate an ethnic accent are out to make the wrong kind of trouble– that is, rage-baiting rather than the confrontation of an unjust status quo. Satire defends democracy without fear of offence. It’s not crude or artless. It’s emotive. 

Collaboration between creators

The possibility of collaboration for old guard satirists and new media comedians is wonky to navigate. Both camps should approach it from a place of learning, the panel heard. Digital content creators would need to be taught journalistic ethics and standards for any successful collaboration, while old school journalists would need to learn how to game the algorithm bias to ensure the success of their content. Media houses may have large social media followings but many times they don’t have as much engagement as internet sensations such as Timothy ‘Njugush’ Ndegwa, or Esther Kazungu, both panelists in this session sharing their insights.

Still, social media feeds are saturated with content that is gamed to maximize algorithms’ bias for engagement. It creates an audience with short attention spans. It is up to viewers to make conscientious decisions to curate their For You Pages to get content that is evocative and not just entertaining, and for digital creators to commit to creating content that is not sensational or misleading, simply for clout and clicks.

The future of satire

One of the largest risks on social media is the backlash effect. Social media can lift you up just as quickly as it can destroy you. Analogue trolling used to be intentional handwritten letters that required the effort of travel, purchase of stamps and postage. It’s almost flattering, really, and it’s relatively easy to circumvent toxic fan mail. But if one person starts a pile-on on social media, it’s almost impossible to escape it, especially if you engage with it. For some content creators, clapping back is an artform unto itself, another way to grow their brands. But for others, it’s a kind of social death sentence.

Ultimately, satire deserves protection. It deserves to be shielded from censorship, from political co-opting. Upcoming content creators have taken the mantle from the likes of Gado and Redykyulass, and use social media to amplify socio-political issues. Weaponizing new media for purposeful sedition also protects creators because of the anonymity it can provide. Large media houses also provide shelter for their inhouse cartoonists. 

Future satirists need to be aware of their roles in a divisive political landscape. To create longevity, the art has to be meaningful. It can’t be used to spread misinformation or sow unnecessary division. 

A collaborative union with solidarity as its core value can create a safe space for marginalised voices. Established satirists can also work with emerging artists who can create awareness with comedy. For many creators from marginalized identities, this provides a much needed environment where their voice is magnified rather than policed.

The work of satire is never-ending. With the ever-present risk of suppression looming, there’s an urgent need for fearless truth speakers. Vigilance is more necessary than ever. And hopefully, those who have the last laugh are those on the side of justice.

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