Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Me and Madam and Eve
I know. This is supposed to be a blog about books, not comic strips. But hey, Madam & Eve is not just any old comic strip. It's become something of an institution back where I come from - South Africa's most popular cartoon - and it can be bought in the form of a book at least once a year.
But the main reason I couldn't resist posting this blog, is because of the back story. My 11-year old daughter discovered Madam & Eve's Greatest Hits, published in 1998, in a beautiful old second-hand bookstore in an obscure little town near the French Pyrenees during our summer vacation. She immediately bought it, with her own pocket money, 'to improve my English' - her first languages being French and Afrikaans. Now she diligently reads a page or two each night. Her English is rapidly improving - but not nearly as fast as her grasp of South African politics.
During the past week she asked: 'Ma, what is a truth and reconciliation commission?' I had some explaining to do. The next night: 'Ma, what is affirmative action?' I explained some more. We've dealt with 'wage negotiations', 'go-slow' and 'power cuts'. And we're smiling all the way.
To those of you who don't know the 'liberal' white 'Madam' Gwen Anderson and her sassy black domestic worker Eve Sisulu, it might sound like a reactionary throw-back to the Old South Africa, but the cartoon has become an international hit precisely because it constantly undermines all the old racist stereotypes and prejudices. Madam and Eve are always trying to get the better of each other - with Eve usually winning. There are some other remarkable characters, like Madam's son Eric who brings home a black girlfriend, testing the limits of Madam's 'liberalism'; Madam's atrociously colonial mother from England who lives on a liquid diet of gin and tonic; and the wide-eyed little black girl Thandi who likes hanging out with Mother Anderson. Famous politicians like Nelson Mandela and members of the current government often make guest appearances. And whenever anything interesting happens in South African politics - which is just about every day - the cartoon strip is there to make us laugh about it.
Madam & Eve was created at the dawn of the New South Africa, in July 1992, by Stephen Francis, Harry Dugmore and Rico Schacherl, and nearly twenty years later it is still produced by Francis and Schacherl. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was Francis, an American married to a South African woman, who first hit on the idea after visiting his mother-in-law and encountering the South African phenomenon of the live-in maid. With his outsider's eye he could quickly spot the comic potential of a relationship which was strangely familiar to millions of people in the country. His mother-in-law happened to be called Gwen, but any other similarities between her and Madam are apparently purely coincidental. And the rest is cartoon history...
I would like to continue, but my daughter wants to know what is 'a sangoma'. And how can a woman sell 'mielies' in the street simply by shouting at the top of her voice? I guess have some more explaining to do.