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“Ek soek die heeltyd net ‘n lekker smoortjie ...”

Peter van der Merwe talks kaktus with Marc Lottering in rain-splattered Melbourne

It is the middle of winter in Melbourne. I walk slightly nervously down Little Bourke Street to Shoan Apartments, the hotel where I am going to meet one of my long-standing favourite comedians, for the first time. The roads in the city centre are wet with rain and reflect the red, blue, yellow and green lights of China Town, the skyscrapers and the trams of central Melbourne.

Marc is waiting for me in the lobby. He is taller and leaner than I expected. My nervousness disappears instantly when he introduces himself from under a funky woollen beanie and says, “Jinne, I’m quite hungry, do you mind if we go get a sandwich somewhere?” I realise: ag, there’s nothing to worry about, this is sommer a lekker easy-going outjie.

We start walking towards Flinders Street Station on the Yarra River to the area where most of the bistros and cafés in central Melbourne are. So I say, “Marc, what do you feel like eating? I think there’s a place that sells gatsbies just down the road.” Hy lag lekker en sê, “If you can find me a gatsby in Melbourne, then you REALLY have contacts!”

After settling on pumpkin soup and a caffé latte we get down to slightly more serious talk. I am particularly interested in how he views the cultural significance of his work to South Africans living overseas, and how he conceives of the shifting sands of South African nation, community and identity from the perspective of this, his second very popular tour of Australia. How is he generally received overseas?

“It’s always been good for me. Audiences want me to talk South African, they love to see and hear another South African. They laugh hysterically at my Cape Flats characters, which you don’t find anywhere else in the world.”

How does he perceive his work as figuring South African, particularly “coloured” identity?

“Apartheid was about keeping people divided. My characters come from what we were told to think — how we viewed white people, how we talked about black people. All South Africans laugh at that because it’s so ridiculous and so embarrassing. The ‘coloured’ issue is particularly difficult. We call ourselves black, but there are many coloured people who refuse to call themselves black. Some working class people, especially, are easily drawn to politicians’ shameless invocation of ‘colouredness’ as something better than blackness. South African identity is still so divided that I am curious to see how the next generation, current school children, will unravel this identity debate in terms of ‘coloured’ and ‘black’.”

The food arrives. What is his favourite kind of food?

“I love chicken in anything … I love Thai and Indian, anything curried.”

And what South African food does he miss when abroad?

“I miss not so much the kind of food we cook, but how we cook it. I didn’t realise we were so special in terms of ingredients. Like, I’m so used to a smoortjie, you only get that in South Africa. I complained a lot about the kak preparation of food in England. Ek soek die heeltyd net ‘n lekker smoortjie …”

Boring as hell
How does he perceive the attitudes of South Africans living overseas towards South Africa?

“South Africans overseas fall into two categories. Firstly, those who left South Africa because of apartheid, especially blacks and coloureds, because of anxieties about education and their children’s futures. They have a very particular kind of yearning for South Africa, but they have readily embraced a worldly viewpoint; they are very international. They are South African and so much more in terms of style and attitude.

“Secondly, you get the South Africans who are boring as hell, to whom I could be talking in the Golden Acre. They seek out exactly the same kind of people that they would have been friends with in South Africa, and I wonder why they even bothered to leave. I met lots of people like that: boring, stagnant, with disgusting attitudes. It was like having a conversation with someone in 1982 — they hadn’t learnt anything new. When they left they were moaning, and they’re still moaning. Nothing external can change a person like that.”

What are the main differences between UK and Australian audiences?

“The UK audiences are whiter. London is a very fast-paced and temporary place. Everyone is just in and out, and very young. In Australia there are a lot more coloured people, and people appear more settled.”

I ask him about a remark he made about how nervous he had felt at the prospect of performing in front of a purely white Afrikaans audience for the first time at the KKNK 2001.

“The fears and nervousness essentially came from me — I had to celebrate and believe in my characters. Someone once wrote: ‘We enjoy Marc Lottering, without ever having visited Cape Town, because he believes so intensely in every word that comes out of his mouth. So we end up believing in his characters and celebrating with him.’ So I have learnt that the moment I falter in my belief in my characters, the audience falters with me. So at the KKNK it was my own nervousness as a black person performing eight shows in front of six hundred white Afrikaners who had bought tickets before the show already. That’s how organised they were! You know black people only buy at the door [laughs] so there was no chance in HELL I was going to get any brothers from the Cape Flats in the audience, ‘cause they would all be standing outside saying ‘Naai, man, hiessie mee’ tickets nie!’

“So the minute I dropped my nervousness people were screaming with laughter and loving it. And the rest of the KKNK was a dream! And I realised then that one must never apologise for being black, for being South African, or about the ‘coloured issue’. Say what you want to say.”

Prayers and panties
This reminds me of one Casper de Vries’s show in which he tells of an old oom who came backstage once after a show and said to him, “Ek gaan vir jou bid.” Has Marc ever had such experiences?

He laughs and says, “Yes, people have written me long letters, or you see them putting their cardigans back on their stiff shoulders and walking out of the show in disgust. So if anyone wants to pray for me, I say please do! It’s all that keeps me going!”

So he doesn’t get underwear thrown on the stage then? Only letters of complaint?

He laughs. “That reminds me of a chat I had with David Kramer about underwear being thrown at him at a show, and he said judging by my audience I am more likely to have dentures thrown on stage!”

What is the most bizarre question he has ever been asked during an interview?

“I was at a press conference just after having been axed from my TV show, and everyone was after the ‘real story’ behind this, like who did you not sleep with, when this journalism student sticks up his hand and asks, ‘What is your feeling on goats?’ I laughed nervously, as did everyone else, and waited for the proper question, then he repeated it and I said, ‘No, I don’t have a problem with goats.’ He said, ‘Good.’ And he kept a straight face throughout. That was bizarre.”

Marc gets asked constantly about his hair. Can you judge a man by his hair?

“Ja, many times you can, but you can also be wrong. For me I can tell what kind of person someone is by how they react to my hair. Initially I grew my hair for a show which explored the whole coloured issue with hair: to try to be as white as possible. So that was going to be my angle. So suddenly a lot of people were coming up to me and saying, ‘Listen, we do think you’re funny, but you really must try and keep your hair short.’ Serious. Then I realised the power of hair: some people feel threatened by it. Some coloured people want to present themselves as decent and this hair of mine is not. So I get a lot of weird reaction to it.”

Is there a stereotypical South African expat?

“No. But I suppose there is a typical character everyone will recognise. There’s this whole expat formula that’s followed every time you meet someone here: ‘Where are you from?’ ‘How long have you been here?’ ‘What do you do?’ ‘When last have you been back?’ Expats laugh at themselves through me, because you don’t realise how quickly you lose an accent; like people say, [Aussie accent] ‘Where did you PAAAHK your CAAAHR, MAAAHK?’ But in order to get things done you have to change your accent.”

From Adelaide to Table View
Does he find touring overseas exhausting, or a source of inspiration for the return home?

“It’s very good to go back! The inspiration is that I feel so much stronger because I feel like I have conquered my audience. If I can make them laugh in Adelaide, they surely will laugh in the Baxter Theatre. Although this is not always true. Recently I learned that conquering London doesn’t necessarily mean you will conquer Table View! I always talk a load of shit to South Africans about expats, and they love to laugh, and expats love to laugh at South Africans back home!”

What is the worst blunder he has ever made on stage?

“I was doing a show in Jozi and the whole audience was so quiet throughout the whole thing you could hear a pin drop. They were not laughing at all. I was so nervous I just rushed through it to get it over with. It was terrible. Afterwards someone came backstage and explained that they had done a block booking for a whole lot of army guys on their off-weekend for a musical Aladdin, which was on in the theatre next door, and they had assigned them the wrong tickets! So they didn’t know what kind of genie I was. Oh my God, that was the worst. I was so relieved afterwards!”

Does he think his comedy has the power to unsettle people?

“To a degree. I don’t want people to leave the show simply having had a good belly-laugh. I want them to leave recalling something I said. I like to make people’s expectations of me, and how they actually experience me, a bit deurmekaar. People have preconceived notions of me as someone who comes form the Cape Flats. I like to unsettle those.”

How did his parents react when he announced he was not going to become a strait-laced lawyer (Marc studied law at UCT), but a comedian?

“They were very unhappy. I had two options: either become a lawyer or become a preacher. I wasn’t doing well at law, so I knew it wasn’t right for me. My parents are very religious, so they view show business as a kind of Sodom and Gomorrah. So they came to my shows for the first time only about two years ago. It’s quite difficult for them, because people always ask my mom, so what’s Marc doing now? And she’s a bit embarrassed, because no one says, ‘My son is a comedian!’ But they have come around to it now and are proud of me. They don’t come to the shows, but to the formal functions. My dad sometimes sneaks into the shows without me knowing, which is a good thing, or I’d never be able to do Galacia. My God!”

As a storyteller, how important does he think it is for South Africans to tell themselves stories that are funny?

“Very important. It is such a big moment to laugh as South Africans together at the ridiculousness of our situation. People find that therapeutic, very healing. Comedy is definitely healing.”

Does he think, to continue the healing, South Africa should conceive of itself as a funny nation as a response to the seriousness of the past?

“I wish I could wave a magic wand and make everybody less serious. But I don’t know if I would want to live in a funny nation. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to write comedy!”

Although it is a source of his work, does Marc think the particular South African obsession with race is a blessing in disguise or a curse?

“That’s a very hard question to answer. There’s certainly nothing nice about it. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be Marc Lottering if I weren’t from the Cape Flats and there were no ‘coloured issue’. I don’t know what I would be doing!”

Does he see himself as contributing to the healing of South Africa through his work?

“Yes. My work has a great effect on people, judging by what they say to me. In Cape Town, a seventy-year-old white lady who never comes to live shows will stop me in the street, grab me by the arm and say, ‘Your work is so important. Please, don’t stop working.’ So some people regard my work as very important.”

His shows are partly in Afrikaans. Does he consider himself an Afrikaans artist?

“No, I don’t. I am comfortable speaking English, and when people book me for Afrikaans festivals they want to hear me speaking my mixture of English and Afrikaans — that Cape Flats talk!”

So does he think Cape Flats Afrikaans is a good antidote for highbrow Afrikaans taalpurisme?

“Ja, I think so more and more. I just express myself as it comes naturally to me. Sometimes I am going to have an interview with Beeld, and if I decide that morning I am going to speak like ‘aangaande my werk, huidiglik dink ek,’ the minute I do that then people laugh at me! My friends and the journalist would say ‘No! That’s not you! What’s wrong with you?’ So people want me to speak the way I am.”

Does he feel the Afrikaans language is a cul-de-sac? Does it have a future?

“No, it will never be a cul-de-sac. I speak to South Africans, here even, and they say if you want to skinner, even if there are only two people in the room, you just automatically go, ‘Yes no fine, we were all there yesterday as well, maar weet djy, djy moes die hairdo gesien het!’ And that’s the same in our family — switch to Afrikaans if you want to skinner! It’s a very important South African language, and it’s very important to who we are as South Africans.”

To thank Marc for his time I give him a local delicacy: a caramello koala. He is thrilled and says, “I love the fact that it’s shortened to ‘CK’ on its dungarees,” he says, “Calvin Klein!”

Julie 2003

boontoe / to the top

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