Comedians help South Africa laugh at its brutal past

"There are white men who didn't benefit from apartheid. They are called albinos." The audience shrieks with laughter at Chester Missing, a comic puppet who styles himself South Africa's "hottest political analyst".

The black puppet and its white comedian master have joined a growing group of no-holds-barred jokesters who slaughter the country's holy cows like racism and the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

A group of around 100 comedians of all races perform to equally multi-racial audiences across the country.

Breaking taboos, their jokes help to narrow social gaps dating from white minority rule, which ended nearly two decades ago. Some say the humour brings about almost unimaginable transformations.

"Comedy really helped the process of healing," said veteran comedian Joe Parker, who has been on stage since 1971.

The comics bring blacks and whites together in the "most amazing manner", he added.

Some years after the end of apartheid racial segregation, black comedy outfits began to sprout and perform even in front of mainly white audiences.

"The fact that there was a black guy up there poking fun at himself as well as the people in the audience made it okay," said Parker.

"People I would imagine 10 years before may have been highly offended by the equation were sitting there laughing," he added.

Popular topics include cultural and religious differences, as well as glaring social issues like rampant crime.

Comedians also take on politicians. At the top, President Jacob Zuma is the butt of many political jokes.

A self-avowed polygamist with over 20 children and a questionable track record in government, Zuma provides ample material.

Celebrated comedian Nik Rabinowitz had a go at Zuma after a bid by the president to calm investors actually had the opposite effect and sent the country's currency plummeting.

If Zuma made a speech in support of crime, Rabinowitz contended, it would actually send the rate of the scourge plunging in one of the world's deadliest countries outside war zones, Rabinowitz said on a weekly radio show.

"South African comedy is uniquely confrontational, maybe because of our history. It confronts a lot of things that a lot of countries in the world ... don't really deal with even on stage," stand-up comedian Loyiso Gola told AFP.

Gola, who also hosts a television news parody show, has himself likened voting for Zuma to buying a trouble-ridden used car, as political parties gear up for presidential elections next year.

Even after almost 20 years into democracy, comedians are still obsessed with racial issues.

"Race is our big topic ... because we are still trying to understand how it works," said Conrad Koch, the puppeteer and ventriloquist who makes Chester Missing "talk".

"Comedy is an outlet for us to discuss identity politics -- what is black, what is white, where do we get this idea of Indian," Koch told AFP.

Even the respected Mandela family does not escape.

As 95-year-old Nobel Peace laureate Nelson Mandela remains critically ill though making "slow but steady" progress in hospital, comedians present his family fighting for a share of his legacy and money.

"That is what happens when you see your grandfather's picture on 100 rand bills," Chester Missing sums up.

South Africa's currency, the rand, bears the smiling the image of its first black president.

Progressive laws guarantee freedom of expression, which helps comedy to blossom.

"Where we are is where countries aspire to be," Parker said.

Neighbouring Zimbabwe has arrested people who poke fun at veteran leader President Robert Mugabe -- in power since 1980.

"Other African countries could learn that throwing people in jail for making jokes about the president isn't that effective," Rabinowitz said.

But a bill that awaits Zuma's approval will allow unprecedented classification of government information -- and hefty jail terms for people who leak such material.

Critics slammed the new legislation as an attempt to stem criticism of the government.

No comedian has landed in trouble over acrid humour, but there are fears that the law set the ball rolling for future restrictive legislation.

"When you see some of the laws that the government is passing to protect themselves, you wonder whether at some point in future ... comedians are going to get fined," said Parker.

"It's a sad way to go."