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Archived 2006 Articles about  Pieter-Dirk Uys

Personal Perspective: Laughing in the face of AIDS

– Louis Freedberg, San Francisco Chronicle, 14 August 2006


PIETER-DIRK UYS has the uncomfortable habit of making people laugh at the seriously unfunny.First, he took on apartheid, South Africa's vicious system of racial rule. Now, he is using humor to attack AIDS, which is taking an estimated 900 lives each day in his country, more than anywhere else in the world.

I first met Uys (pronounced ACE) exactly 20 years ago, during the dark days of apartheid rule. He was 40 years old at the time. Most South Africans had never heard of AIDS.

Even then, he was South Africa's best-known satirist, who had somehow created a space — on stage — to throw barbs at apartheid's leaders, and to expose the cruelties and absurdities of white minority rule. As he told me at the time, "Apartheid is an absolute crime against humanity, but there's no point in saying it like that so it becomes a boring old slogan."The son of an Afrikaner father and a Jewish refugee mother from Nazi Germany, Uys came up with devilish impersonations of apartheid's leaders such as P. W. Botha and other familiar South African personality types.

His best known character was — and remains — Evita Bezuidenhout, an Afrikaner matron who supported apartheid, but eventually comes to embrace the new democratic order. Evita -- Uys plays her in drag -- has become a celebrity in her own right, starring in movies, going on "dates" with Nelson Mandela and other government leaders in a hit television series, and most recently being the mistress of ceremonies at the 70th-birthday party for former President F. W. De Klerk.But when Mandela became president in 1994, and apartheid officially ended, I anticipated that Uys would go out of business.

Instead, Uys moved to a tiny conservative Afrikaner town north of Cape Town called Darling, bought the old train station, and turned it into a theater and restaurant to showcase his work as well as that of other emerging performers. (For more about Uys, go to www.pdu.co.za).

Instead of apartheid, he was confronted with a new scourge to attack — the epidemic of HIV/AIDS. What outraged him was the inexcusable foot dragging by President Thabo Mbeki's government. That, he says, represents an even more deadly "crime against humanity" than apartheid. "Quite frankly, it is the new apartheid," said Uys, when I sat down with him after one of his Saturday afternoon shows in Darling last month. "Those with money will live, and those without money will die."Angered by the government's failure to act, Uys worked up a one-man show that he has taken to hundreds of schools around the country. There, to howls of laughter, he dresses up as Evita, talks in blunt terms hardly ever heard in South Africa about sex and AIDS. Be sure to use condoms, he tells male students, but practice beforehand. "Go into your room, turn out the lights, think of Britney Spears and get that thing up!"

By now, Uys says, 1 million schoolchildren have seen his show. "Entertainment is the only way to educate people," he said. "If you give them a lecture, they don't show up. If you wag your finger, they fall asleep."

Since Uys began his one-person crusade, there has been progress. Overall AIDS infection rates are leveling off. As a result of court rulings and pressure from groups such as the Treatment Action Campaign, the government has been forced to give Nevirapene to pregnant women and anti-retroviral medications to the sickest patients. In his maddeningly oblique way, Mbeki has finally distanced himself from AIDS dissidents, who challenged established science by arguing that HIV doesn't cause AIDS.

But the government must do much more, Uys says. Nearly 19 percent of adults are infected with the disease (compared to less than 1 percent in the United States). Too many people are dying because of it. "Every three days, we have (the equivalent of) a 9/11 in this country," he says.

As thousands of experts confer at the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto, this most unlikely satirist-turned-health educator continues to break down the barriers of silence, stigma and shame that has helped to turn HIV into a serial killer.

That, perhaps even more than a straight medical or clinical approach, is what will be needed to eradicate a disease that that still makes Uys' beautiful, beloved country cry.

One day, he hopes, he will hear only laughter.

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