South Africa's most accomplished satirist has a passionately serious message about
– Stephane Merritt, The Observer, 8 July 2001
It's been a long time since comedy was about anything that mattered in this country.
Watching a recent showcase of new stand-up acts, I was struck by the lack of variety
in the subject matter; the awkwardness of sex and personal relationships provided
the bulk of material for almost every act, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation
or ethnic background. Comedy is not supposed to be angry any more, now that, in theory,
none of us is oppressed, nor is it meant to be controversial. The very phrase 'political
comedy' conjures dated images of Ben Elton in his sparkly suits ranting about Thatcher,
or the Spitting Image puppets, David Owen with his hand up David Steel's bottom.
But for Pieter-Dirk Uys, South Africa's best-known comedian (though comic actor,
polemicist or provocateur might be a more accurate description), comedy is still
the most effective medium for challenging, educating, aggravating, in the name of
freedom. You might have expected a comic who made his name over years of attacking
apartheid and disregarding censorship to have lost his direction, Elton-like, now
that his great enemy has crumbled. But Uys (pronounced 'Ace'), now 56, has turned
his invective on the Aids virus, which he considers little more than a substitute
for apartheid in terms of its devastating effects on the poor black majority and
the laissez-faire attitude of whites. 'In the past we killed people - now we just
let them die.' But his new show, Foreign Aids, is not a case of preaching from a
lofty platform; the show follows a tour of 160 schools in desperately poor townships,
educating more than 300,000 school children about HIV and its prevention. Between
comic monologues, Uys, in propria persona, recounts anecdotes and incidents from
these school visits, and shares his experiences in hospices for Aids orphans or juvenile
For the most part these are not comic anecdotes; indeed some are so shocking they
leave you with a humpback-bridge lurch in the stomach, but Uys is at pains to remind
his audience that this is not satire for its own sake, that there is a purpose behind
his entertaining impersonations of Thabo Mbeki and his cast of caricatured white
stereotypes, and the purpose is to remind his audience of these raped, brutalized
and dying children.
Perhaps unusually for someone with such passionate convictions about the importance
of his message, Uys is still very funny, and much of the force of his comedy is in
his ability to win his audience's sympathy before puncturing their prejudices. (He
told in a recent interview of a show in the mid-Eighties when audience members had
come intending to stone him to death and laughed so much they forgot to.) While many
of his references require a background knowledge of South African politics, he has
clearly kept up with British current affairs, too, and for every joke lost on the
non-expat members of his audience, there was a sharp one-liner about Chris Evans,
the Tory leadership campaign or the aftermath of the election to make up for it.
In Breakdown fashion, Uys keeps his make-up and costumes visible on stage and transforms
into his characters in front of the audience, keeping up a monologue as he slips
on his false nails and eyelashes, slipping in and out of voices and accents to become
an array of characters new to his London admirers. The absurdities of new South Africa's
bureaucracy and the increasing lawlessness of the country are satirized beautifully
in the person of a beleaguered white police chief attempting to document yet another
rape complaint as it happens ('Can you describe your assailants, madam? No, I can't
possibly write that, it's racist - I'll just put "all three have a visible sense
of rhythm"'), and a new female character, Bambi Kellerman, widow of a Nazi, draws
some near-the-knuckle comparisons between Britain's blind eye to the Holocaust in
its early days and the rest of the world's lack of interest in Africa's Aids epidemic.
Bambi, who appears at the beginning and end of the show, is the sister of Uys's best-known
creation, Mrs Evita Bezuidenhout, a more refined Dame Edna character who inflates
the worst characteristics of self-satisfied Afrikaners. Evita appears in full evening
dress in the second half of the show and her outre presence and well-meant prejudice
offer the audience a chance for some light relief amid the show's darker topics,
though she ends by offering her own barbed apology for apartheid: 'I'm very, very
sorry. That it didn't work.' Uys immediately morphs her into a gay theatrical costumier
dying of Aids, a feeling monologue that doesn't draw a single laugh from the audience,
and does not intend to.
For Uys, satire is about defusing the threatening by exposing its absurdities. 'Last
year, the Department of Health had the idea of giving out 40 million free condoms.
They also had the idea of stapling them to the instruction leaflets.' As long as
the Rainbow Nation continues to provide him with this kind of material, Uys will
be fighting for his country's future for some time to come.
Political satire is a tricky thing; it's only as strong as its target. It was easier
to wring a joke out of Margaret Thatcher than John Major, and nobody hates Tony Blair
enough to be really cutting about him.
Consider then the situation of Pieter-Dirk Uys, the South African comedian who, in
apartheid South Africa, was a constant and very funny scourge of the government,
with such creations as Mrs Evita Bezuidenhout, "the most famous white woman in South
Then Nelson Mandela came to power. Uys could have faded away, but instead he has
come back, teeth bared, with a series of shows — Dekaffirnated, Truth Omissions and
Live From Boerassic Park — that lay bare the contradictions and struggles at the
heart of the new South Africa.
His latest show demonstrates that comedy really can be about matters of life and
death. It is about Aids, and the way the HIV virus is devastating his country.
Within two years, it is predicted, there will be 2m Aids orphans in South Africa.
Forty per cent of the workforce is believed to be HIV positive and 30% of 15-year-olds
are infected. As Uys comments, while Britain buries its lambs, South Africa is burying
These statistics are not funny, but Uys gets us laughing — not at death, but at fear,
ignorance, complacency and drug companies, as well as the curious head-in-the-sand
mentality of President Thabo Mbeki, who won't accept the link between HIV and Aids.
Uys's comedy is ruthless, making links with the Holocaust. Perhaps, he suggests,
the political leaders during the second world war did nothing about the mass murder
of the Jews because they actually thought "a few million less Yids" would be a good
Perhaps the thinking on South Africa is that 20m fewer blacks wouldn't matter either.
Hey — if things carry on like this, there might eventually be a white majority in
Uys's show has as much to do with campaigning as comedy. But I have never had a more
enjoyable time being soap-boxed. Laughter alone may not change the world. But Uys
knows how to use it as a weapon to start the revolution.
Putting fiction aside, the proximity of love and death is an immediate danger in
today's South Africa where one in nine of the populace has AIDS. Albeit conveyed
through entertaining quips and impersonations, this is the grim reality driven home
in Afrikaner satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys' solo show, Foreign Aids, at the Tricycle.
Faced with this crisis Thabo Mbeki is, Uys suggests, failing pathetically to prioritise
health warnings. In one sketch he sends up the president directly, donning thick
specs and mumbling through a surgical mask about witch doctors finding an AIDS cure.
Uys used to mock apartheid, most famously in drag as his rich and racist alter ego
Evita Bezuidenhout. Now he's combating the new enemy and drawing pointed comparisons.
"In the old South Africa we killed people. Now," he dryly observes, "we're just letting
them die." There are a few other lacerating jibes in this show. Evita — all false
eyelashes and diamonds — nastily confides to us that the blacks' soaring death rate
means soon, darlings, majority rule will mean white ascendancy again. Overall however,
Foreign Aids is not so excoriating as humanely frustrated and friendly in style —
springing from Uys' educational forays into black schools. As wised-up Londoners,
we may feel we hardly need Uys to demonstrate how to unfurl a sheath with the help
of a stand-in banana. But his passion for a better world is catching.
– Patrick Marmion, The Evening Standard, 9 July 2001
The new stand-up show from Pieter-Dirk Uys, South Africa's answer to Barry Humphries,
is a comic sermon on the subject of Aids in Africa.
The show is graphically illustrated with risqué sexual jokes, but with millions of
children across the African continent infected and orphaned by Aids, Uys also readily
admits that this is no laughing matter. He therefore spends most of his solo stage
time urging us to laugh not at the disease, but at people's disastrous attitudes
to it, so that we can change them.
For British audiences, his funniest joke is about how the former boss of Railtrack
made more from the railways than Ronnie Biggs. Otherwise, Uys rolls out a collection
of Afrikaan characters from his most famous prima donna, the society hostess Mrs
Evita Bezuidenhout, to a neo-Nazi courtesan who thinks that HIV is good because it's
"positive". Originally aimed at educating children, the idea is to demystify Aids
and to persuade people to use condoms.
But not all the guises that Uys employs are a good fit for his subject matter. A
police officer clumsily dealing with a woman reporting a sexual assault, is an inadequate
response to a problem in South Africa which sees one woman raped every four seconds.
Equally, Uys's scoffing at urban legends ("If we didn't have urban legends in South
Africa, we'd have to invent them," he jests), makes a poor political prophylactic.
The fact that there are people who rape children in the belief that this will prevent
them getting Aids, is not something best dealt with in light entertainment.
Central to Uys's show is the idea that the issue of the day in South Africa has moved
from politics to sex, but this is little more than a cute satirical soundbite. Closer
to the truth is that sex and politics have converged. What's more, with the bulk
of HIV infectivity being among black people, it remains an issue entangled in divisive
Uys is clearly aware of these issues, but they remain beyond the reach of his dandyish
satire. He is much stronger on questions of personal responsibility, reminding us
that people with Aids aren't dying of the disease, they're living with it.
South Africa is enjoying a second chance post-apartheid, but how many citizenry there
or anywhere get a reprieve when it comes to unsafe sex? That's one of the multiple
starting points for Pieter-Dirk Uys' remarkable solo show "Foreign Aids," which in
its quiet and unhyped way has been one of the international sensations of a globally
minded London theatrical summer. South African satirist-comedian Uys' latest standup
piece has no production values — the set is a jumble of Save the Children boxes —
and one could argue that a director might sharpen a two-act event into a tighter,
possibly intermissionless emotional juggernaut. But that's to worry about window
dressing at the expense of an artist's seemingly boundless empathy.
Now 56, Uys deserves as wide an audience as possible for a polemic — hilarious and
devastating, in turn — that can't scream its message loudly enough: South Africa
may have been marginalized in the world's eyes following the dismantling of apartheid,
but when it comes to the decimation wrought in the region by AIDS, attention simply
must be paid. (Estimates point to as many as 2 million AIDS orphans in the area within
Uys is angry, and who can blame him: "The house is on fire," as he puts it. "You
can't be polite." There's real savagery in his indictment of an Mbeki regime that
has all but closed its eyes to the risks of HIV and AIDS even as the death count
escalates. ("My mind is made up," says the Mbeki figure in Uys' show. "Don't confuse
me with facts.") And what can one say of well-meaning initiatives gone preposterously
awry? Last year, the South African Dept. of Health distributed 40 million free condoms
— stapling them to instruction cards, thus rendering them worthless or lethal or
The statistics, indeed, are so disheartening — one out of nine children is infected;
so is 40% of the workforce — that despair would seem the only possible response.
That's why Uys' ability to temper rage with comedy and wit seems not just theatrically
astute but deeply humane as well. Watching Uys create a panoply of characters to
give even Dame Edna pause (one of which, Mrs. Evita Bezuidenhout, "the most famous
white woman in South Africa," is Uys' own Dame Edna equivalent), you emerge dizzy
from the sleight of hand with which Uys switches parts (and frocks). What's more,
you're chastened by a compassion more voluble than language, even if present-day
South Africa does talk in 11 official tongues.
Some of the show is given over specifically to characters — a white liberal from
Cape Town's largely Jewish Sea Point with her (unseen) Xhosa maid, Dora; a bungling
Johannesburg police sergeant adrift in an environment where a woman is raped every
four seconds; and Andre from the wardrobe department, a figure fully enough delineated
to warrant a play all his own. The rest allows Uys to double as reporter and raconteur,
while paying tremulous testament to the transition from the old South Africa to the
new: During apartheid, says Uys, "We killed people; now we're just letting them die."
When I first saw Pieter-Dirk Uys, very belatedly in 1999's Dekaffirnated, the comedy
in his show had the upper hand, although his satire and serious comment on the new
"Rainbow Nation" of South Africa were still palpable. Returning to the Tricycle Theatre
(as he does almost annually) with a show entitled Foreign Aids, he has put humour,
poignancy, accusation and concern in a delicate equipoise.
Uys's best-known creation, Mrs Evita Bezuidenhout, "the most famous white woman in
South Africa" and a kind of Afrikaner Dame Edna Everage, is trotted out at the beginning
of the second half to poke fun gently but deliberately at president Thabo Mbeki's
reluctance to acknowledge the HIV-AIDS link; Evita warns that "for those of us who
play Scrabble", "Thabo" is an anagram of "Botha". But the most salient of his several
characters is Evita's younger sister, Bambie Kellermann, who makes her début here:
the widow of a high-ranking Nazi, and a woman who has worked the sex shows of Europe,
Bambie is best placed to intersperse her comments about hubby's old circle of friends
with observations on the current viral holocaust. Indeed, she says in as many words
what is almost the unsayable: that the First World's slowness in helping tackle South
Africa's problem may be motivated by a subconscious desire to treat AIDS as a cull
to get rid of a few million developing-world beggars.
This is serious stuff, and I can think of no comparable British figure who could
get away with such a show; they would all either dilute the message with too many
laughs, or would career into ideological tub-thumping mode, confusing "serious" with
"earnest". Uys's secret is simply that he cares about people, and has an easy rapport
with them. Thus, on the one hand he can appear not so much to be delivering material
at his audience as just chatting amiably with them, and on the other can speak in
equally casual tones about his tour of 160 schools in South Africa to spread the
message of AIDS awareness. (When his London run ends in August, he will return home
to visit another 400.) With children as with adults, he does not preach, he plays,
but plays instructively — a kind of political Fisher-Price toy.
It is little wonder that Uys has been invited on more than one occasion to perform
his shows to the South African parliament. He inspires the kind of warmth that goes
with the phrase "national treasure"; however, unlike most figures who have this dubious
label hung around their necks, Uys continues to have far more than merely sentimental
Pieter-Dirk Uys's latest satirical sideswipe at the absurdities of his South African
homeland (and some of the absurdities of ours, such as the fact that the ex-Railtrack
boss here made more from the railways than Ronnie Biggs did, he quips) moves from
the political to the sexual arena.
Living, as he does, in a country where HIV is now threatening to succeed where his
previous target, apartheid, ultimately failed to marginalise and eradicate the black
population, his one-man mission to spread the word about the spreading of the disease
is as urgent as it is personal.
It's a job that his government is certainly failing to do. So Uys - through the character
of Evita Bezuidenhout (a South African Dame Edna and the self-proclaimed most famous
white woman in the country) - has personally gone into some 160 schools, free of
charge, to talk about condoms and safe sex.
Evita makes a customary appearance in the one-man, many-character work he has brought
to the Tricycle, as does her sister, Bambi Kellerman, who in fact has AIDS, and other
non-fiction characters like the South African president, Dr Thabo Mbeki, who believes
that it is a fiction that HIV causes the disease.
More polemical than comic, given the understandably horrible circumstances, Uys displays
a terrific humanity and a scalpel-like ability to cut to the quick with his incisive
observations. The political landscape in South Africa is superbly conjured by the
point that, if you yield to the left, nothing is right; and if you yield to the right,
nothing is left.
But if you yield to visiting the Tricycle, you'll find that Uys is ace.
In his inimitable style, Uys wows us once again. He has recently completed a self-initiated,
nationwide AIDS-awareness one-man show in his native South Africa. He joins us in
London for ‘Foreign Aids’, which is part theatre, part direct discourse with the
Uys has always been a master of satire. His chosen victims are the politicians and
conservative thinkers of the Apartheid era. Over the years however, he has developed
an entire range of characters, the most well known being Evita Bezuidenhout, otherwise
known as “the most famous white woman in South Africa”. She typifies the supportive
Afrikaaner wife of a politician, but is, in herself, a larger than life personality.
Mention her name to any South African and you will elicit a broad smile! Uys doesn’t
disappoint us, as Evita appears onstage after a recorded introduction from Archbishop
Desmond Tutu and to thundering applause from the audience.
New characters appear in ‘Foreign Aids’, including Bambi Kellerman, Evita’s sister;
Sargeant Minnie, a ‘new democracy’ policeman; a ‘koegel’ (Jewish princess) from Sea
Point; Thaboo MacBeki (Uys’ version of South Africa’s current president, Thabo Mbeki)
and Nelson Mandela. Uys manages the SA/UK crossover with style and ease, and makes
mention of British politicians and recent events in his hilarious satire.
The predominant message of this production is that love can kill. Africa has the
highest growth rate of HIV/AIDS in the world and something needs to be done about
it. We need to educate the young, as they are our future. If the powers that be in
South Africa refuse to address this issue, Uys most certainly will. His message,
however, is not one of eternal doom and gloom. Instead he encourages people to share
their knowledge and experiences, and most of all to love and treat as normal those
infected with the virus.
This production is a must-see for anyone enjoying a good laugh. Serious issues are
brought positivity, light and humour. As Uys says, if we can laugh at our fear, we
are one step closer to conquering it.