Mugabe grilled in South African chicken ad

A satirical ad by Nando's Chicken poked fun at Zimbabwe President Mugabe. His supporters were not amused.

Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe (r.) and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai attend a joint meeting of senior members of their respective parties, in Harare, Zimbabwe, November 11.

Those were the days, Mr. Mugabe.

A South African satirical television commercial, for the Nando’s Chicken restaurants, has captured the South African imagination, depicting Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s difficulty in coming up with enough dictators to come to a Christmas Party this festive season.

Called “The Last Dictator Standing,” (attached at the bottom of this article) the commercial imagines Mugabe and Muammar Qaddafi having a watergun fight; Mao Zedong and Mugabe singing karaoke; Saddam Hussein and Mugabe making snow angels, in the sand, in their boxer shorts; Mugabe and Idi Amin mimicking that front-of-the Titanic “flying” scene aboard a tank; and most improbably of all, Mugabe pushing apartheid defender P.W. Botha in a swing.

Alas, whether by NATO bombs or natural causes, all are now dead. It’s going to be a lonely Christmas.

Though quite popular – the commercial went viral on youtube – Nando’s has since withdrawn the commercial, citing physical threats to staff and customers at the Nando’s fanchises inside Zimbabwe. Apparently, youth members of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party had begun to protest outside Nando’s chain stores in Harare and elsewhere in the country.

“We feel strongly that this is the prudent step to take in a volatile climate and believe that no TV commercial is worth risking the safety of Nando’s staff and customers,” South Africa’s Times newspaper quoted Nando’s as saying on Wednesday.

Yet, the very fact that a chicken restaurant becomes a venue for political satire is an interesting statement about freedom of expression in South Africa, and the way in which South Africans talk about politics. For a country that itself emerged from more than four decades of racist authoritarian rule, political satire has a powerful effect, and acts as a release valve for tensions that still crop up in a society where racial and class differences still have the potential to divide.

“You have a very different culture in South Africa, compared to other African countries,” says Gus Silber, a journalist and screenwriter based in Johannesburg. “In most other African countries, it’s a crime to denigrate the head of state. So South Africa is a lot more open in that way.”

Insulting the president is still a crime in Zimbabwe, a fact that may have led local Nando’s franchises to distance themselves from the South African ad campaign, with Musekiwa Kumbula, corporate affairs director for Nando’s biggest shareholder, calling the ad “insensitive and in poor taste.”

South African satire may be “a bit broader” and stereotyped than the sophisticated commentary on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, Mr. Silber adds, but then again, South African politicians have a penchant for broad over-the-top statements and actions themselves.

“When you look at what Julius Malema” the ruling ANC’s ousted youth league leader “and President Jacob Zuma do in reality, it’s hard to beat that in satire,” Silber says.

Nando’s is certainly not the only source of satire in South Africa. Political cartoonist Zapiro portrays South African President Zuma with a showerhead coming out of his forehead, a reminder of Zuma’s court statement in a rape trial that he had taken a shower after having what he insisted was consensual sex with a woman who was HIV positive. The online satirical website Hayibo has made a name for itself with nonsensical news articles such as this one about the Durban climate change conference, advising delegates to “think globally, act locally, and panic internally.”

Sipho Hlongwane, a political correspondent for the South African online news site iMaverick, says that while Americans are often cynical about the mainstream media – and therefore seek out comedians like Jon Stewart and Bill Maher for a hint of political truth – South Africans show “a little more respect for authority in the media, which actually leaves a massive gap for irreverence” by satire outlets and yes, by chicken restaurants like Nando’s.

The Nando’s ad went down predictably well among the South African chattering class, Mr. Hlongwane adds, but “I doubt that it would be accepted any differently among poorer communities. They will have partly blamed Mugabe’s regime for the influx of foreigners from Zimbabwe, which leads to xenophobic tensions which have never quite died down.”

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