(this Opinion piece also appeared in the Daily Maverick, 22 November 2018)
I’m waiting for the day someone will say to me: ‘’Pieter-Dirk Uys! You can’t do women!
It’s politically incorrect.’’ For the last 40 years it’s been part of my job to impersonate
males, females and convertibles. It’s called acting.
Now my characters and I find ourselves in the 2018 minefield of hashtags and hate
speech. May I wear the #MeToo button on Evita Bezuidenhout’s blouse? Next to her
ANC badge? Or on her ANCWL Gucci jacket?
I have been impersonating this woman I invented since the late 1970s, first as a
character in a Sunday Express newspaper column, where once a month this boere tannie
after a party in Waterkloof, Pretoria, would spill the beans on the National Party
regime’s state capture, the Information Scandal, etc. My editor was perplexed that
this character could get away with saying things in the column that he would not
dare print on his front page.
Then in my first one-man show, Adapt or Dye, I put on her costume, make-up and wig,
knowing full well that it was practically illegal for men to wear women’s clothing.
I ticked that box with glee. Then she was just one character in a chorus line of
racist political clowns that included PW Botha, Piet Koornhof, Pik Botha and Nowell
Fine. This Evita of Pretoria upstaged them all, and a legend was born.
The farce of the apartheid homelands gave her the perfect job as South African ambassador.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Pik Botha became her boss, and we spread the rumour that
he was having an affair with Evita. Trouble was, he started believing it.
She introduced her family in the show Farce about Uys, and De Kock, Izan, Billie-Jeanne,
Oom Hasie, Ouma Ossewania and sister Bambi Kellermann joined the cast. In those days
I was seldom invited to appear on the SABC, but Evita Bezuidenhout often appeared
In 1990, I wrote a biography of her life, A Part Hate A Part Love, which immediately
invited threats of lawsuits. I believe President Botha was advised to stay out of
the fray as he would have been in the queue behind Evita herself, who threatened
to sue me for libel. The press played along; a nation divided itself between those
who loved the Tannie and those who loathed her.
Evita’s personal letterhead gave me a chance to write letters from her to the minister
of police in which she demanded that this third-rate comedian Uys, who was wearing
woman’s clothing and demeaning her in public, should be arrested. A letter came back
from the minister pointing out that his jails were full. It was a chilling wake-up
call: do not underestimate the enemy. They also have a sense of humour.
So the soap opera of the Bezuidenhout family played itself out over the years, much
to the delight of the fans and the irritation of the foes. Daughter Billie-Jeanne
had an affair with a young black “terrorist”. Her brother De Kock turned out to be
ultra-sensitive and threatened Evita with becoming a ballet dancer. His twin, Izan,
joined the AWB and wanted to shoot the “garden boy”. Husband Oom Hasie became a cabinet
Meanwhile, apartheid churned along lethally — completely unfunny. All I had to do
was to keep my eye on the headlines and keep my weight down to preserve the image
of the most famous white woman in South Africa. Just because she didn’t exist, didn’t
mean she was not real. Soon her homeland republic of Bapetikosweti was the only homeland
that people could name. Pik Botha faxed midnight letters to his ambassador. Dr Piet
Koornhof stalked her. Even Helen Suzman realised she had met her match.
Evita Bezuidenhout (without her wig) with Nelson Mandela.
Then Nelson Mandela came out of the darkness and spoilt the fun. He dissolved the
Bantustans into one black homeland called South Africa, and Evita lost her job as
the most glamorous member of her white country’s Diplomatic Corpse (sic).
It was time to urgently reinvent her modus operandi. As the steel fences round the
white apartheid playground dissolved into small pockets of frantic racism, the rainbow
ended the storms of censorship and control.
Evita could step out of the limelight into her role as mother and grandmother. Her
daughter legally (and fashionably) became the wife of her black secret lover, and
to add shock to horror, Evita found herself the gogo of three black grandchildren.
Today she refers to them proudly as not black, not white, but Barack Obama-beige.
Why has Evita Bezuidenhout survived the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?
She has no sense of humour or irony. The joke passes her by. And as we have developed
along our unexpected high road of democracy, she has surprisingly become a spokesperson
for a silent majority of women who also have to adapt or dye.
White Afrikaans matrons of her generation also have to confront the reality of their
offspring embracing their new freedoms with passion. Former illegal criminal relationships
are taken for granted. Soft drugs are acknowledged as part of choice and a social
media has revolutionised the world. Evita has been challenged by her grandchildren
to protect their democratic rights, and so logically she went back into politics,
this time into the deep throat of the beast of power. Ons Tannie Evita is now a member
of the ANC. They really deserve her!
My impersonation of this complex woman, my Trojan horse, has always been led by the
politics of the day. I loved her regime as diplomat in her homeland, but when they
disappeared, Bapetikosweti also vanished. If Thabo Mbeki had appointed her the ambassador
to Mongolia, she would have had to go.
Jacob Zuma enjoyed the rumour that she might become his Afrikaans wife. Her relationship
with a retired Pik Botha echoed memories of an ageing Richard Burton and Elizabeth
Taylor arguing on live television about a life well shared. All nonsense. Within
the disguises of ex-minister and ex-honourable were two actors delivering the goods.
Evita’s greatest thrill was the friendship that blossomed between her and Nelson
Mandela. She met him for the first time at an ANC rally in 1994, just before the
election. She, dressed in her Voortrekker costume, presented him with koeksisters,
and he held her hand during the singing of Nkosi Sikelele Afrika, with Evita carefully
mouthing the sounds to look as if she knew the words. She interviewed him for television,
a surreal exercise straight out of Alice in Wonderland, which has been viewed by
thousands on YouTube.
She was summoned to appear at many of his glittering gatherings where her 15 minutes
of fame endeared her to Oprah Winfrey and others, including Bill Clinton, who looked
her up and down with a practised eye.
It soon became obvious that this impersonation of a familiar icon, no longer an aikona,
was becoming the only way I could comment on the society around me.
A white mouth criticising black action is not very helpful any more, but the opinion
of a glamorous designer-democrat, who is now the perfect example of the National
Party’s state capture of South Africa between 1948 and 1994, seems to enjoy some
acceptance. Elections are the arenas for Evita Bezuidenhout’s bullfights. She launched
her own Evita’s People’s Party (EPP) in the presence of the world media, premier
Helen Zille, mayor Patricia de Lille, ANC MP Lynne Brown and the IEC.
She undertook her Election Trek for the 1999 general election, travelling for six
weeks from Cape Town to Pietersburg, presenting voter education at two shows a day
in townships, town halls, city halls and community centres, accompanied by the BBC,
Radio South Africa and best wishes from President Nelson Mandela.
Evita Bezuidenhout is now 83. I am happy that my impersonation of her allows for
a respectful and fashionable performance. The women must recognise the woman and
the men must forget the man. Will she retire? Will I retire? If the public interest
diminishes, then we might both ride off into the sunset.
But there is much to do in the next few months. Her reality show on YouTube and the
Daily Maverick, Evita’s Free Speech, has been a weekly treat for the last three years
and still going strong. The 2019 general election will take place before May next
year. Evita will deliver her Luthuli Housekeeping Report 48 hours before the president’s
State of the Nation Address.
Comrade Evita would be the first person to demand an end to my politically incorrect,
sexist exploitation of her. I will reflect all that in my new show for next year.
The Tannie and I will appear on stage together and at the same time. The title should
say it all: #HeTwo.
Uys will present When In Doubt Say Darling at the Fugard Studio from November 27
to December 15. Book online at thefugard.com or at 021 461 4554.