articles from 2000

next >


Pieter-Dirk Uys has covered hundreds of kilometres on his latest road show and armed more than 30 000 high school learners with vital HIV/AIDS information

– Marianne Thamm, FAIRLADY

The silver hatchback pulls up next to an open field in Hanover Park, a bleak Western Cape suburb named after a once-famous street in District Six. In the distance are drab housing estates and rows and rows of nondescript council flats — a typical vista around these parts. Inside the car, a middle-aged white man wearing a black beanie squints at a map, turning it this way and that, looking for Athwood Street and Mountview High School, his destination for today. Eventually he finds the school, the eighth he's visited in the last 10 days, and a woman wearing an apron unlocks the gate, smiles and waves him through.

Pieter-Dirk Uys, without the hair, the make-up, the dresses and the faint drag of 'Jeau Moer', Evita Bezuidenhout's signature perfume, is vaguely recognisable. The children make no attempt to hide their curiosity and all eyes in the dusty playground swivel and follow him as he strides towards principal Archie Benjamin's office carrying only a brown paper bag. Later, 800 or so excited children form a semi-circle around three tables and a microphone set up in one of the open corridors next to a barren field. Unlike most of the other schools Pieter-Dirk has visited, Mountview has no hall, no grass. Starting off as himself, Pieter-Dirk tells the children about growing up as an Afrikaans child in the Sixties and the fear and repression that surrounded anything to do with sex — or politics, for that matter. He tells them candidly about his own sexual awakening while reading a book and how frightened he was at the time, praying to God to forgive him. The children roar with laughter. He's an expert at reading the audience and he's had this crowd rivetted from the start.

AIDS, he tells the young audience, is the new apartheid, the new enemy of the people and something that needs to be understood, fearlessly confronted and fought. 'In the past it was the fear of apartheid that rendered it so powerful. But I've learnt that if you laugh at your fear it becomes less frightening. In a moment of fear you can't think. You don't even ask questions,' he tells the silent crowd. South Africa is at the epicentre of the devastating AIDS epidemic. According to the huge advertisements placed in major newspapers all over the country in the same week Pieter-Dirk is touring the schools, 'more than 50 percent of South Africans under 25 today could die of AIDS before they are 35 years old'.

'It'd be a tragedy if half of you didn't make it. What's the point of having fought for freedom if there's no one left to enjoy it? Please, let's prove them wrong,' he says holding up the newspaper insert.

Fighting something that, for now, remains relatively unseen and is, in most cases, denied can be difficult. Many of the children have heard the AIDS rhetoric over and over again, so much so that there are those who roll their eyes at the mere mention of it. Some of the children come from conservative homes where talking about sex is taboo. Others — and you can tell who they are because they never laugh — have already had their innocence stolen, often through abuse by an adult. But that's another horrific problem in itself.

Most of these teenagers have grown up in a TV/information age, a new global SA where you can buy pornography at the corner store or view it on the Net and most of them have heard about oral sex, thanks to the President of the United States. To illustrate, Pieter-Dirk tells a joke. 'A boy tells his friend, "My daddy found a condom on the patio yesterday," and the friend looks amazed and asks, "What's a patio?"'

But the difference between knowing about sex and really understanding your rights, your body's responses and your responsibilities is unfortunately more a matter of life or death than mere sex education.

'I don't want sex to take you by surprise,' Pieter-Dirk tells the audience, 'you mustn't grow up in a horrible dark cave. Everything can happen so fast, your body is full of buttons. Find out what they're all about. I'm not saying go out there and have sex. I'm saying arm yourself with knowledge.'

Conjuring up a parade of different characters from his paper bag — in this case the village gossip Mrs September — he says and does things on stage that most parents and teachers might be too embarrassed to do.

He hauls out a life-sized gelatinous dildo to show the boys how to put on a condom. Some learners can't believe their eyes and check their teacher's reactions before they guffaw, then quieten down to listen.

At the end of the hour-long infotainment session the children crowd around to ask Pieter-Dirk for his autograph. Somehow one senses that much of what was heard here today will stick.

The principal believes it will and says this is a day Mountview High will remember. Then everyone waves goodbye to Pieter-Dirk as his car bumps down a dirt road. The last time Pieter-Dirk toured the country, meeting the rainbow nation, was with Evita's Ballot Bus — a borrowed Kombi that took him on a journey of more than 10 000 km on a free voter-education programme. Talking to children about HIV/AIDS, he says, is as important as telling people about democracy, their right to vote and their right to freedom and besides, this is his way of doing community service. 'Every six months or so I have this urge to renew my love affair with South Africa,' he says. 'There's so much going on here, so much to do. This year I made a decision not to tour overseas but to stay here and work. And what threatens us now more than anything else is AIDS.'

In one rural town, he recalls, the principal approached him after the presentation and said, 'Goodness, you said some things today that were difficult to listen to but at least now all we have to do to start the conversation is to say, "Remember when Oom Pieter said that word? Well, let's talk about that"'.

As expected, not everyone's been this positive. The guidance teacher at one girls' school wrote to a local paper saying he'd been offended by the talk and that it contained 'vulgar, intimate sexual nuances about which they were previously ignorant'.

Pieter-Dirk's response was, 'I'm sorry, but when nine-year-old boys are sexually active and 10-year-old girls become mothers, who can wait with the survival kit of information?'

One wonders what this teacher would make of S'camto, e.tv's excellent sex education programme made for children, by children. Pieter-Dirk has watched S'camto and loves it.

'I can't believe what they talk about, the words they use. I sit there like an old man and go, "Whoaa, did that boy just say come?" This proves my point. If you're honest with young people and don't treat them like children, they'll be more open to listening and learning.'

When the largest group of people being infected in our country is young people aged between 15 and 20, one realises how urgently the problem needs to be tackled. And while Sarafina 2 cost the taxpayer more than R14 million, Pieter-Dirk's tour costs nothing at all. And so, while government fiddles on the periphery of real life, NGOs, teachers, principals and people like Pieter-Dirk Uys are busy saving young lives in a young democracy.

  next  >