The toyi-toyi man has his fist in the air. His comedy partner asks him why he is saluting. 'Hey, it's no salute - I'm hanging on to this branch to stop me falling out of the tree.' Big laugh. A black waiter walks past the front of the stage. 'Nice tan,' says the comedian. Big laugh. In the new South Africa, some people are finding it harder to adjust than others.
Later, outside, I talk to the waiter with the nice tan. His name is David Khumalo. What did he make of that? He smiles, and says: 'It depends.' Maybe he fears for his job, but he seems sincere, unbowed, when he says: 'I think he is drunk. If he is not drunk, then there's no excuse. But I think he is drunk.' He shakes my hand - palm, thumb, palm - and goes inside.
The day before, I had been guided through Soweto by a man who spent six years imprisoned on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held for most of his 27 years in jail. I had asked about forgiveness. He said: 'If we were to give these people a heavy clobbering . . . we would inherit ruins. We've got to say, we belong to the 21st century, we belong to the global village. We are part of the modern world . . .'
In place of bitterness, a kind of forgiveness. And in place of revenge, pragmatism. I am in South Africa for the first time, and I am a liberation groupie - looking for the Berlin Wall thing, the clean, historic substitution of one thing by another, the toyi-toyi of victory, the last-gasp snarl of defeat - maybe smudged mascara and tooting horns. But I have to make do with other, subtler forces.
Mandela was released in 1990. It has taken four years to incorporate compromise into South Africa's revolution, and emotions are now muted. There is some fear and stress among whites, joke toyi-toyi-ing, stockpiling of baked beans and bullets. There is also a kind of joy among some of those voting for the first time, which will reach a crescendo after this week's African National Congress election victory. But what you mostly hear from people - in Soweto, and Cape Town, and the middle of nowhere - falls somewhere between total cheer and total gloom - there's realism, scepticism, disappointment, impatience, worry, complete lack of interest. That's bad TV, but seems a vaguely encouraging range of emotions to bring to an infant democracy. And when something plainly good happens - like the inclusion in the election of the Inkatha Freedom Party, announced on Tuesday - there is a willingness to be optimistic. After that news, for hours people of all races and ideologies ring the independent radio station in Johannesburg, Radio 702, breathless with excitement and relief. One woman just goes: 'Halleluiah] Halleluiah]'
Perhaps it is for a few days only, but a lot of people are paying lip-service to the idea of a newly tolerant nation. Perhaps I'm being conned by South Africans - black and white - who want to impress themselves and the foreign press with their maturity and world-weariness, as if a non-racial,multi-party democracy was the most natural thing in the world to install itself in this half-wrecked, ungoverned country. Sometimes it all gets unbearably yucky - pretty soon after arriving, you've heard enough songs that go: 'If we walk together, if we tell no lies, then you will see-ee, a new-born country come alive . . .' But some days it feels as if great crowds of South African people have put the past behind them - and you can't imagine how.
You can see the history of the country before you land on it. There's where the black people live, and there's where the white people live. Black people have tiny houses out in the middle of nowhere. White people have big houses somewhere more handy, with curvy blue swimming-pools. White roads look grey, and black roads look dust-red. One of the more shocking sights in South Africa can be seen when you flyover the border from Natal province into the 'homeland' of KwaZulu. Green on one side, brownish-yellow on the other - like when you lift something left too long on the lawn.
You knew it was going to be like this, but you didn't quite know. You keep thinking you'll drive into a black middle-class neighbourhood - double-door garages, big hedges - but you won't, yet. Or you think you'll find high-rise white slums, but you won't. Apartheid worked, it didn't leak. South African cities are Birmingham in the middle, then, immediately, Surrey - and somewhere on the other side of the motorway, Addis Ababa. People have contact with other races, because they are employed by them, or employ them. But they do not have them as friends, since other races lead entirely different lives, they speak different languages. In a small town, an elderly white woman proudly gets photographs from her handbag: herself and some black people on her first-ever visit to a township. 'You know, these chaps, they're happy.'
South Africa is very beautiful, but not that beautiful. After a while, you begin to suspect that the reason why white South Africans always talked of their country's great natural charms was that it was simpler than saying the servants came cheap. To be fair, there are extraordinary sunsets and storms; and you can drive down to Cape Point, where the land falls away on either side until you are at the end of the continent, and where freakish winds try to blow you back into Africa; and you can take a train across the Karoo desert and fall asleep for an hour and see the same view when you wake - the same distant, flat horizon and the same straight road and telephone poles alongside the track. But it does not all take your breath away - and what has been built on top of South Africa . . . I was expecting something a bit sleeker. I was expecting to suffer the exquisite pain of outlandish luxury amid general deprivation. Except in the snazziest suburbs of Johannesburg, the buildings seem shabby. The trains don't run on time, the escalators are jammed. Home-grown television seems mostly wobbly and over-lit and most newspapers, given the story of the century, manage dullness. White South Africa's contribution to world cuisine seems to be the hot milk option with cornflakes . . . Britain at least built an empire out of subjugation. South Africa held barbecues and grew world- class moustaches.
Before I went to South Africa, I spoke to Rian Malan, who was in London. He is from an old Boer family, and has written with great candour about deserting - but not quite deserting - his tribe. I asked him about optimism. 'At the end of 1989,' he said, 'in the run-up to the Great Leap Forward - that was the last time when everything was simple and everyone knew what was right and what was wrong . . .'
Life has become more complicated and dangerous, Malan says. Friends have been robbed and beaten. Friends have been raped by black men, and those attacks had race politics 'not as their subtext, but their text. They said, 'This is political' . . . The people I know who are optimistic are the people with a cowboy attitude. They're thinking: 'There'll be a lot of violence, it'll be difficult for a long time, but I'm ready, I've got guns, I'm taking precautions.' '
White South Africans are significantly safer than their black compatriots, but many are scared, and statistics suggest they have some right to be. I fly first to Cape Town - a relatively crime-free place - and I am advised not to open my car windows. Keep bags in the boot. Keep the door locked. On my first walk in South Africa - be careful - I walk into The Protection Shop. The manager, Bradley Oldfield, shows me his range, while brushing away his small son, who is beating him about the chins with a martial arts weapon. '. . . CN gas, CS gas, ammonia-based gas - that's for riot control. We've got a whole range of stun guns, up to 240,000 volts, handcuffs, knives, knuckledusters . . .'
You could write about nothing but crime, and the fear of criminal and political violence. I met a non-partisan, Zulu-speaking journalist in Natal who sees bodies every week - although he's called a political reporter. He has witnessed more than one necklacing - 'The tyre was wet with petrol. He died slowly. You could feel the pain, you could hear it. The way he screamed.' Later, I gave a lift to some ANC people on their way to a rally in the township of Umlazi, outside Durban, where ANC and IFP supporters have been waging war. We got a bit lost - because although this was only a few miles from where my passengers had lived all their lives, they had never been here, to this enemy place. There was suddenly a fear in the car. A woman unstuck her ANC sticker, and the cocky young men in the back stopped singing and crossed their arms over their chests to hide Chris Hani T-shirts.
But in Cape Town - on the coast at the foot of Africa, a long way west of Umlazi - you have the distraction of a proper, dirty election campaign. It is divided three ways between white, black and mixed-race Coloureds. The white liberals of the Democratic Party may do well ('You know, checks and balances' is the slightly embarrassed justification heard from whites who always thought, or said, they would vote ANC). And F W de Klerk's National Party, supported by Coloured voters keen to protect the economic edge over 'Africans' that apartheid allowed them - seems to be doing well. The ANC is not guaranteed victory here, unlike almost everywhere else.
A campaign has to be fought. Garth Strachan of the ANC has a portable phone, a pager. He runs from room to room. He is in a terrible rush. He is a (white) campaign co-ordinator in the Western Cape, and a regional candidate, and a member of the executive of the South African Communist Party. Strachan was 18 years in exile, and for all the soft, university-lecturer appearance and voice, he is a former member of Umkhonto weSizwe, or MK, the ANC's military wing. He can talk of the experience of sending 10 men to their deaths across the border from Zimbabwe, after which he vowed 'never to give an order that I wouldn't, as a commander, be willing to carry out myself'.
After the struggle, the muddle. This doesn't look like a man who is about to achieve what he fought for half his life. You wonder if he misses the simple certainties of the battle against apartheid, if he feels somehow cheated of his moment of liberation ecstasy.
'Absolutely,' he says. 'I think for everybody in the underground, in the army, in exile, or in the Frontline states being hunted down by hit squads, we did have a sense that there would be a kind of cleaner birth of democracy.' He says that on two sides of the ANC there are people who are finding it difficult to change. On one hand are those acting as if there has been no change, engaging in 'popular militant demagogy' - Winnie Mandela among others. On the other are those who have almost packed up entirely, 'the cynics . . . who say, 'We fought all these years, nothing's been achieved, the revolution didn't happen.'
He has to go. Joe Slovo, an ANC leader, is at the airport. Where is Slovo's schedule? Who has the car keys? Who has his pager number?
The train from Cape Town to Johannesburg takes about 24 hours. This is not the fancy Blue Train, but the ordinary train - carrying soldiers and big Boer families. I share a first-class compartment with a white man in his sixties who snores while still awake, which bodes ill. His fleshy face seems to be pulling downwards, as if the skin could slide off his head altogether. He says, with a heavy Afrikaans accent, 'The train, it stops many times', and we start talking, and he is not the mad old fascist I had him down as. Although he lives just outside Johannesburg - not in the sticks - he can barely speak English. He is a retired train driver. He will vote, as ever, for the National Party. 'But blacks and whites, I'll go with the stream. I'll go with the change. Let everyone in South Africa do what they want to do, what he likes to do . . .' Walking into second-class, I meet a chic, NP-voting young Indian man called Roger Naidoo who feels his neighbourhood is being 'taken over' by criminal blacks, and another Indian who cares little about politics and a lot about Hornby model trains.
But in third-class, I am welcomed into a compartment of five young men brought together by this journey - who are drinking Castle beer, and arguing with a brotherly eloquence that could see them going straight on to national TV. 'Here is the new South Africa,' someone claims, inevitably, during the many handshakes. The ratio is not quite right for that - there are Coloureds, one white, two black men - but everyone approves of the conceit, and drinks to it. There is Charles, a Coloured policeman, and Saul Efriam, also Coloured, who works in a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Cape Town. He was detained as a young man; he will vote ANC. The white man, Andre Pretorius, a 'handyman', looks a bit rough and has a bad stammer. He says he fears communism, and will therefore not vote for the ANC. But he declines to say any more.
Soly Adonisi, who is black, will vote ANC. 'They must win the first elections, they must win the second. Five years is like five days] You cannot build one million houses in five years . . .' He speaks very loudly and unstoppably, with a passion strangely at odds with his sense of political realism. The other black man, David Ngaba, does not speak English. He lives in the rural Northern Cape, and trekked down to the townships outside Cape Town to look for a job. He didn't find one, and is going home. Soly acts as interpreter, but with obvious dishonesty, putting exotic spins on monosyllabic answers. Ngaba clearly has little interest in or understanding of the forthcoming election.
Soly's extravagant interpreting annoys Saul, the Coloured former detainee. 'You can ride a bicycle?' he asks Soly. 'Yes I can,' says Soly. 'This man,' says Saul, pointing at David Ngaba, 'cannot ride a bicycle. Do not ride the bicycle for him. I'll show him how to ride the bicycle, but I'll not try to ride it for him, and take away his pleasure in riding it.'
There is a lot of 'voter education' on the television, alongside the Afrikaans soaps, the news in Xhosa, and advertisements cashing in on - or celebrating, if you like - the South African election (Hi-Tech shoes: 'When a new nation stands on its feet . . .') Voter education features puppets in polling booths, bouncy animated crosses, little dramas set in shebeens - and the quick-edit democracy of a crisps advertisement: Construction worker] Nurse] Granny] Black man] Brown man] South Africa has had politics of a kind before, but not universal suffrage, and it's the choreography - and likelihood - of a 'free and fair' election that is demanding attention. The parties have policies (I went to a polite ANC meeting in Cape Town, where representatives took questions on the environment, buggery in jail, and the legalisation of cannabis), but the questions people ask on radio phone-ins are: Given that you must dip your fingers in an invisible ink to prevent you voting twice, what if you are allergic to invisible ink? Or, next call: What if you have no fingers?
Last week in Soweto, where 3.5 million live, voter education was being conducted by a Cape Town rap band called The Prophets of the City. Educational rap is not a promising medium, but it was loud and funny and very good. I spoke to a man about football: 'This Sunday,' he said, 'was a great Sunday for me, because I saw Zambia play Nigeria on television. Under apartheid I would not have seen that match. I said to myself, Jesus. This is what we've been missing. Jesus Christ. These guys can play so well]'
Among the many pains of being a black South African under apartheid was one shared by white people - the pain of exclusion. There is now a delight in the idea of membership - the ANC plans to join the Commonwealth, for a start - and in the suddenly available notion of national pride. In Johannesburg, I met some members of South Africa's football squad (current composition: 12 blacks, seven whites, three Coloureds). They were in a break from training for the game they play today against Zimbabwe - only the 17th game since the international boycott ended in 1992. Andrew Tucker is new to the squad. 'I grew up in a protected society. I had my friends. I went through my studies. I wasn't really aware of apartheid . . .' Now, he speaks with something close to wonder of being cheered by black fans, and of his sheer good fortune at having a career that has outlived apartheid. His wife, an ice skater, was less lucky. Had South African skaters been allowed to compete internationally in the Eighties, she would have been in the national team. Now, at 24, she is way too old.
David Nyathi plays left- back, is rather dashing, and is something of a national hero. He will always remember the first match, against Cameroon, in 1992. But it could not be compared to watching the release of Nelson Mandela two years before. 'That was the step. That was the step to a brighter future for South Africa. We didn't know Nelson Mandela. We heard about him - we knew him as a leader - we didn't actually know him as a person. And then he was free.'
You can test how seriously you take a politician by imagining him or her in the same room as Mandela ('President Mandela, let me introduce - ah - Michael Howard'). De Klerk is often in the same room and does not do badly, with his little half-smile and the mouth that barely moves when speaking, as if he is afraid of emitting bad breath. ANC election advertising is simple. Across South Africa today, the posters say: 'Mandela for President,' and there is a smiling photograph of the man who looms in a spookily calm way over the past and present and future of the country. The NP has posters of De Klerk, but they seem to be fading faster in the sun.
I had not quite given up on the big emotional moment, and last weekend, Mandela was in Natal. The day after the white comedian had done his dance in Durban, people a few miles away were waiting in the hilly township of Lamontville, where Mandela was due to do some kind of walk-about, or drive- about. Here, at last, was the carnival: very fat women in startling dresses, boys in political T-shirts, ANC flags, a big noise. Young security men wearing leather jackets and dark glasses leapt out of cars long before they had stopped, as you do if you're a security man. I talked to people who said they had thought they would die before apartheid did. Someone held a handwritten sign saying 'Unemployed. Help Us Mandela' - oddly, it jarred that anyone should make a demand of the man, and then you wondered whether Mandela will find it possible to be both a legend and leader of government.
But then the car arrived - a big Mercedes. And eventually, when the crowd had been pushed back, and Mandela had been transferred into a car with a sun roof, he rose through the hole, magnificently, and raised his fist and grinned and took the cheers. 'Viva Mandela, Vi- va]' The crowd behaved as politicians must dream they will, wildly, desperate to get close, hanging from advertising hoardings, from the tops of buildings. With arms spread out, a man shouted in Zulu, 'I have seen my uncle Mandela]'
Someone got a megaphone to Mandela, and he made a short speech: 'I just wanted to say, I'm very happy indeed to come to meet you. Although I'm 75 years old - I'll be 76 in July - whenever I'm among you, I feel like a young man of 20 . . .'
The crowd laughed. Mandela spoke very slowly, accompanying his words with trademark nods of the head: 'I've come to tell you,' he said, 'how much I love each and every one of you. You inspire me each and every day of my life. I've just come to say thank you.'
And then he drove off in the sun, followed by the cars of journalists and officials - and it was at an easy pace that practically forced the people at Lamontville to toyi-toyi alongside him, down the hill, singing.