Melt Sieberhagen - Ventersdorp's solitary fun export
Mention Ventersdorp and the world immediately conjures up thoughts of white supremacy, neo-Nazi fascist emblems and a man called Eugène Terre’Blanche. Thank God for Melt Sieberhagen, who’s annihilating holy cows while showing South Africans the funny side of growing up in a God-forsaken NorthWest town. By MANDY DE WAAL.
Have you heard the one about the Apartheid Museum? That’s the place where Afrikaners housed all the ‘kak’ ideas they’ve ever had, for everyone to see.
Melt Sieberhagen, a funny man from Ventersdorp, caused a bit of a kak-storm recently when he told that joke behind the boerewors curtain. “It’s funny—in front of an English crowd I can get away with a lot because they are laughing at me and my people, it is not as if I am poking fun at them,” the Afrikaans writer, actor and director-turned-stand-up comedian said.
But then you start telling apartheid jokes in front of Afrikaners—who are supposed to be ‘plesierig’ (pleasant or lekker) —and you get the blitzkrieg eyeballs?
“The Apartheid Museum gag—that’s a long gag, and I am not going to tell you the whole thing—but I say that you have the Apartheid Museum, where they have all the kak ideas Afrikaners ever had, under one roof. Across the road is Gold Reef City, which is a nice colonial town, so you can see where the Afrikaners got all the kak ideas from in the first place. This whole thing builds up to a joke I make at the end which is all about the good things that Afrikaners have done,” Sieberhagen told Daily Maverick on the phone.
“The Apartheid Museum is the lead in, but one night in Pretoria when I referred to apartheid as a kak idea I got this… well it was a bit of a death stare. It’s was full of that ‘We shall not be accused by our own’ kind of vibe.” But Sieberhagen’s the kinda guy that takes AK47’s to holy cows. “It is never good to pussy-foot around stuff like that,” he said, adding that sometimes the only way to deal with politically uncomfortable truths is to use humour.
Sieberhagen grew up on that ‘velore vlakte’ (forsaken plain) known as Ventersdorp, a place that has become inextricably bound with white supremacy because of Eugène Terre’blanche, the notorious founder of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB).
“On one level, Ventersdorp is like any other small ‘platteland’ (country) town. It is a farming community. It is filled with sunflowers and churches. In that way it was a normal town. Obviously on another level it has a strong political connotation because Eugène Terre'Blanche lived there,” Sieberhagen said.
He has long since left the town where he grew up, but strangely enough was back in Ventersdorp drinking a beer in the local pub, when the news of Terre’blanche’s death broke.
“I went to Ventersdorp on a visit to my folks and I was sitting in a bar meeting a friend of mine, and the only prominent DA guy in the town came in with his son. We were in the pub having a drink and he said he had just gotten off the phone and that Eugène had been killed,” Sieberhagen said.
“It was weird being there when that happened. I got angry because for the next two days I could see that closed-minded lager mentality settling in on some people again. And I thought well, this is just like it was 20 years ago all over again,” he added.
“I view Ventersdorp with something between a smug smile and a smirk, I guess. I was at school with Eugène’s daughter who is a few years younger than I am,” he said, “and she was a school friend—we were mates in that sense. I haven’t seen her in years, but I think lately we wouldn’t have a lot to talk about.”
There was a time when some South Africans were actually scared of Eugène Terre’Blanche. As white apartheid rule started to crumble, conservative enclaves were flooded with rumours of war which coalesced into Terre’Blanche’s threat of full scale civil war should democracy dawn.
Who can forget the vulgar sight of an armoured vehicle driving through the glass panels of the World Trade Centre in 1993 where the Convention for a Democratic South Africa's (Codesa) was taking place, hundreds of AWB men with their fascist flags invading the building’s inner sanctum where democracy talks were being held?
Two years earlier, Terre’blanche’s AWB had faced off with police in the ‘Battle of Ventersdorp’ where FW de Klerk, apartheid’s last president, was due to address crowds in an effort to ease conservative tensions following the unbanning of the ANC.
“FW de Klerk did his speech in Ventersdorp in August 1991, which caused shit between the police and the AWB. I was in school and we were supposed to stand guard of honour for FW de Klerk because he was the fucken state president. That all turned to shit and we ended up being locked up in the ‘kommando’ hall where the speech happened that night,” Sieberhagen recalled.
“There was tear-gas, riot police, marches and stuff… there was big shit in Ventersdorp that day. The people who were there wanted to save me, so they locked everyone in. I remember there was footage of us with a FW poster on the way to go and stand in this supposed guard of honour. He never came in time. FW had to land in Potchefstroom and be driven through to Klerksdorp because they were shooting at his helicopter and shit like that,” he said.
“I still feel guilty for that because I was on television that night with an FW poster. I can still swear that had a negative effect on my dad’s business for years after that because he was never vocal in politics,” Sieberhagen said, adding that his father used to be a farmer before managing the local liquor store.
The way Sieberhagen, an only child, describes his parents, one gets a clear sense they weren’t typical Ventersdorp natives. “I wouldn’t call my parents ‘pink liberals’, although I guess my mother might qualify as that,” Sieberhagen said. “I remember banned books in our house. I am talking about like Hold My Hand I’m Dying and Andre P Brink’s Hou-den-Bek. They were all there, behind other books on the book shelf,” he said.
“My dad was a businessman and I remember he was quoted in a magazine run by Denis Beckett in the mid-’80s called Frontline. There was an interview with a couple of people from Ventersdorp when the AWB started gaining prominence, and my dad said politics is just not good for business. That’s always been his thing,” said Sieberhagen.
“My mother, on the other hand, got a lot of flak from the school where she was an English teacher. I remember the school wanted to have its own inter-high athletics instead of competing with other schools, and she was like: ‘Why, just because they have got black kids from Mafikeng?’ They weren’t activists, but they certainly were different.”
Sieberhagen’s parents were married for eleven years before they had him. They lived on a farm in Ventersdorp and had friends who worked for newspapers in Johannesburg. “They always went through and partied in Joburg or went to LM (Lourenço Marques, which is now known as Maputo).
“They weren’t your typical Platteland Afrikaners, so that gave me a very different perspective on life. But from a very young age I was aware of politics because it was always spoken about. My folks took me to theatre and I saw Pieter-Dirk Uys stuff in the late ’80s and early ’90s, so that sense of awareness was always there.”
In 1998 Sieberhagen left Ventersdorp for Pretoria to study drama at the University of Pretoria. “It was my first physical move out of Ventersdorp. My parents were reluctant because they said there was no real job security in what I wanted to do, but they didn’t try too hard to stop me.”
Tuks is also the butt of Sieberhagen’s humour. “Studying the arts in Pretoria is like studying war in Switzerland.”
But Sieberhagen concedes that studying drama got him to start writing and to fully appreciate what acting and drama was all about. This must have been useful given that Sieberhagen was very active in the Afrikaans television industry as actor, editor, writer and director since leaving varsity in 2001.
Stand-up comedy came much later. “I think my funny bone developed because of stuff my parents exposed me to, like Pieter-Dirk Uys. When my folks went to go and see Adapt or Die I was too young to go with, but they brought the programmes home, I went through them, and my mother told me everything,” he said.
“The minute I was old enough to see that sort of thing myself, I went with them. I also had Leon Schuster tapes and LPs. I listened to all the songs and I knew all the words. Later I saw Casper de Vries in the ’90s. Casper didn’t do political humour, but he did do satire which was and edgy, a bit below the belt, funny and Afrikaans,” said Sieberhagen, who’s been doing stand-up for six years now.
“I think I got into it just in time because in the last three or four years it has just exploded. I did a small Afrikaans set a couple of years ago to help someone out, but it really worked. I never thought I would be able to carry myself on stage in English without stumbling through it, what with stuff like vocab and grammar,” he said.
At the time there wasn’t an Afrikaans circuit for stand-up, so after mainlining on his first set Sieberhagen threw caution about grammar Nazis to the wind and started telling jokes about his life, experiences and growing up in Ventersdorp.
“The thing with Ventersdorp is that it is not the Ventersdorp people who became the AWB, it is the AWB people who came to Ventersdorp and made it their stronghold. There are families who have been there for years who are politically inactive. My parents had neighbours who moved up from Despatch (in the Eastern Cape). They sold everything in 1991 and move up and moved in next door to us. Their son Cliffie Barnard was one of the bombers who is now still in jail. After 1994 those people were just left to rot. It is not as if the AWB supported these people in anyway. They moved there for the AWB,” said Sieberhagen.
(Nicolaas Clifton 'Cliffie' Barnard was, a member of the AWB’s Ystergarde, was part of a ‘right-wing death squad’ that escaped from prison in 1996, after standing trial for bombing spree that left 20 people dead as part of an attempt to derail the 1994 elections. The group would set off two more bombs in Worcester in the Cape, before being caught. Four people died in the Worcester bombings, three of them children.)
“I speak about all the anomalies and the weird stuff about being an Afrikaner in South Africa, now and then. A lot of my material is based on my heritage and my roots, and what I have seen and experienced. And obviously Ventersdorp has given me a shitload of material. Spending 18 years there may have been hard, but it is paying off in terms of material.”
And if you still doubt that someone born in Ventersdorp can be funny, Melt Sieberhagen answered a few probing and all-revealing questions from Daily Maverick:
Daily Maverick: Are Afrikaners funny?
Melt Sieberhagen: A lot of them are. Some on purpose, like Casper de Vries and Pieter-Dirk Uys. Others by accident, like Steve Hofmeyr and Dan Roodt.
DM: Who are the two guys and a bakkie that comprise your cult following?
MS: They are figments of my imagination, but the position is available if anyone wants to apply.
DM: Should marijuana be legalised?
MS: If brandy can be legal, I can't see why dagga should be any worse.
DM: Why do they say “Afrikaners is plesierig”?
MS: Because they are (or were, especially when ignorance was bliss). Especially when brandy is in the mix. If dagga gets legalised, I imagine some of them would be even more 'plesierig' than others.
DM: How would you 'roast' Steve Hofmeyr?
MS: Dump him in the middle of Alexandra and let him sing the song Ons sal dit oorleef he wrote last year and purposefully put the K-word in. He did it to make a statement, and to me the statement was pretty much "I'm a racist doos".
DM: If Martinus 'Kortbroek' van Schalkwyk has a life after politics, what do you think he'd do or be?
MS: I think he'd make a great Afrikaans music promoter. He's already proved himself as willing to march to any tune, even after the band stopped playing.
Finish the sentences:
There's no business like... One where you get paid sufficiently and on time.
Kyk noord.... Fok voort. But don’t ignore the rear-view mirror.
Delarey, delarey... Was a good name for a song, 'cause nothing really rhymes with Manie Maritz.
Afrikaners would lynch me if I... told them how I really felt about some of them.
I like Fysboek because... it saves you the effort of going out and stalking people in person.
When the rapture comes.... I'd be moerse surprised. DM