Humouring the state? Zimbabwean stand-up comedians as political actors

  • Amanda Källstig

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis asks how Zimbabwean stand-up comedy intervenes politically. In a difficult political context with severe economic hardship, and a limited space for public debate, stand-up has flourished, growing from a handful of comedians in the early 2000s, to an industry with regular performances in 2019. Exploring original empirical material gathered during four months of fieldwork predominantly in Harare, but also Bulawayo, this thesis demonstrates that despite severe restrictions to freedom of expression in the country, and comedians being harassed, arrested and abducted, stand-up has become a space where social ordering can be interrupted. The argument made in this thesis is informed by a theoretical approach combining Homi K. Bhabha's emphasis on ambivalence, and conceptualisation of mimicry, with Judith Butler's understanding of performativity. This thesis looks particularly at three sites where the construction of Zimbabwean-ness is interrupted: the production of state autobiographies, the creation of an authentic national subject, and norms regulating how people should behave. Exploring these, it argues that the genre divulges the ambivalence of Zimbabwean-ness; highlights narrative contradictions; unsettles societal conceptions and addresses that which is commonly silenced. Embracing the ambiguous nature of comedy, it examines how stand-up enacts the ambivalence of state claims to homogeneity as it reiterates tribal narratives; displays anxieties pertaining to women's place in society; unsettles binary conceptions of patriotism; wrestles with gendered notions of artistry and the subordinate role of women in society, and interrupts gendered narrations of the public/private divide. As such, this thesis tells a story about Zimbabwean politics that has not been told in this depth and scope, or from this theoretical perspective before. Doing so this thesis makes three main contributions, first to research on Zimbabwean politics by looking at comedic resistance in Harare and Bulawayo, and showing how stand-up comedy contests, whilst also reinforcing norms, narratives and discourses through which Zimbabwean-ness is constructed. Secondly, it contributes to scholarship in critical global politics by developing a theoretical approach through which to understand comedic subversion as both reinforcing and disrupting dominant power relations, advancing research that asserts its resistive capabilities whilst also grappling with jokes that appear to be both prejudicial and unsettling. Finally, it contributes to critical global politics by advancing a fieldwork-based methodology for exploring comedic resistance in countries like Zimbabwe, extending beyond the often textual or narratively based studies on the topic, facilitating a better understanding of the comedian's position within social ordering, and their ability to interrupt it.
Date of Award31 Dec 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorAoileann Ní Mhurchú (Supervisor) & Carl Death (Supervisor)


  • Resistance
  • Performativity
  • Mimicry
  • Gender
  • Nationalism
  • Comedy
  • Zimbabwe
  • Africa
  • Critical International Relations

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