Most people in most TV-watching societies use commercial breaks as exactly that. I used to be one of these people. Until a new realisation dawned on me: Considering the maudlin state of our TV programming, to justify one’s investment in the box itself, and the over-rated DStv contract, one has to grudgingly sit through commercials.
I have of late been enamoured by one advert Ã¢Â€Â“ Vodacom’s famous “We’ve been having it”. I’m calling it “famous” for the simple reason that it has provoked animated debates Ã¢Â€Â“ at watering holes, and in cyberspace, people are dropping their 60-million Zim dollars’ worth of opinion.
To cut to the chase, the TV commercial features a buffoonish African dictator, replete in army regalia, and an arrogance that hints at his inherently violent nature. The dictator in question bears a striking resemblance to Idi Amin. I don’t need to regale you with the details of the commercial Ã¢Â€Â“ watch it on YouTube.
Recently the Sunday Times ran an opinion piece by a marketing professor who represents a school of thought that holds that the commercial is downright xenophobic. I have watched it many times; it never fails to elicit gales of laughter from me.
However, I’m the first to admit that I don’t think I would be comfortable watching it and laughing at it in the company of a person from one of the countries to the north of our borders. I do concede that coming as it does in the wake of xenophobic violence that touched many cities in this country, the “We’ve been having it” commercial is badly timed.
On the face of it, it reinforces stereotypes of Africans north of our borders as lagging behind in technology Ã¢Â€Â“ as people who deliberately leave their fates in the hands of dictators. In other words, it creates the “us” and “them” divide between locals and the so-called foreign nationals.
The “us” being the technologically savvy, articulate South Africans who are conversant with the latest in modern telephony, and the “them” being the technologically behind “Africans”. I know that we have in this country made commercials that poke fun at the various cultural groups that make this nation what it is: stupid Afrikaners; Zulus who sell off their daughters for a case of beer; stupid Khoisan people (a rugby ball that drops from the sky…).
As a nation we have embraced the notion of using humour to attack cultural stereotypes; we have learned to laugh at ourselves through commercials that go straight into the heart of cultural and/or racial stereotypes. With this in mind, I would argue that except for the timing, there is nothing wrong with the “We’ve been having it” commercial.
In fact, the more commercials about these stereotypes about our brothers from the rest of the continent, the better. We need commercials about the perception that most men from the DRC use skin-lightening creams; we need commercials that allude to the perception that Nigerians are scamsters of note; we need commercials that play on the perception that men from the north of this country are well-endowed where it matters most. It has been said the recent xenophobic outrage was provoked by nothing else but penis envy.
Let’s take that notion, throw it up in the air, look at it from all angles, and shoot it up with our shotguns of humour so it can die a happy death. We need these commercials so that our brothers from the rest of the continent can buy into our notion of using humour and satire as bridges that span our cultural prejudices.
After all, South Africans of a darker hue, as soon as they are able to speak, have found that humour, through teasing contests (!_LT_EMukugwarana!_LT_/EM) that are held at street corners or storefronts, is the quickest way to dispel myths about oneself and, in the process, make lasting friendships.
Fred Khumalo is a Sunday Times columnist and award-winning novelist.
This column first appeared in The Media magazine (September 2008).