FROZEN CHICKEN TRAIN WRECK is a book of more than 100 posters used to advertise South African tabloid newspapers. Conceived off-the-cuff and late in the afternoon, these glib, epigrammatic headlines are plastered all over cities and towns to try to sell the next morning’s news, usually only to be removed or buried below other announcements by nightfall. When filmmaker and author of Frozen Chicken Laurence Hamburger sought out an archive of these posters, he realized there was none, and in 2008 he began collecting as many as he could for preservation. “I thought they were an appropriate narrative of a kind of South African vox populi. There was such a variety of political drama and social transformation that it was like a film script in the making.”
Composed in shebeen English, posters like these have been part of the country’s urban fabric since the first Anglo-Boer War (1880–81), and viewed together they create an alternate history of bon mots and bitter pills. Their surrealist gallows humor captures the personal struggles, political horrors, and uncomfortable truths that define not only South African life but also our obsessions and how we indulge in them. A recent Daily Voice edition featured a “racist” shark that only devours white victims. Daily Sun interviewed a woman whose husband had dumped her for the local traditional healer and another who claimed to have been raped by a gorilla.
The posters are the mini-narratives shaping the growing “tabloidization” of the South African media industry, which, since the end of apartheid, has been marked by two disparate trends: the stagnation and decline of traditional newspapers and the rise of tabloids with a black, working-class readership—the most socially mobile and significant bloc of voters and spenders in South African history. On one hand, the collection shows how local tabloids confront the abyss of social breakdown, familial implosion, municipal dysfunction, and even the supernatural occult economy of witchcraft and muti. On the other, it also reveals a celebration of consumerism and upward mobility. Some are inclined to describe this as consumerism masquerading as citizenship, but the more complex reality is that these posters create a counterintuitive positivity—the marriage of a corrupt society and a progressive constitution.