“Liberals sometimes like to pretend that they form some sort of neutral middle, and that it’s right-wingers or left-wingers who are the ones with political leanings, but of course that’s just arrogant.” Satirical website Hayibo.com closed its doors – so to speak – this week. For five years the site had opted to see the humourous side
“Liberals sometimes like to pretend that they form some sort of neutral middle, and that it’s right-wingers or left-wingers who are the ones with political leanings, but of course that’s just arrogant.”
Satirical website Hayibo.com closed its doors – so to speak – this week. For five years the site had opted to see the humourous side of South African news, hilariously lambasting the country’s newsmakers in the process. At least, it would be hilarious for some. Armed with a stinging wit and a talent for off-kilter observations, the site developed a loyal following, surviving a previous “shut-down” in August 2010.
Tom Eaton chatted to Rolling Stone about the motivations behind the team and site that brought you “the news… broken into lots of little pieces.”
Hayibo ran basically for a period of five years. What inspired it initially?
I’ve always loved fake news, and I thought South Africa was ripe for the plucking. South Africans still have an almost religious faith in news. We are deeply suspicious of all sorts of things, but those critical faculties just stop working as soon as you put a newsreader or a newspaper headline in front of us: if it looks like news, features quotes, and uses small words, then it’s gospel. Which is, of course, bullshit. All news is subjective, or slanted in one direction or another. Great journalists slant it only slightly, or else slant it like a mirror, to reflect the most light onto things that crooked people want to keep in the dark. Crap journalists (or content manufacturers pretending to be journalists) just make stuff up.
People always compare Hayibo to The Onion or Jon Stewart, but its origins are much older than that. A lot of us grew up on the fake news in The Goon Show and Monty Python, earnest deadpan straight-to-camera insanity. The Pythons completely deconstructed the idea of news long before anyone was doubting its authenticity. In one of their two German episodes, there’s that fantastic opening where a German newsreader slowly has her studio dismantled around her, and then is dragged off into a Bavarian lake as she keeps reading the news. That’s kind of what we were doing: dragging off pompous, earnest news and chucking it in a lake.
There is a broad impression that news-based media (even satirical outlets like Hayibo) are hamstrung by conservative advertisers and investors. Does South Africa still fear making fun of itself?
I think South Africans like to think that they are good at self-mockery, but we’re not. I think the reason for this is that South Africa has been a patriarchal chiefdom for a thousand years. We have have a very deep-rooted tradition of giving unconditional respect to authority figures, whether they were pre-colonial kings, Dutch or English governors, apartheid Prime Ministers, or Zulu bon vivants from Nkandla. In this kind of system, mocking those in power is a direct attack on an entire way of life and the foundations of the known universe. It’s a bit like making religious jokes in the 15th Century: you’re not seen as a critic, but as a tool of Satan.
That history has created a country in which public self-mockery is very difficult, mainly because the stakes seem terribly high. There’s a sort of subconscious fear that if you let down your guard, someone is going to screw you, whether politically or economically. You can see that in closed, largely homogenous groups: they’ll take the piss out of themselves when they’re all together as Afrikaners or Zulus or Jews or Muslims, but the moment there are Outsiders present, they present a united front.
Why did the corporates stay away from Hayibo? That’s also a tribal tradition. The corporate sector is just another patriarchal, insular tribe in South Africa, and it has survived by doing what most tribes do: being cautious and conservative to the point of paranoia, being deeply suspicious of creativity (which implies dissent and independent thought), and not welcoming outsiders. I don’t blame advertisers for not coming on board. It’s in their nature to be fearful of something like Hayibo. It would be like getting cross with the Catholic Church for not wanting to advertise on a Richard Dawkins blog. Having said that, a few companies and advertizers DID want to come on board. But they move so slowly, and in such long cycles, that we ran out of steam before anything could get nailed down.
Several of Hayibo’s pieces seemed to cut rather deeply. Was there ever any backlash from the subjects you targeted?
We mostly went after politicians, they tend to have pretty thick skins. I also know that some of our alleged victims were closet fans of Hayibo. There were a few upset people, but mainly because they hadn’t understood that Hayibo is fiction. So we’d get emails from outraged people wanting to know who this Dick Head person was in our story, or which Home Affairs official had told us that Liewe Heksie was emigrating to Perth. One of the biggest responses happened after we recently reported that Jeannie D had been arrested for trying to do a Top Billing insert on Nkandla. Her fans went ape-shit, demanding to know if she was OK. Some must have contacted her, because she tweeted that she’d read our “stupid story”. When you’ve been called stupid by a Top Billing presenter, well, that’s satire nirvana.
Jon Stewart told Fox News that the difference between him and them was that his end goal was comedy, not a political statement or agenda. Did Hayibo follow the same philosophy, or can it be argued – as it is by some – to be a voice “critical of authority”, particularly when it came to the politically-tinged stories?
I don’t think you can get away from a political agenda. Jon Stewart is resolutely liberal, which is a political position. Liberals sometimes like to pretend that they form some sort of neutral middle, and that it’s right-wingers or left-wingers who are the ones with political leanings, but of course that’s just arrogant. So yes, I suppose Hayibo was liberal, slightly right of left. The trouble is that in modern SA we’ve created these crazy false dichotomies: if you are white and critical of our profoundly incompetent government then it is assumed that you hate the ANC, and that you therefore hate what it achieved, and that you are therefore you are a right-wing cracker white-supremist. If you are black and feel the same, then you’re a coconut. On the other hand, if you concede that the ANC has improved the lives of millions, then the right-wingers brand you a delusional whackjob living in denial and paving the way for a Zanu-esque dictatorship. Sometimes it’s hard not to get sucked into a ANC-bating mindset. But perhaps it’s civil society’s responsibility to howl loudly and regularly if it sees its government slipping away towards something sinister. But the truth is, I can’t answer that question with any authority, because as a white boy born in the late 70s, I received no political education whatsoever. I can’t tell a libertarian from librarian.
Hayibo somehow got by with three writers during the last days. Sounds very rock ‘n’ roll.
Way rock ‘n’ roll. We’ve never had more than five writers at any time, but we were down to three for the last four months. Oh, plus the groupies. And the roadies. And the bus driver.