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Gasant Abarder: Chester Missing meets journalism

Cape Argus editor Gasant Abarder is not sure what he was thinking when he asked puppet Chester Missing to work on the news desk.

It was a rookie mistake. I realised the error as soon as Chester Missing took a seat on the Cape Argus news desk and started speaking. "So Gasant Abarder edits the Cape Argus? I'm sure I can do a better job. If he can do it, anyone can do it."

Puppet political analyst Chester Missing and sidekick Conrad Koch talk to Cape Argus deputy news editor Lance Witten. Picture: Brenton Geach. Credit: CAPE ARGUS

"Isn't that Lance Witten?" he asks, turning to our deputy news editor. "How did you get a job here? Jeez, no!"

I thought it was a good idea to trial the puppet after Chester suggested a career move because he felt his human handler Conrad Koch was trying to shaft him.

Chester, his gaze fixed squarely at the reporters in the newsroom, starts shouting out orders.

"Let me see... I want to find a story where Marius Fransman is having sex with Kermit the Frog. Go look for something, Lance. Find some dirt.

"Uncle Gwede Mantashe is having an affair with a beach ball. Go! Find some material that really works. Screw that story about what happened with the water in Woodstock or whatever."

Lance, who is trying to put together the diary, protests: "I'm trying, I'm trying!"

"No you're not trying hard enough. Work man, work!

Then he turns on the team of reporters in the newsroom.

"Okay, get journalist-ing guys. Get journalist-ing! Just go and see whatever is on The Times website and copy and paste it. Maybe just get whatever Cassper Nyovest had for breakfast. Get that and we're going to make that a story.

"Work, you lazy bums. This is Takalani Journalism around here."

Then he mumbles under his breath: "How did Gasant Abarder get this job? See if Ferial Haffajee is available. Get her here."

Then he adds: "I think the Argus is out of air time. Someone SMS Iqbal and tell him to send us more air time."

The stint on the news desk started after Chester discovered a betrayal of sorts at the hands of Conrad. During the interview I let slip that Conrad was creating other puppets.

Chester is furious: "My contract is very clear on this. If you're going to use my vibe for your publicity then I'm the one who headlines and I'm the only guy on the show."

And Conrad interjects: "I just want to do more. I'm being typecast."

Chester says: "I don't care. It's my career. You need me."

But Conrad argues: "You went missing. It was in the Cape Argus. So I had to make puppets out of other things because puppets keep going missing. So I have a feather duster and a slipper and an air sickness bag and I use snapchat."

And Chester says: "No, no, no, no, don't do your own DIY projects. He's riding on my profile. That's like someone else doing another newspaper called the Western Cape Argus. That's stealing. I'm being used."

It's tough interviewing Chester. He has what I believe is known in puppet circles as "ventriloquist's lisp" and it's hard to catch what he is saying. But he is clear on one thing: he is the star of the show and Conrad is just riding the wave.

Chester first burst on to the scene during the ANC's Polokwane conference where Jacob Zuma was made. He was razor sharp and his live crossings as a political commentator for satirical news sites became so popular, people even began speaking to him off-air.

He turns to Conrad and says: "His ego, it's all about him. Your hands in my a**, that is all you do. That's white privilege for you, hey?

"I'm just a learned puppet who has a very big head. There's lots of space in there for ideas. I have amnesia, so I don't have a memory. I don't know how I got to know what I know. I just know it. I have an anthropologist's hand up my bum. But I love South Africa. South Africa is doing well. I think in our socio-political space we're talking to each other. Like with Fees Must Fall, actual change is being spoken about.

"I still live in a suitcase, not much has changed, but that is basically the Mandela-Ramaphosa negotiated settlement. My negotiated settlement is the suitcase. Everyone else is getting economic change."

When Chester started he was a few tones darker. Now he has pale skin and very blue eyes. I ask him about this and where he stands politically.

"What is my politics? Well, I'm a white guy with a white guy's hands in his a**. So technically, I'm a CNN journalist.

"My politics is progressive, I believe in change. I'm treated as subhuman status, I'm treated as if I'm not really a person."

Conrad whispers: "That's not true."

But Chester says: "It is true. You don't treat me like I'm a person and that's technically how racism started where some people have rights and some people don't. I identify with the subaltern because of my status as a puppet. I think Reclaim the Suitcase' needs to be a thing. There's gentrification going on in my suitcase. I was a brown guy in my suitcase, now I'm a white guy in my suitcase. That's gentrification. It's got nothing to do with getting enough sun, it's about not getting enough paint. I'm a puppet. I'm a latex guy, Gasant.

"If you leave a condom in the sun it doesn't go white. Now there's flavoured condoms, one of these days you're going to get flavoured Chesters."

When the brashness gives way, Chester can be very charming. He tells me I'm the "most stylish editor in the country", although I'd prefer a more appropriate adjective that goes with the job.

Chester is also on the money. It's easy to imagine. He outsmarted Steve Hofmeyr and Dan Roodt who tried to sue him in court.

From that moment it was always going to be hard for our discourse to get any weirder. A puppet in the dock? These days Chester prefers to put the unfortunate episode behind him.

"It was like puppet warfare. It was mannequin-on-mannequin violence. Which one was the dummy? Dan actually attacked me there outside the court. I don't like to talk about it because it's in the past and we're moving on, but Steve Hofmeyr said black people deserved apartheid, effectively. Then I said you can't say that. I questioned sponsors of gigs he was performing at. When they withdrew, he got angry."

Chester laments the commercial pressures that go with his job as a political commentator. He has learnt to hold his tongue sometimes - although that isn't always apparent.

It has made him the most sought after puppet in the South African media landscape since... well... Haas Das perhaps?

"I try my best, but I don't know if I'm any better than the other puppets out there. The trouble is there is pressure commercially - even in our work - because we need people to come to the shows.

"The people who come to the shows are traditionally wealthier, which means that politically they're going to support a more DA-type of mindset. That's just how the world works.

"If I tell a Helen Zille joke - I called her a tough cookie because she's a rusk... If I tell Helen Zille jokes and my audience, the ones who have money, don't like them, then people won't see my shows."

Chester can identify with many of the politicians he sends up.

"I don't have motor co-ordination. I'm like Jackson Mthembu. If Gwede Mantashe walks away then Jackson just flops over.

"Mmusi (Maimane) used to be like that with Helen, but not anymore."

And the latest shenanigans keep Chester busy. He has a few interesting opinions on the goings-on in South African politics. It's a refreshingly, no-holds barred take on the state of play when everyone else prefers to present their thoughts in digestable soundbites.

Regarding the results of the local government elections, where the DA claimed key metros, he says: "Herman Mashaba is a black like me who isn't for black consciousness. The irony is killing me.

"What happened is the EFF and DA joined together and they've changed their names to EFF DA ANC'."

And what to make of the high stakes poker game between Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and President Jacob Zuma? "I think the president is just confused because Pravin Gordhan looks like PW Botha with a tan.

"It's a very complicated situation because how do we recapture our state, because the state is being captured in the same way my a** is being captured?

"How do we fix this situation? How do we resolve it because it takes civil society standing together without selling out to the lack of change? It hands the country to the economically powerful, which is colonialism version 2.0."

As the interview draws on, I begin to understand why Conrad keeps Chester locked in a suitcase most of the time. He's fine in small doses. But it gets a bit much when he gets too much air.

And Conrad is the chief target of his polemic attacks.

As I attempt to ask another question, he lets rip: "He had no career so he got me and his career took off."

Conrad protests: "No, that's not true."

But Chester insists: "No, it's true. You weren't getting gigs, so you made me brown and then you got gigs."

The truth is Conrad is spreading his wings and Chester may well be left behind in the suitcase if his venomous attacks continue.

Conrad will introduce a host of new characters tonight and tomorrow night in his new show, Puppet Guy, at the Baxter Theatre.

I feel kind of sorry for Chester. But not sorry enough to offer him a job at the Cape Argus.

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