Comedy crackdown at Pretoria theatre

On May 19, for possibly the first time since the unbanning of the African National Congress, state police stormed a theatre. One policeman stood guard outside the West End Theatre in Pretoria, while another two rushed across the stage waiting for Rian van Heerden’s controversial show Onbesny (uncircumcised) to begin.

Ten minutes before the show was due to start, Van Heerden was served with a summons for offensive public advertising.
His poster—featuring him clasping a large microphone from his crotch—was the subject of complaints to the City Council.

‘But they were armed with R4 rifles,” says a bewildered Van Heerden, ‘They had their fingers ready on the triggers ... maybe they were scared that, I don’t know, that I’d try to escape or something. I mean, what the fuck?”

Van Heerden is no stranger to controversy. He has been repeatedly fired from almost all of his previous broadcasting commitments. He was fired from Radio Tuks (three times), Punt Radio (four times) and from Loftus, where he referred to the Australian team as ‘sheep rooters” when he thought his mic was off. His SABC2 show Skuur was canned after he broke the record for complaints received by the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Last year he had to pay R50 000 in damages when he told his listeners on Punt Radio to ‘kak op die bonnet van Catherine Myburgh se kar [shit on the bonnet of Catherine Myburgh’s car]”, and somebody did. 

West End theatre manager Andries Vrey says there have been numerous phone calls since it began advertising the show. Some callers have read from the Bible, while others have been more threatening. Vrey questions the timing and the manner in which the summons was delivered. Audience members thought that they were witnessing to either a drug raid, or a hostage situation. Some people left the theatre when they saw what was happening. Others, who encountered the policeman stationed at the entrance, didn’t even step inside. 

Vrey claims that the police burst in without showing a search warrant. He believes it may have been a deliberately orchestrated plan to disrupt the show and his theatre will be taking legal advice on billing the city council for its loss of income.

But, if the intent had been malicious, one wonders why anyone would be threatened by a stand-up comic?

I initially thought it might be in opposition to the sometimes racist content of Van Heerden’s show, but it seems, people who have taken the most offence are a right-wing Afrikaaner element who are outraged by his mocking depiction of all their shibboleths and sacred cows. Onbesny is a merciless mockery of Afrikaner history and tradition, including bitter ridicule of boereraad (advice), the great trek, volksfeeste (cultural festivals), NG religion and Steve Hofmeyr.

Hofmeyr comes in for particular derision in a mock religious ceremony where he is invoked from the pulpit. The show also includes video footage of rural Afrikaans crowds in large tents happily swaying to treffers (hit songs). These scenes are interspersed with scenes of farm animals defecating to the strains of Kurt Darren, Dozi, Theuns Jordaan et al. It is a repetitive, crude, and not very funny insert, but nevertheless, an outrageous idea.

Van Heerden’s humour has a raw, cynical quality. It carries an almost punk edge, were it not for his flash suit. Perhaps the funniest thing about him is the discrepancy between his immaculate appearance and the filthy things he says. His show may include an iconoclastic element, but it also seems to be drawing a different breed of Afrikaner together. Despite the ridicule, there’s a sense of a staunch, if aberrant, Afrikaner identify permeating everything he does. ‘Wat kan ek doen [What can I do]?” he asks ‘Ek’s maar ‘n boer van Randfontein [I’m just a boer from Randfontein].”

One of the reasons Van Heerden developed the show was because he believed his other avenues of expression had been curtailed. ‘I felt like I’d lost my voice,” he says, as a result of having been banned or restricted. He sees his virulently opinionated show as a form of therapy. He is learning to be honest, which is a theme of Onbesny.

Asked whether he has experienced any hostility from his audience since declaring his homosexuality in a letter to Rapport last October, Van Heerden admits he has had a few people shouting and swearing at him. ‘But it has only happened twice, really, so it’s not that bad.” He did, however, an awkward moment while he was filming Hofmeyr in Fochville. Apparently Hofmeyr pointed him out to the beefy small-town crowd saying, ‘Kyk, daar’s daai Rian van Heerden wat nou die dag uit die kassie uitgeklim het. Miskien moet hy weer terug in die kas inklim [Look, there is that Rian van Heerden who recently came out of the closet. Perhaps he should get back in].” Van Heerden admits to having felt distinctly uneasy as thousands of eyes swivelled in his direction.

Vrey is trying to provide an alternative to franchise theatres. Later this year he’s bringing André Stolz’s hit Hedda Gabler, and next February it will be staging an André Brink translation of JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World (titled Bobaas van die Boland).

Onbesny will be on at the InniBos Lowveld National Arts Festival from June 28 to July 2 in Nelspruit, after which it moves to Cape Town. Log on to www.innibos.co.za for more information

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