South Africa’s attitude to race is hard to understand – but it feels like a country ready to laugh at itself

The Guardian Posted on Monday, July 2nd, 2007

South Africa’s attitude to race is hard to understand – but it feels like a country ready to laugh at itself

I flew into South Africa just over 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 we 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 uncanny impersonations of Mandela, Mbeke and Buthelezi. South Africa feels like a nation that really 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 there’s no griping about the 2010 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: “As a thinking person I can only sit back in awe of the miracle that has happened; and 2010 will only make that miracle continue.”

Chancing across a news story online, I found the results of People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ annual contest to find the world’s sexiest vegetarian. The winners were … Carrie Underwood and Kevin Eubanks. Both Americans, apparently. I’ve been attempting to be vegetarian for the past five or so years, and attempting to be sexy for even longer. I do pretty well at abstaining from meat for a couple of weeks at a time, but then the lust for flesh overtakes me and I’m found attempting to suckle on the big doner kebab in my local chippie at three in the morning. Then I feel disgusted that the bloodthirsty, murderous Ms Hyde side of my personality has taken over.

I mainly want to be vegetarian because I’m uncomfortable with the idea of eating another living thing. Like many people I’m shocked at the way animals are treated. Therefore, I always try to buy meat that is certified free-range and organic. It’s what I like to think of as “happy” meat, but that makes it even worse because I find myself thinking: “Gosh, that cow had so much to live for.”

I’m also fully aware of the environmental advantages of a vegetarian diet. Apparently it takes six times as much land to feed a meat eater as it does to feed a vegetarian. Admittedly, that’s not too surprising because beans don’t tend to wander in the same way that cows do – that’s probably why farmers don’t shag vegetables: there’s no thrill of the chase.

I went to the Peta website after seeing the sexiest celebrity result, so as a bit of PR it certainly worked on me. After reading some of the information about farming I’m determined to stay away from flesh from now on. It’s made a bit easier by the fact that every South African I meet tries to make me eat biltong, which looks and tastes like dessicated goat’s penis (I’d imagine).

This week Lucy watched The Holiday on her flight to South Africa: “Weird watching a film about Christmas while leaving a wet British summer for a sunny African winter.” She listened to God Shuffled His Feet by the Crash Test Dummies: “Because it’s the only CD in our rental car. It’s quite good, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to it again after hearing it 500 times so far.”

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