Archived 2001 Articles


Pieter-Dirk Uys

Aids is a laughing matter

Special report: Aids

– Pieter-Dirk Uys, The Guardian, 3 August 2001

Which of the following statements is true?"Catholic bishops brand condoms 'the heart of evil'." "Prostitute claims Aids is a rightwing campaign to discredit the sex industry." "The president is still unclear whether he believes the virus leads to the disease." "When asked if she believed HIV led to Aids, the minister of health snapped: 'I can't say yes or no!'" "The department of health released 44m free condoms. Each had an instruction card in 11 official languages. And then they took the condoms and the cards — and stapled them together."

"Doctors have to flee for their lives after being threatened by their HIV patients, who now believe they were injected with the virus while being tested." "Sixty per cent of students at the largest university are HIV-positive." "Racists see Aids as an answer to their prayers: 'Soon there will be a white majority government in power!'" "Does a person with HIV change colour from white to black?"

All the above are true and happened in South Africa — except for the last comment, which was from a 13-year-old girl at a school in London.

What is beyond satire? Paedophilia? Cancer? Death? Aids? A show about Aids is not everyone's idea of a fun night out. But then laughing at apartheid was not politically correct either.

What happened in South Africa during those years of legalised racism and state-subsidised murder was an international issue. Everyone understood the fight against apartheid. It was the world's last great political t-shirt. But the laughter came loud and clear, often from the victims: laughter at hypocrisy, at denial, at fear.

Laughing at fear made that fear less fearful. And because we were blessed with a government with no sense of humour, it became one's aim in life to make them so angry with laughter that they would have heart attacks and die. We had some success.

Now the battlefront has moved from politics to sex. Aids will succeed where apartheid failed. This virus is democratic, non-sexist, non-racial and incurable. No jokes here. But again the hypocrisy, denial and fear force us to laugh at ourselves and help to focus on survival.

During the past year I have visited 160 schools in South Africa with a free Aids-awareness show. Criss-crossing the rainbow nation from first-world schools to third-world barricades, confronting 300,000 young people with the fear of dying of love.

President Thabo Mbeki's confused signals about the link between HIV and Aids have sent the worst possible message to the people. There is no leadership here, no role model. The urban legend that a man with Aids will be cured by raping a child means children are raped and infected, and yet no one says anything. There is no Diana cuddling the sick child on TV. There is just confusion and fear. Aids has become an accusation.

Telling these schoolkids how I grew up in the 1950s in a cave of shame and terror as far as sex was concerned underlines the fact that they can't afford to. They must know about sex now. Tomorrow might be too late.

All we were told was about the birds and the bees. And I still can't work this out: how does a bird fuck a bee? The dreaded f-word in the hallowed school hall! The children explode with disbelief and howls of delight, wheeling round to look at their teachers' faces.

But that's where Aids lives. In "fuck"; not in poetry or flowers or football. So I say to the boys: go home and practise putting on condoms. Girls, keep a condom handy in case of rape. And don't take for granted that all condoms are safe. Certainly not in South Africa.

The facts must never be lost in interpretation so I must call a spade a spade, but first make sure they understand "spade". When talking about oral sex,— and thanks to Bill Clinton, we can — one uses the term "blow job". Everyone seems to understand, until two pimply boys ask: "You said oral sex. Does that mean you talk it?" So I explained. "Cock-sucking!" they exclaim. "Why didn't you say so?"

And while my show, Foreign Aids, focuses on the African holocaust, the third world war, viruses are international. I look my English audience in the face: "You think it can't happen here in the UK? This is not the euro; this is a virus! While you have great empathy with dying Africans, your child might be having unprotected sex here in London with a South African!"

Pieter-Dirk Uys is a South African satirist. Foreign Aids is on at London's Tricycle Theatre until August 10