APARTHEID may be long gone, but – as a theatre season at the Fringe will explore – millions of black South Africans are still left out in the cold. Our critic visited Soweto to find out more.
At the gleaming new theatre in Soweto – opened just three weeks ago – things are running a little late. The building is splendid, a three-auditorium multiplex with a spectacular wave-shaped entrance canopy, perched on a slope above the vast low-rise expanse of the world’s most famous township, with its sea of twinking lights. Inside, though, the mood is relaxed, as the Soweto Comedy Festival gradually moves into gear in the biggest of the three theatres, the Red Box.
The almost all-black audience looks affluent, comfortable, out for a good time. And one of the first acts on stage is white Jewish comedian David Levinsohn, who – in the run-up to his first-ever vist to Edinburgh – wows the crowd with a hilarious five minutes on the absurd sights to be seen in his local Virgin Active gym; the audience assures him that there’s also now a Virgin Active in Soweto, and some even confess to having been there.
Yet an hour later – and 30 minutes’ drive away, around Johannesburg’s vast network of freeways – Levinsohn is doing another set, in front of a completely different crowd at Parker’s Comedy Club, in the surreal setting of the Montecasino Complex, in the affluent northern suburbs. Here the crowd is almost entirely white, and Levinsohn delivers a more hard-hitting and increasingly absurdist set, about a form of cheap processed meat often eaten by poor white famlies in South Africa.
Together with his black fellow comedian Loyiso Gola – famous across South Africa for his satirical television news programme, Late Night News – Levinsohn will be appearing in Edinburgh in an evening of new South African comedy called Barely Legal. And the very format of the show – put together by young South African comedy producer Rabin Harduth – speaks volumes about the continuing divisions, tensions, and creative energy of South African society, 18 years on from the country’s first democratic elections, and the end of apartheid.
“It’s as if we’re living in a country where everything has changed, and yet in some ways nothing has changed,” says Harduth, as he drives me past the low-rise townships and glittering, high-rise gated developments that mark out the new landscape of Johannesburg.
“We no longer have formal apartheid, but we have this fierce rush towards material wealth and affluence, where it’s all about what car you drive, and whether you can afford to live in one of these glitzy new developments. And although a minority of black people are successful in that rat-race, millions are left behind, to become ever more excluded, angry and resentful.”
Which is why this year’s season of South African theatre and comedy at the Fringe – supported by the British Council and Willam Burdett-Coutts’s Assembly Productions – involves such an explosive mixture of fierce new work, and restless revisiting of classic texts from the great age of the struggle against apartheid, a struggle whose ideals, according to many artists, are now being betrayed.