@ChesterMissing’s Guide to the Elections ’14

ChesterMissingChester Missing held his Cape Town book launch last night, and he was as entertaining/discomfort-inducing as ever (the latter, at least for middle-class white liberal types, whom he specialises in discomfiting). For those of you who don’t know Chester, he’s a puppet that routinely delivers fine political analysis, served up with plenty of satirical humour.

Conrad Koch is the man who stuffs Chester into a suitcase when traveling, and also the man who books Chester’s gigs, including – presumably – the deal for the book they launched last night, Chester Missing’s Guide to the Elections ’14. I’ve just finished reading it, and while anyone looking to learn anything about who to they should vote for on May 7 might end up disappointed (Chester being an equal-opportunity abuser of all the contenders), those looking for a simple collection of gags at the expense of those contenders may well also feel short-changed – but only because they might be asked to think through some uncomfortable issues, rather than simply chuckle along.

Gags there are aplenty, some of which are rather amusing, supported by some classic Zapiro cartoons. But a key purpose of the book – at least in my reading of it – is as a vehicle for Koch to explore the complexities of racial identity and class in our 20 year-old democracy, and to highlight the ahistorical and apolitical ways in which some of the likely audience for the book (and his shows) might be inclined to interpret South African political theatre.

As befits his training in social anthropology, Koch intends for the book “to explain why we should learn to understand voters’ motivations on their own terms”, rather than according to assumptions about what those motivations might be – whether those assumptions are the result of propaganda or our own prejudices. The book is, in this sense, a useful complement to Eusebius McKaiser’s Could I vote DA?, which (although more narrowly focused on one party) also highlighted the centrality of understanding the historical and psychological context in which political messaging is interpreted.

The second section of the book offers a potted history of South Africa, and the 10 pages dealing with South Africa pre-democracy are as effective a rebuttal to white folk who think apartheid a thing of the past as one could imagine reading in a comedic book. The point of the section is not to invoke lashings of white guilt, but to remind readers that if they don’t acknowledge the ongoing effects of racial discrimination, they can’t understand apartheid.

As I said in a previous column,

I did benefit from apartheid, as (on aggregate) all whites did. But I still benefit, because of the cultural capital, the confidence, and from the fact that the vast majority of people in power at my institution are white liberal males, just like me. How could I not have benefited and continue to benefit? After all, isn’t that what apartheid was designed for?

However you end up voting – if you vote at all – it’s useful to be reminded, as this book reminds us, that it’s not only our political leadership we’ve got to keep an eye on. We should also keep an eye on each other, and on ourselves, to make sure we engage with each other fairly and honestly, rather than according to well-rehearsed stereotypes.

Here’s Chester Missing at the EFF manifesto launch:

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.