It’s an interesting line-up tonight at the comedy club on Long Street in Cape Town. First on is an Afrikaaner from Bloemfontein. Then there’s an Irishman with a face and arms as red as a stop light. Following him is a coloured man from Durban, a coloured woman from Cape Town and a Zulu man from Johannesburg. ‘Coloured’ in South Africa has a more official meaning than it does in this country. In Ireland, the word ‘coloured’ is informally used to describe everyone from Paul McGrath to Robert Mugabe. It is also frequently used in conjunction with the word ‘chap’ during the course of an anecdote where the protagonist’s race is irrelevant. For example “Well anyways, I answered the door and there was this… this coloured chap there, now I’m not being racist but…”
In South Africa on the other hand, ‘Coloured’ people are an ethnic group who have a wide range of mix-race ancestry from European, Malay, Indian, Chinese as well as African.
During the comedy show, without exception all the South African comedians start slagging off the other races and their own. Even the white Afrikaaner guy can make edgy jokes about black and coloured people and get away with it – apart from the gasps of the white people present. The MC, who is from Soweto, addresses this discomfort directly. “White people, don’t get offended on our behalf, we can handle this sh**, we took a lot worse from you before.”
The red-faced, red-armed Irishman on the bill is me. I came to South Africa to go to a friend’s wedding and “sure while I was there, I might as well do a gig like”. The red face-and-arms were acquired after the previous day was spent on the top deck of a sightseeing bus in the full glare of the African sun. The rest of me is, of course, pristine. During my time on stage, I stay well clear of race-relations, apart from briefly pointing out that Irish people could not be categorised in South Africa as we are the only people whose own bodies are multi-racial.
It’s no surprise that race dominates the comedy material – apartheid was not that long ago and the scars are still very visible. In the District 6 Museum earlier that day, I listen to Noor Ebrahim. Small and dapper, he is what one would describe in Ireland as a tidy man. He talks simply yet powerfully about his life under apartheid. And in his quiet way demonstrates not only how wrong apartheid was but also how stupid. About 40 years ago, the white government decided to clear a section of the Cape Town – called District 6 – of its coloured and black residents and declare it white only. As the area contained many
races and religions who were peacefully coexisting, it was an affront to the basic tenet of apartheid – that the races should not be allowed to mix.
Noor is half-Indian, half-Scottish so by definition, not European enough for apartheid’s liking. In 1975 his house was demolished along with thousands of others. Noor’s family was offered approximately 5% of the value of the house – now THAT’s negative equity – and told take it or leave it. Once the houses were demolished, because of the domestic and international protest at the time, many whites refused to move in. The houses were never replaced and the area is now wasteland.
The final destination today is a township called Imizamo Yethu. It’s a shanty town quite near to one of the wealthiest areas of Cape Town. It has 30,000 people living in an area the size of about nine GAA pitches. Which is plenty of room if you’re just watching a match but if you’ve to cook, clean and raise a family in mostly one room shacks, the living conditions are depressing. Shanty towns grow for many reasons but one of the main ones was that under apartheid, the government banned people of certain races from living outside of designated homelands. With no work for them in those designated areas they were forced to squat illegally on the edge of town.
My guide in Imizamo Yethu is a man from Transkei called Eric. It looks like I’m the only one on the bus who opted for this tour until we are joined briefly by an elderly Norwegian woman. But she announces “I’m here for the birds”. Eric then explains that she is at the wrong stop. ‘The World of Birds’- a large park filled with enormous aviaries and
3500 birds – is further down the road. As she sheepishly gets back on the bus, a large part of me – approximately 97% – wishes that Eric had kept mum. It would have been interesting to see at what point during herwalk around the overcrowded streets and shacks of Imazumo would she have wondered why there seemed to be only crows in this bird zoo.
Some may find the concept of doing a township tour problematic and wonder if it is not a little ghoulish to be wandering around someone’s village with the express intention of showcasing poverty. But it’s not quite like that – Eric shows me the one-roomed corrugated iron structures with dirt floors and tin roofs but also points to the
hundreds of houses built by Irish volunteers working with the Niall Mellon foundation.
Today Eric doesn’t seem too happy. When he brings tourists into newly built houses he has to pay the owners a small fee. With only me on the tour, income is down yet his outgoings remain the same. So there’s not much left over for him. I don’t speak Xhosa but I do recognise the facial gestures when someone is saying the equivalent of “Tis hardly worth me while like, I’ll have nothing outta dat!”
Back at the comedy club, Marissa the coloured lady from Cape Town is doing a detailed comparative analysis of the sexual prowess of whites, blacks and coloureds. With the whites coming a distant third.
Apart from us slagging off the English (which gets tiring after 800 years BOOM-BOOM) there’s no real race comedy in Ireland. Yet. Most –though not all – comedians are white with no real understanding of the experiences of new Irish residents and many jokes are confined to vague stereotypes of Polish people and the odd potshot at the Travelling community (I am guilty on both counts, though trying to reform).
However In the next few years, an African, Asian or Eastern European comedian will break through in Ireland and give a fresh answer to the age-old question which obsesses the Irish: “What are we like?”