South Africans scrutinize US coverage of Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah’s new role as host of 'The Daily Show' has given South Africans a rare moment of shared pride. But they also wonder if Americans can handle his international brand of comedy. 

Bongiwe Mchunu/AP
In this photo taken Oct. 27 2009 South African comedian Trevor Noah is photographed during an interview. Trevor Noah, a 31-year-old comedian from South Africa who has contributed to "The Daily Show" a handful of times during the past year, will become Jon Stewart's replacement as host, Comedy Central announced Monday March 30, 2015. Noah was chosen a little more than a month after Stewart unexpectedly announced he was leaving "The Daily Show" following 16 years as the show's principal voice.

South Africa has a new national hero: Trevor Noah. 

Since Comedy Central's Monday announcement that Mr. Noah would be the new host of “The Daily Show," it has been a week of collective fist pumps and “ProudlySA” hashtags on social media.

Noah, a mixed-race stand-up comedian, will be replacing broadcast veteran Jon Stewart on one of America’s most revered political and comedy institutions. And the fact that a massive media franchise wants Noah’s talent, voice, and perspective has created a united sense of national pride in South Africa not seen since Oscar Pistorius won gold at the London Paralympics in 2012.

But in just three days, Noah has gone from being a local South African celebrity and a comedic social commentator to a controversial household name in the United States. After only three appearances on “The Daily Show” as an international correspondent, the promotion of the relatively unknown Noah came as a surprise. 

Newly discovered tweets from his past caused an uproar within 24 hours of the announcement and he was quickly labeled “anti-Semitic,” “sexist,” and “lowbrow.” Mr. Stewart and Comedy Central, the network that hosts “The Daily Show,” defended their choice.

South Africans have been quick to defend him and question whether the US can stomach the kinds of topics, like race, many international comedians take on.

“There is a lot of shying away from too much confrontation in terms of race talk [in the US],” says media expert Joey Kok, who studied media in the US for several years before moving back to Johannesburg.

Noah’s new gig was a welcome "win" in South Africa, where a number of negative events have topped the news in recent years. The murder trial and subsequent incarceration of Mr. Pistorius, recurring xenophobic riots, and the reappearance of apartheid-era villains have exposed the country's scars on a global stage. South Africa's undergoing a period of political and economic uncertainty, with ongoing social unrest and lingering class and race divisions.

“Trevor’s news brings a sense of relief,” says Michael Sharman, brand specialist and owner of Retroviral Digital Communications in Johannesburg. 

“We finally have someone who we can be proud of again, someone who is genuinely talented and humble and who deserves it,” Mr. Sharman says. “Thank God it’s Trevor.”

A new audience

After the initial announcement, US journalists and media commentators scrambled to find out more about Noah. Chewed through the 24-hour media cycle, Noah’s credibility took a hit after several tweets written earlier in his career caused an uproar.

“Almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn’t look b4 crossing but I still would hav felt so bad in my german car! [sic]”, Noah tweeted in September 2009.

“South Africans know how to recycle like Israel knows how to be peaceful,” he wrote in June 2010.

Noah responded on Tuesday with a tweet saying, “to reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian.”

South Africans are perplexed by the response and question the US's ability to face its own issues from an outsider’s perspective.

“We talk about things a lot more openly in South Africa. [Race] is more talked about,” Ms. Kok says. "There, people are so politically correct.”

But the very fact that South Africans have defended Noah and questioned US sensitivities also signals a subtle shift in South African attitudes toward US culture, long viewed as dominant, Kok says.

“Starting in the ‘50s in the townships of South Africa, American culture was very highly prized,” she says. “Despite the dire circumstances that poor South Africans lived in, American culture was a big escape."

Kok adds, “It will be interesting to see whether [Noah] resonates with American audiences.”

But Comedy Central's decision to select Noah for the position – in an industry long dominated by white, western men – isn't just a victory for South Africa, says Lorenzo Davids, a prominent civil society leader in the Western Cape. It's also an opportunity for the entire African continent to shape a new global narrative.  

“I would like to see this as affirmation that the world is moving and shifting towards recognition of the ideal that people living in the South – in Africa – can be seen as equals,” he says.

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