At the height of the apartheid era, the satirical television programme Spitting Image produced a memorable song entitled "I've Never Met a Nice South African". It perpetuated an image of a harsh, unsmiling people that – however unfairly – has persisted to this day in some quarters.
Stand Up South Africa, a festival at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, featuring the best comedians from that country, may go some way to overturning the cliché of a nation with a collective sense-of-humour bypass. The line-up of seven stand-ups is inevitably a mixed bag – the veteran comedian Mel Miller, for instance, is proof that dinosaurs still walk the earth. But the best of the bunch enter territory that your run-of-the-mill British stand-up can never hope to reach. These lively South African performers underline that there can be more to stand-up than throw-away gags about the difficulties of finding your front-door keys when you're drunk.
As you might expect, politics towers over the show like Table Mountain. In a country still grappling with the after-effects of apartheid, politics touches every aspect of life – comedy included. Crime, in particular, tops the bill of favourite themes. Al Prodgers, the infectiously likeable compere, sets the tone when he bounces on, points at the bare brick wall at the back of the stage and says simply: "The Afrikaner's world view." He goes on to describe Afrikaners to the uninitiated: "These people make rednecks in Texas look like Hare Krishnas. They are Klingons without the sense of humour, Amish without the technology."
Roni Modimola, a 25-year-old Sowetan with an engaging chuckle, cleverly plays on the white paranoia that every black man they pass must be a mugger. He recalls seeing a white woman tense up as he approached her in the street: "She's clutching tightly on to her handbag... as if that helps."
David Kau, the hottest black comedian in South Africa, also makes a lot of good comic mileage out of racial stereotyping. "I got to my hotel room and there was a white girl cleaning my room," he marvels. "I started taking pictures."
But perhaps the loudest laughs of the evening are reserved for an unlikely recipient, a ventriloquist called Conrad Koch. His voluble green puppet brings the house down when he argues that if Nelson Mandela is the Yoda of Africa, then that makes Robert Mugabe "a whole Death Star".
You know that politics is an issue woven into the very fabric of South African comedy when even the ventriloquist's dummy starts making trenchant topical gags.
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