It's been a long time since South Africa could bask in the glow of global approval. Its politicians are haunted by corruption scandals. Its economy is in tatters. Nelson Mandela is gone, and Desmond Tutu is ailing. Its soccer World Cup has been tainted by bribery charges, and even its rugby champions were humiliated by Japan this month.
But now the country has a new hero on the world stage: the fresh-faced comedian Trevor Noah, who has risen from township poverty to become South Africa's most famous cultural export.
At a time when South Africa is suffering a disastrous decline in its global reputation, the newly arrived host of The Daily Show on U.S. television is giving its people a long-awaited reason to cheer and celebrate. And the country is ecstatic.
Because of time zones, Noah's debut on Monday evening was too late at night to be broadcast live in South Africa. But by Tuesday morning, everyone was talking about it. There were private VIP screenings of his show at movie theatres, organized by local TV networks. Clips of his debut were posted excitedly on South African websites, while Noah dominated headlines and trended on Twitter.
On social media, South Africans referred to Noah's debut on The Daily Show as "Trevor Day." Some suggested it should be a public holiday. "Trevor Noah kills it," one tweet said. "He'll teach Americans about Africa," another said.
Later in the day, another trending hashtag was "#IfTrevorCan" – suggesting that Noah could inspire others in the country to achieve greatness.
Some of the rhetoric was a little extreme. "If you're a South African, then Tuesday is the Rapture," proclaimed one Johannesburg newspaper, The Times, as it awaited his debut. It described Noah as "our comic Messiah."
Even the South African foreign minister, who was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, insisted on horning in on Noah's big day. The minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, took a break from her lofty UN duties to visit The Daily Show studios, just hours before the comedian's debut.
"We want Mr. Noah to know that the people of South Africa and indeed the entire African continent are proud of his achievement and that they support him fully," the minister said in an official statement. "Mr. Noah is assuming an important global platform through which he will be flying the South African flag high."
South Africa's foreign ministry later tweeted a photo of its minister shaking hands warmly with Noah. It diplomatically ignored the fact that Noah has spent much of his career poking fun at the minister's boss, President Jacob Zuma, ridiculing him as a country bumpkin who can barely read.
South Africa's most famous cartoonist, Zapiro, published a cartoon on Tuesday imagining President Zuma stuck in a Manhattan traffic jam caused by the crowds queuing up for Noah's first show. "Hey, baldy," a New York policeman shouts at Zuma. "I don't care if you're going to the UN – there's a big-time South African in town."
One reason for the intense pride is that South Africans have followed Noah's comedic career for many years, watching him rise from obscurity to become the headliner of the biggest comedy shows in the country, and then on to U.S. celebrity status. His story resonates widely here. South Africans can relate to the man with the mixed-race background, who grew up poor in the apartheid era with parents who dodged the police.
Watching his opening monologue in his Daily Show debut, South Africans laughed when Noah joked about his childhood in the country's dusty streets, without an indoor toilet. It is a classic South African tale, in a country where many of the formerly oppressed have leaped to fame and wealth in the post-apartheid era.
The main question that many South Africans have asked is this: Will his U.S. fame mean that Noah will lose his South African accent, as Hollywood star Charlize Theron did before him? It's a question reflecting the country's insecurity and anxiety on the world stage. But so far the answer is no.