TOPICS: Race and comedy in South Africa

I flew into South Africa a week ago. When Whitney Houston arrived in South Africa she got down and kissed the runway. Of course, she may just have been down there looking for rocks of crack.

Anyway, I’m in Cape Town for the Vodacom Funny Festival at the Baxter Theatre. There are four British and three South African acts on the bill every night. I know I might be biased, but I think that watching a stand-up comedy show is a great way to quickly find out a lot about a nation’s sensibilities and sensitivities. Apart from a certain amount of smut and banter that’s common to the bawdy art of stand-up globally, the approach to comedy is very different here. Whereas Brits favour surrealism, word-play and whimsy, the South African acts tend to focus on issues of race and religion.

As an outsider, the attitude towards race here is one of the hardest things to understand. The brilliant young comic Wayvinne Dawson describes himself as half-Zulu, half-coloured. I still can’t cope with calling someone “coloured” because it makes me feel like a character in a 1970s sitcom. Wayvinne plays up to the image of coloured men being ruffians. One line from his set is: “Here in Cape Town you’ve got coloured Muslims — just how dangerous can one man be?” It would draw the most horrified gasp in a British comedy club, but brings the house down here.

Comedy is becoming hugely popular in South Africa. Gales of laughter greet Wayvinne’s material about sleeping with white women as revenge for apartheid. Muslim comic Riad Moosa is becoming a superstar. There are howls of recognition at talented mimic Martin Jonas’s impersonations of Mandela and Mbeke. South Africa feels like a nation that needs to laugh at itself.

As a British comic you need to tread carefully though, because there’s also a very palpable sense of national pride. Nowhere is this more evident than in the attitude towards the 2010 World Cup. The contrast with our attitude towards the 2012 Olympics is staggering. For a start there’s genuine excitement about improvement to the infrastructure and the creation of jobs. Plus, unlike the UK and its logo for the 2012 Olympics, there’s no griping about the logo — even though it looks like a man who’s broken both of his legs, lying on a bed of blood and sick, a sight that I’ve not seen since I was last in Newcastle city centre on a Saturday night.

While rugby and cricket are huge, they’re both viewed as “white” sports. You notice that a lot of Springboks fans adhere to the worldwide stereotype of the rugby lad - white men with no necks who dribble slightly if you make them think too hard. Football is perceived here as the truly multicultural sport and the excitement about 2010 has a lot to do with its ability to improve racial harmony. The wonderful Eddy Cassar, who runs the Vodacom festival, is a South African-born white man in his 50s who witnessed 1994 and all that led up to it. He says: “I can only sit back in awe of the miracle that has happened; and 2010 will only make that miracle continue.” —The Guardian