The mature Pieter-Dirk Uys will be on stage 'unpowdered' in his latest show opening
on 31st May at Theatre on the Bay. But here is little Pietertjie Uys showing a hint
of things to come? Me with a Grannie's hat and a Grannie's bag, ready to go shopping
like any suburban housewife from Pinelands. My sister Tessa and I always enjoyed
giving house-concerts on Sundays after lunch. We’d sing and dance, Tessa would play
the piano and I would be silly. Then being cat people, we’d collect coins from the
parents and the grannies for the SPCA. When I had my appendix out at the St Joseph
Memorial Hospital (now the Vincent Palotti), I fell in love with the lovely nurses
who were also nuns. So the money (R3) collected on that next Sunday would go to them!
Ouma Uys took back her coin in a huff. Nee, magtig, she was not going to support
'die Katolieke Gevaar’!
My mother Helga Bassel was already 40 when I was born in 1945. She grew up in Berlin
and became a noted pianist, performing throughout Germany until she was sent an official
letter by the Nazi regime to stop playing in public because she was a Jew. She didn't
stop. Eventually her friends convinced her to take her piano and go to Cape Town
where her parents already were. Her first engagement as a pianist was with the Cape
Town Orchestra in the City Hall playing a Mozart concert for two pianos. The other
pianist was an Afrikaner called Hannes Uys. So, besides those two pianists who became
my parents, I have to thank two other people for being here today: Amadeus and Adolf.
I still have that official letter to remind me whenever I write anything, how fearful
words can so easily kill fearless dreams. I am still so sorry I never had the courage
to talk to my mother about so many things once I grew up. It was only after she died
that we were told she was Jewish! After having to leave Berlin for that very reason
in 1937, Helga Bassel obviously didn’t want to go through any similar prejudice in
Cape Town. So now whenever I can, I love saying that I am a Jewish-Afrikaner: I belong
to both chosen people
I had two mothers: Berlin-born Helga and Athlone-bred Sannie. Sannie Abader was part
of the family for as long as I can remember, ruling us from her kitchen with discipline
and humour. She taught me how to speak real Afrikaans -- not the language they used
in Church to reach God's ears, but the sexy Cape Flats dialect that made the angels
laugh. She and Pa eventually angrily parted ways and it was a like death in the family.
But Sannie came back bit by bit, visiting and drinking tea, and so through the years
broke down those unvisible walls of prejudice that encased us all. In the last years
of his life, Sannie came back home and looked after Pa till the end, helping me through
the new silence. Taking her to that queue on 27 April 1994 for her to vote for the
first time in her life will always be a moment to cherish. Never mind she voted for
the National Party!
It was always there, even at moments of sadness and shock. Laughter. My father was
not just the strict Pa with whom I constantly fought. He was also Oom Hannes -- the
life and soul of the party, the jazz player and the joketeller. He could even use
words we were not allowed to breathe. Like poephol! And yet those waves of laughter
seemed to heal many things, certainly in my life and eventually in our family. The
suicide of my mother can never merge into memory. It is as shocking now as it was
then. But at least time has brought back those wonderful explosions of giggles when
she sat on a man's hat in church and we had to leave because we were all hysterical
with laughter. This picture taken on holiday in Hermanus in the early 1950s shows
a man and a woman enjoying each other with laughter. I wish I knew what was so wonderfully
In Adderley Street there were always those photographers who snapped your picture
and you could collect it a few days later for R2. This was my first photo as a young
man and not a child: I was in long pants! I hated having to wear short pants. In
my class at school most of the boys wore long pants, but my father said I was too
young! I knew that he was scared that if I wore long pants my voice would break!
And then I couldn't be able sing on the radio or at those weddings for one guinea:
that was one pound one shilling. (Pa kept the pound I got the shilling). I remember
standing in front of the mirror at home in my short pants and shouting at my image:
'Breek jou bliksem breek!' Eventually the bliksem breeked! No more guineas.
My father's writing desk stood in the corner of the sittingroom in 10 Homestead Way
Pinelands. Our lives depended on that top drawer, which was full of all the important
documents,insurances and momentos. As he would constantly remind us: "If something
terrible happens, grab the top drawer and run to the neighbours." There were moments
when we nearly did that. On the desk in an elegant frame was this photograph of my
mother. I could never understand why our English friends gasped when they saw it.
Or why our Afrikaans family huffed and puffed and muttered: "Sies! Dis 'n skande!"
It's because they all thought we had a picture in our house of Queen Elizabeth II.
Now that the British monarch is 90 years old, the documentaries on her life are filling
the screens. When they show the young Queen on horseback, laughing with her family,
walking her Corgis —- even opening Parliament wearing her state crown –- I also see
The small me with Ouma Gertie Uys, my father's mother, a born actress. A formidable
Afrikaner and deeply religious Calvinist, she was also the cousin of the first National
Party Prime Minister, Dr DF Malan. She passionately mixed her metaphors in both official
languages and always announced a solution before there even was a problem. Ouma Uys
shared her life philosophy with me when I was ten. "Pietertjie, onthou net dit: die
Engelse is jou aartsvyande, die Katolieke is die antichris en die Jode is almal diewe!"
She never mentioned the blacks. Where I grew up, the blacks were never the problem.
It was always the English, the Catholics and the Jews!
It is said that censorship can cripple, inhibit and destroy, but in forcing artists
to invent, it can also liberate. After I joined the Space Theatre in 1973, the Publications
Control Board banned most of my work and gave me more publicity that money could
buy. It was time to do a tango in front of that firing squad. The National Party
Government because the best scriptwriters I could wish for. My plays could not be
performed, so I had to reinvent myself. And so, inspired by the words of P.W. Botha,
I had to 'Adapt or Dye'! Thirty-five years later I am now in the 2016th episode of
that same one-man show format: writing, presenting and performing the males, females
and convertibles. And realising that the secret to success is being the stage manager
first and the rest afterwards.
My mother Helga Bassel arrived in Cape Town from Berlin in 1937. I have a copy of
the letter she wrote in 1948 to her best friend in Germany who had survived the war.
"I am sitting in De Waal Park in Cape Town. It is a beautiful sunny day. Table Mountain
towers over us all. My little boy Pieter is now three and is playing with the dachshund
in the grass. I am sitting on a bench that carries a sign: Whites Only/Slegs Blankes.
How did I get here from a place that said No Jews/Juden Raus?"
I never knew that woman. She died before I had the courage to ask.
ECHO-SNAP #11: ROSES FOR A BLUE ANGEL IN THE ECHO OF A NOISE
Even though Cape Town was at the southern tip of the world, the world often came
to Cape Town. A life-changing experience for me in 1966 was attending the first performance
at the Alhambra Theatre by the legendary Marlene Dietrich. I still remind myself
of that experience when standing backstage before doing a one-man show, be it in
Bloemfontein, Berlin, Los Angeles, Edinburgh or Sydney. 'Remember Marlene also did
it alone. So can you!' Granted she was the Blue Angel, with her orchestra, conductor
Burt Bacharach, twenty legendary songs, a legacy of Hollywood movies and a millions
of admirers, but when you're alone in the spotlight, baby, you're alone in that spotlight!
After the last performance I scrambled onto the stage to present her with roses.
It was photographed and appeared in a Cape Town newspaper the next day. Only then
was I sure it had really happened.
ECHO-SNAP #6: SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL FROM THE ECHO OF A NOISE
Today I am 70 and she is 81, but once upon a time I was 16 and she was 27. As with
so many other things in South Africa, it also started with Prime Minister Hendrik
Verwoerd. At school and even in the Kerk it was made obvious that this great man
was not just our leader, but also a gift from God. So I put up a picture of him on
the wall of my room like most of my friends did too. Unlike me they added pictures
of rugby players. Then I found this beautiful face in the weekly Stage and Cinema
magazine. I cut the picture out and stuck it carefully on the wall next to the stern
unsmiling architect of apartheid. The next day Dr Hendrik Verwoerd fell off my wall.
I think he realized that her legs were better than his. Sophia Loren saved my life.
ECHO-SNAP #12: HOME SWEET HOME FROM THE ECHO OF A NOISE
I suppose we all have that special place where we grew up, where our dreams became
ambitions and where many lessons were learnt, often the hard way. Some people have
a Downton Abbey, others have a White House. We were in a thatched-roof cottage called
Sonskyn in Homestead Way Pinelands: me, Pa, Ma, Tessa and our cat Boeboe.
Our house was always full of other people making noise: Mozart, Bach, Schubert, Schumann,
Lizst, Brahams and Beethoven. There were also too many pianos in the house. The Bluchner-grand
Ma brought from Berlin in the music room and Pa's Feurich in the sittingroom, with
a double door separating them and so dulling the sounds of music. Then my sister
practised hard and played brilliantly with the Cape Town Municipal Orchestra aged
12. I also played, but mainly in the garden with my Dinky Toy motor cars. Anyway,
I couldn't be bothered to practise the piano. I just transposed everything I heard
to middle-C. That meant sticking to the white notes and not getting mixed up any