The Times – A Zimbabwe joke is no laughing matter<br/> Tyrants may try to ban it, but humour has a way of seeping through the cracks of any dictatorship, by Ben Macintyre

Heard the one about Zimbabwe? A policeman stops a motorist and asks for a donation: terrorists have kidnapped the former Sir Robert Mugabe, and have vowed to soak him in petrol and set him alight if the ransom is not paid.

“How much are other people giving?” the motorist asks.

“On average about two or three litres.” It may not be new, or even funny, but the joke represents one of the few points of light on the dark landscape of Zimbabwe. Mugabe and his thugs have killed off any meaningful election, food shortages are acute, inflation is heading for 1.5 million per cent, but one currency in Zimbabwe is steadily increasing in value – jokes.

Unreported amid the horrors is the growth of underground anti-government humour. Jokes about Mugabe are a crime; anyone saying or writing anything insulting to the Government is liable to be arrested. Yet the jokes are spreading, by text message, e-mail and by word of mouth. The www.nyambo.com website is dedicated to Zimbabwean humour. (“Nyambo” is Shona for “jokes”.) Question: What did Zimbabweans use for light before candles? Answer: Electricity. …

Jokes alone cannot topple dictators, but anti-regime humour is the most subtle form of revolt, the slow erosion of a despot’s dignity, a survival mechanism, a cathartic snook cocked at the stupidity, cruelty and hypocrisy of life under the boot. …

“Humour,” as Joseph Goebbels remarked, “has its limits.” He was wrong, of course, for humour has no limits, and an uncanny way of seeping through cracks of the most vicious dictatorship.

Err, well… Except in Canada

Iraqis laughed behind their hands at Saddam Hussein, Romanians secretly teased Ceausescu (Why does he hold a May Day rally each year? To see how many people have survived the winter) and the French Revolution was preceded by a spontaneous upsurge of ribald humour at the expense of the monarchy.

Perhaps the most extraordinary proof of how humour can survive and even flourish under oppression is the spread of jokes under Soviet communism. In a fascinating new study entitled Hammer and Tickle, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Ben Lewis explores the wealth of subversive humour during the long, bleak decades of communism.

I think we’ve covered that here. Read the whole thing. It’s a riot.