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Hot Lunch

'Toxic masculinity is the problem': Siv Ngesi on how pole dancing can liberate men

23 January 2022 - 00:00
Hot lunch with comedian, actor, presenter Siv Ngesi in Cape Town.
Hot lunch with comedian, actor, presenter Siv Ngesi in Cape Town.
Image: Instagram/Siv Ngesi

Siv Ngesi is sporting a beard. This means he is not doing drag for the moment. He is contractually bound not to shave until he finishes shooting The Woman King with Viola Davis.

To be fair, there are people who do not find a beard an impediment to their drag, but Siv and his drag alter ego, Sivanna, are not one of those. The bearded one and I meet at Between Us in Bree Street in Cape Town. The subtle, earthy elegance of the restaurant, run by culinary twins Jamie and Jesse Friedberg, is the kind of place that feeds the soul through its minimalist beauty and the lovingly prepared plates of fresh seasonal ingredients.  

It’s one of my favourite Cape Town spots and perfect to meet one of my favourite Capetonian thoroughbreds, Siv, who, more than most inhabitants of the city, has lived across the entire gamut of the place. Born in Gugulethu, raised in Langa and then Pinelands, he is now living right near parliament where he recently witnessed a lot of pyrotechnics.

“I live right there, I see an incredible amount of poverty and an incredible amount of power. It is a real conundrum.”

Acting since the age of nine, he travelled the world with Les Misérables, but managed to avoid the child actor traps. “With a mother like mine, there is no chance of all that k*k. My mother is a school principal — even now at 36 she will call me out. At nine I was doing opening night after returning from the international tour of Les Mis — FW [de Klerk], Felicia [Mabuza-Suttle], Nelson Mandela, all in the audience. I would get home at 11 at night and my mother was like, ‘No, the dishes are waiting.’”

Siv is looking seriously buff: “Pole dancing got the core right — and then I did a bodybuilding competition. Pole plus the weights has been ridiculous. It takes women longer to get stronger, but men find it harder to move well on the pole to be graceful. Pole is the hardest physical thing I have done in my life and I played Western Province water polo and high-level rugby and did six boxing fights.”

So how did he get into pole dancing and drag? He has always been a gender justice warrior. His MENstruation Foundation has made huge inroads into period poverty in the Western Cape by supplying hundreds of thousands of sanitary products to girls in need.  

“This is going to sound like a weird analogy, but pole reminds me of how women are on the street every day — they continuously feel in danger, catcalled and so on, but they need to walk around as if everything is fine. In pole you are basically in a continuous pull-up for an hour, but you can’t show strain on your face or in your movement. So it reminds me how women have to be in society — you go through so much but you continue to  look so poised. Drag is the same thing. My feet are killing me — a person my size is not meant to be wearing heels. And if I have tucked, that is difficult. It hurts and your genitals go numb after a while. I cancel booty calls if I am doing drag at night. I don’t see the ladies.”

It was a journey that started with Covid. “If you look online, 49% of boys under 24 aren’t proud to be a man, and research is saying that masculinity is the problem. I do not think masculinity is the problem, toxic masculinity is the problem. During the first lockdown I locked down alone — I am a lone wolf so I like being alone — and I saw a continuous bombardment of negativity on masculinity.  

“A lot of it is deserved, but it can also do a lot of good. It made me think that it must be difficult to be a boy in this time. We will pay the price down the line raising boys in this time where masculinity is under so much duress. So it was really a process and a way to think about masculinity for myself. I think toxic masculinity is definitely an incredible problem and certain things we have been taught about masculinity are not what masculinity is about.

“Last December we were shooting things that were feminine — ballet, pole — for my charity, and as part of that I jumped on the pole and I have never stopped. Now I do it more than I do boxing. It is a fascinating thing. Also when I put the heels on, the hips, the makeup, the hair, I feel completely different. It became a bit of a journey and I think I am now a better version of myself.

“I take a moment to try to unlearn the  stereotypical things I have learnt.

“Men know there is a big problem with gender-based violence [GBV], but a lot of men don’t know how to begin to address it or how much of an accomplice we are. It is an interesting time, but why are we not doing more? I don’t think we have a GBV problem, we have a violence problem. If they aren’t killing women, they would be killing men, children, dogs. More men die at the hands of men than women die at the hands of men. We have an innately violent society and I know this because I have a violent undertone to my personality — it is a contradiction, I am not a perfect man, I am still flawed.”


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