Chester Missing: 'So this puppet has a plot to end racism ...'​

Conrad Koch, the voice of Chester Missing, talks to Sue de Groot about why we can't talk about racism and why we absolutely must

27 May 2020 - 13:47 By Sue de Groot
Chester Missing with Conrad Koch.
Chester Missing with Conrad Koch.
Image: SUPPLIED

Conversations about race and racism are almost always awkward and often downright impossible because most people refuse to have them. Conrad Koch sees it as his calling to gently yank our heads out of the sand and make us laugh at our own wilful blindness.

On Friday night this conversation will be had in a hi-tech show streamed live from Koch’s home in Cape Town. It is going to make some people uncomfortable, but even they will find it hilarious.

It’s not every day you see a business card bearing the job titles “ventriloquist and anthropologist”. Both these appear under Koch’s name and both are valid. He has a master’s degree in social anthropology (focusing on the micro-politics of humour and gossip) and a day job as the voice of that famous political and social commentator, the puppet called Chester Missing.

Their new show is called How To End Racism, by Chester Missing. Without giving too much away, it starts with Chester planning a TED-style talk on how to end racism, which is, as Koch says, “a preposterous idea”. 

Chester the puppet can’t give the talk until he establishes whether Koch the puppeteer — the white guy who makes him talk — is racist. The interrogation that follows reveals more of Koch’s personal life than he has ever shared on a public stage before. It is also very funny.

In defending himself to Chester, Koch puts forward all his credentials: “I’m a very liberal character, I call myself ‘woke’. Of course I see myself as not racist. I literally have an award from Ahmed Kathrada himself for fighting racism. I’ve gone to court fighting racism. I have proven myself not racist over and over and over again.”

He has to face his own weaknesses, however.  “The truth is I am still racist,” Koch admits. “Chester unpacks that in the show and he helps explain how there is really no way to grow up in SA without picking up on some level of racism.”

Koch is often verbally attacked or shunned. “The society we live in is in some ways institutionally geared towards not having the conversation,” he says. “There are some radio stations that won’t have me on because they’re worried I’ll talk about apartheid and so on. I lost about 300 social media followers just this week because I was promoting the show. White people get really upset when you talk about racism.”

I lost about 300 social media followers just this week because I was promoting the show. White people get really upset when you talk about racism
Conrad Koch

Here he adopts the high-pitched whine of a Camps Bay socialite: “But are you going to talk about everyone? Everyone’s racist, it’s not just white people.”

Back in his own voice, Koch says: “The first answer to that question is: that’s ludicrous. No black people colonised Europe. There’s no one called Karen going, ‘My name’s Karen but call me Siqobile because it’s easier to say’. It’s not a comparable conversation. The second and most important thing is that in any relationship, when have you ever succeeded by pointing out what’s wrong with the other person first? 

“The fastest way to heal a country is to own whatever you have. A crime against humanity happened in SA and I benefited from it. That doesn’t make me bad or evil but we should talk about it.”

Without laying blame on anyone, Koch feels we could have had better leadership in confronting uncomfortable truths.

“I think the white leaders we’ve had, the Helen Zilles and FW de Klerks, have not done their job. They haven’t stood up and gone: ‘It’s not your fault apartheid happened, it’s not your fault that you benefited and it’s not your fault that other families were kicked out of their homes, but the fact is it happened. The fact is to some degree and in varied, nuanced, complex, intersectional ways, it has helped your life. So let’s just talk about it. Let’s admit it and let’s work to fix it.’ But fixing it means getting people to admit that racism exists, because most of us are in total denial.”

Who better than a latex puppet to make us face the facts of our humanity? 

“Chester’s show blocks every excuse,” Koch says. “He takes away the ‘I’m better than you’ defence from the liberal who looks down at everyone. He goes: ‘Conrad, you’re racist and here’s why.’ He uses actual examples where I’ve got it wrong and where I still get it wrong and where I need to work at doing better. I don’t think I’m a bad person. I don’t feel guilty, but I still feel there is an onus on me to care about this issue.”

To those who say things like, “But apartheid is over now, why must we keep bringing it up?”, Koch says this: “Apartheid wasn’t just about the laws, the laws were the things they did it with. Apartheid was an economic plan, clearly and strategically planned by Rhodes and Co to make black people hewers of wood and bearers of water, and that economic system isn’t gone at all. We still benefit from it.

“Let me deconstruct it: it’s not my fault, but the fact is that when I’m in Woolworths, and there are black people packing and mostly white people buying, that’s because of apartheid. For anyone to say, ‘Oh it’s over, get over it,’ is ridiculous.

If you could not study what you wanted to study, if you could not do the job that you wanted to do, if your entire family is broke and you have to look after your parents because they couldn’t get manager jobs or investment opportunities ... one thing has led to another and to act like that’s over is preposterous.”

White people — not all of them but many of them — tend to either lash out or turn tail when they hear the word, “racism”. 

'ENTITLEMENT TO RACIAL COMFORT'

Sociologist Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, thinks “entitlement to racial comfort” is one of the reasons for this visceral fight-or-flight response. If you have never felt ashamed of, embarrassed about or victimised because of your race, it's not at all pleasant to suddenly face criticism based on your whiteness. When this happens, fragile whites either lash out or walk out.

White fragility also involves the huffy denial of any complicity in, responsibility for, or benefit gained from, racism. In pointing these things out, Koch exposes his own weaknesses before anyone else's.

“I try to soften the blow by targeting mostly myself,” he says. “I’m not letting myself off or attributing credit to myself in this complex thing. I’m earning money out of it, which creates this constant awkwardness because I’m questioning exactly what I’m busy getting credit for.

“It’s this weird continuous privilege cycle. The fact that I’m talking about racism and have been given a platform, I got an award, I’m doing a show on it ... yet again, more privilege. That problem is very much a part of the show: Chester wants me to say, ‘I’m Conrad and I’m a racist’.”

Koch is slightly annoyed when people call him controversial. “It’s not controversial to say let’s stop being racist. It’s preposterous to see that as controversial. But the amount of times I get introduced as ‘the controversial Chester/Conrad ...’ Why? Because I said it’s not OK for anyone to say black people deserved apartheid? How is that controversial?”

Swinging back to self-deprecation, he admits that he does not have a terrible life. “I get tons of love and tons of support, and the level of entitlement it takes to say you’re having a hard time as a white South African is truly ridiculous. Chester takes that macro view and looks at the nuances of how I see myself and my privileges. I talk to a puppet for a living. Can you imagine a black kid in the 80s going, ‘I want to play with dolls for the rest of my life’?”

It’s not controversial to say let’s stop being racist. It’s preposterous to see that as controversial
Conrad Koch

Part of the genius of this show is that the device of interrogation by a puppet enables not only Koch but the entire audience to see themselves from the viewpoint of a latex toy, which is a lot easier than self-examination.

“The show might sound hectic from what I’m saying now but it is very funny,” says Koch. “And it’s very real, because it’s about my actual life, which I’ve never done before. My comedy has never really been about my own narrative. This one is and it’s very satisfying. I can’t wait to take it to the world.”

THE SHOW MUST GO ON(LINE)

How To End Racism, by Chester Missing was supposed to be a live show touring the world, but then the coronavirus shut things down, so now it is going to happen in Koch’s lounge. But it’s nothing like a Zoom talk or amateur webinar. Koch and Chester have spent a large part of lockdown learning about high-end technology that will be put to use in their performance.

“We’ve set up professional lighting and camera equipment and there’s amazing streaming software you can use to jump camera angles and figure things yourself, that we’ve got familiar with in the past few weeks. You buy tickets from Quicket and get sent a link to watch the show live. The show is streamed with very stable backup systems and there’s a support structure in place for any technical advice that anyone might need.”

Comedians who have done mostly live shows might miss the stimulation of a heckling audience, but Chester Missing exists on TV. Speaking in cyberspace is his natural habitat. One of Koch's current projects involves Chester gatecrashing corporate Zoom meetings and interrogating the boss.    

As for online performances, "you can interact amazingly with people through the comments section,” says Koch. “People can laugh, react, share their thoughts. The feeling of an audience is still there. It’s just changed shape.”

Aside from all the work, Koch and his wife have survived lockdown by “catching people’s music and Instagram shows, all those kind of chill things".

"Chester doesn’t care about lockdown because he’s made out of latex. He’s very much in his own world, arguing on Twitter, reading the news and hobnobbing with famous people. I’m riding on his career, he’ll tell you.”

• 'How To End Racism, By Chester Missing' will play live online on Friday May 29 at 8.30pm. To participate, book at quicket.co.za — 30% of the proceeds go to the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation to support their antiracism projects (so you get to fight racism while laughing at racists). ​