Archived 1999 Articles


Pieter-Dirk Uys

My Best Teacher

– Pieter-Dirk Uys, TES Magazine, 1 October 1999

In 1960, when Hendrik Verwoerd was pulling South Africa out of the Commonwealth and making us a republic, I was a 15-year-old pupil at Nassau, an Afrikaans state school in Cape Town. It was run by a very strict and pompous principal and was orientated towards Christian Nationalist education, the education of the apartheid state.One day, after the Sharpeville riots, hundreds of thousands of blacks marched in from the townships and past our school, to present documents to Parliament. We could hear tanks rumbling alongside the march and we were told to lie under the desks and pray: this was the end of the world. There were no questions asked about apartheid, our school considered it normal: we, the Afrikaners, were right and everybody else was black.

I had some very bad teachers, most of whom were just products of a brainwashed society teaching in a brainwashed way, but there were two whom I adored. Fanie Du Toit taught us the history that had just been written in Pretoria, but he taught it like a story, and made it exciting and interesting.

My great inspiration was Aloise Nel, my English teacher. She looked a bit like a cross between Meryl Streep and Glenn Close: a small, beautiful woman with chiselled features. She taught us English as a second language — Afrikaans was our first — and went far beyond what she had to do, which was to get us to spell and communicate at "the cat sat on the mat" level. When she first took us she had been teaching in London for a year and spoke wonderful English. As we worked towards the two national exams — Standard 8 and Standard 10 — she made learning personal and enjoyable.She took my class to the first play I saw: King Lear in a theatre at the University of Cape Town. I remember the magic of that event. Before that, my attitude had been "Why on earth must I read this play?" but afterwards I was hooked on theatre.

I wrote my very first poem for Aloise, "Homecoming". It wasn't until years later that I found out from my mother that Aloise had gone to see her privately with this poem and said: "This boy's going to be a writer". That was what my mother was always saying anyway, but I wanted to be an actor.

Aloise gave me the confidence to become a performer. I was a little, weedy person at school — that's why I learned to tell jokes: if I could make the big, rugby-playing boys laugh, they wouldn't beat me up.My parents knew my great love for Aloise, and they often invited her for dinner. This was my greatest thrill: Aloise was coming to my house and would see my cat and maybe my Dinky toys and my pictures of Sophia Loren. She loved my parents and shared great stories with them. My mother was a German Jew and spoke German with Aloise.

I've always wanted there to be an element in my shows of illuminating through entertainment, and I got that from Aloise. Virtually everyone from Nassau who went on to higher education chose the Afrikaans university at Stellenbosch, but because of Aloise's influence I chose the English-speaking University of Cape Town, a hotbed of liberalism. A year after I left school, she married and had three children, all grown-up now. I remember feeling very involved and excited at the fact that Miss Nel now had a family. She moved to Johannesburg and we've always stayed in touch.

I send her all my scripts as soon as they're finished. she doesn't criticise, she just says "Darling, your spelling is awful." She comes to each new show in South Africa and I've sometimes pointed her out to the audience and said: "Everything I've done is thanks to that woman." She's retired but is still very involved with education, helping to tackle the most fundamental problem: there are so many people in South Africa who can't read or write.

I do an enormous amount of work with schools now, doing an hour's discussion with the pupils on general studies-type topics — humour in politics, that kind of thing. That openness is a wonderful change from my childhood, because we were never allowed to discuss politics at school or at home.Children seldom have the blessing of wonderful parents, because parents have a tough job just being people. Every child must have one teacher who stands in for all of the things parents may not be able to manage. On my visits to schools I tell the pupils about Aloise, and how a teacher can change your life.