South African Comedy


The Jokes Are on South Africans

May 4, 2012, 6:25 AM

JOHANNESBURG — On Tuesday evening, as I walked into Metro, a trendy restaurant-cum-comedy club in a northern suburb of Johannesburg, my heart skipped a beat. I noticed that our table was close to the stage.  As an obsessive stand-up-comedy fan, I know that these actors love to pick on the front row. And South African comics are particularly cruel.

There is no holy cow or political correctness here. Obesity, disabilities, racial stereotypes, genitalia — all are fit for comedic consumption. The best South African comedians, many of whom perform at this club, are not just brilliantly funny. They are also seriously good social commentators. I bring foreign visitors here not only to relax but also to get a quick introduction to my country’s problems.

Crime, racism, misogyny and, increasingly, class tensions are the dominant themes of South African comedians’ jokes.  Mamello Mokoena, a black comic in his early 20s, opened a recent act by delivering his lines almost unintelligibly, in mangled English and with an accent suggesting he might have grown up in a poor township. His jokes weren’t very funny, and he sounded out of place among the black professionals in the audience.  As the skit wore on, I worried about the growing restlessness around me. But then Mokoena suddenly snapped out of it and exclaimed, with perfectly posh and polished delivery, “I also went to a private school, [expletive]!”

This is not an unusual gag. Many young black comics draw on their experience of growing up in middle-class, post-democratic South Africa while having parents and extended families that are still very poor and conservative. Like many young South African professionals today, they are grappling with how to balance keeping their traditions alive — maintaining a local dialect or rituals like slaughtering animals — and navigating English-speaking corporate and suburban South Africa.

This is also why jokes about a date at a restaurant in the suburbs with characters who can’t pronounce the foreign words on a menu get big laughs. Audiences recognize instantly the anxieties that come with upward mobility.

And the complexities of race in South Africa. Donovan Goliath, a very talented, mixed-race comedian who is light in complexion, tells hilarious stories about Xhosa-speaking classmates who would gossip about him in his presence until he responded in perfect Xhosa. This joke taps a familiar stereotype borne out of our racist past: mixed-raced South Africans speak only Afrikaans.

Some of the comedy is not for the fainthearted. Once, as Loyiso Gola, the usual host at Metro, was bemoaning South Africa’s poor performance at the last Olympics, he started laying into the white South Africans in the audience. “You guys are supposed to be able to swim!” He said of them, joking that blacks can’t swim. “But you can’t even win bloody medals for us at the Olympics!”

He continued with his harsh, politically incorrect barbs.  The locals in the audience lapped it up, but my English guests were aghast. In South Africa, comedy is both escapism and social commentary. And sometimes it comes at the expense of someone’s dignity. Fortunately, at least so far, I’ve escaped unscathed.

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