Trevor Noah, stop peddling African stereotypes just to dunk on Trump

17 May 2018

Originally posted on the The Hill.

By K. Riva Levinson is the president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a DC-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets and award-winning author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President,” (Kiwai Media, June 2016).

On Mother’s Day, "Daily Show" host Trevor Noah opined that President Donald Trump reminded him of an African dictator during an interview with CNN's Brian Stelter on the Sunday talk show, “Reliable Sources.”

“I’ve said from the very beginning that Donald Trump reminds me of an African dictator and if you know anything about African dictators, the first thing that you have to do is follow the money and you follow the money with the closest people to them.”

Soon after, social media was flooded with cartoons of the U.S. president in full military regalia, with African soldiers marching in-step. It was not Noah’s first time using this reference to describe Trump.

In a 2016 episode, he described then candidate-Trump as being, “straight out of the African dictator playbook.” He said:

“Donald Trump has stolen all the worst parts of Africa. He thinks like an African dictator. He scams money like a Nigerian prince. He threatens his opponents like an Egyptian leader. And he constantly spews s--t out of his mouth like he has Ebola.”

Noah is skilled at capturing America’s (and American politicians’) self-contradictions. But this jest perpetuates a caricature of Africa held by many in the United States, including the U.S. president, so I don’t find it that funny.

Dictators have long been discarded by most African nations, and denounced by the majority of the African people. There are the holdouts who continue to defy popular will,  but they are increasingly isolated, and under siege.

On Global Public Square this weekend, Fareed Zakaria, posed a question to his audience. It went like this. While in much of the world we are facing a retrenchment of democracy, and seeing a rising of illiberal regimes, somewhere is bucking the trend. Where do you think that is?  

The answer: Africa.

An April Washington Post column points to new book compiled by University of Birmingham researcher Nic Cheeseman on Institutions and Democracy in Africa, which reveals that most African leaders now abide by their constitutional term limits, noting that during the 25 years from 1990 to 2015, that in the 47 countries in Africa that had non-ceremonial heads of state, 40 had term limits.

Cheeseman’s work is echoed by the African polling agency, Afrobarometer, which has documented that public demand for democracy in Africa remains higher than a decade ago, with 7 in 10 Africans saying that democracy is superior to all other forms of government.

In addition to these statistics, consider the anecdotal evidence across the continent. The victory of opposition political parties in Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The demise of long-time liberation leaders in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and the regional mobilization and a popular uprising in the Gambia that thwarted the power-grab of a long-time incumbent.

And that brings me back to Trevor Noah.

Noah was born in 1984 in South Africa to a white Swiss-German father and a black Xhosa mother during an era when such a mixed-raced union was punishable with imprisonment under Apartheid’s strict race-separation laws.  

During his early childhood, Noah was kept hidden, an experience he recounts in his book, “Born a Crime.”

Then the world changed. Apartheid collapsed. Nelson Mandela was elected, and Noah was freed from the bondages of institutionalized prejudice and hatred. He became a popular commentator and television personality for the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and then went on his meteoric rise in America on Comedy Central.

Noah is a role model for African and African American youths, and has shared his good fortune with his home community in Soweto, launching a foundation to help vulnerable young people excel.

And that’s exactly why I cannot give him a pass on this one.

The best jokes are always based upon a foundational truth, as is this one.  But I don’t think it fair to a rapidly changing continent, and a generation of young people, (where approximately 65 percent of the population of 1.62 billion is under the age of 35), who are looking to be defined by their future possibilities, and not trapped by past stereotypes.

Anything is fair game for a comedian. But maybe next time Noah can show Americans, and his 9 million Twitter followers, what Africa is becoming, not what it was, and still make us laugh.