Pieter-Dirk Uys: 20 years of rainbow comedy

– Pieter-Dirk Uys, Eye Witness News, 30 April 2014

The run-up to our first democratic elections on 27 April 1994 was not funny. People died. Bombs took innocent lives. Tensions clouded the horizon. Power politics nudged the human right to live a good life towards the abyss of civil war.

After my twenty one years in the minefield of apartheid control, I never dreamt that we whites would get away with apartheid.

South Africa seemed set for a bloodbath like Cambodia or Bosnia.

Conventional urban wisdom led to the stocking-up of tins of tuna!

And yet there was something else besides the horror of the breaking news. There was the excitement, the embrace, the smile, the giggle and the laugh! Yes, the hope that this was the beginning of the rest of our lives.

Nelson Mandela came out of the darkness of terror and gave us the light of reinvention and reconciliation. That’s death for comedy. Besides, how does one make fun of this international icon and legend, Nelson Mandela? It’s like doing Mother Theresa with a dildo!

But his extraordinary sense of humour inspired me not to pack away humour as the weapon of mass distraction.

Because that’s what comedy needed to be: a distraction from the onslaught of guilt, fear and gossip. It had to become so funny through the outing of absurd realities that the laughers didn’t even know they were smiling at things they didn’t even want to think about. Issues they refused to have any opinions on: racism, genocide, lies, theft, corruption and that ultimate political talent, stupidity.

Enter a new creature called post-apartheid South Africa. I focused on the ‘mock’ in democracy and the ‘con’ in reconciliation. Not very commercial as so-called entertainment, because our honeymoon with hope went on for far too long.

And besides, what was funny about democracy? We’d got away with apartheid! There were no Nuremburg Trials, none of us were hung like Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity. Nelson Mandela came out of jail and didn’t speak like a Robert Mugabe.

We now had eleven official languages, so no one could ever complain that they didn’t hear anything in their own language — eventually. Ons Afrikaans is nog daar!

And yet democracy is a vibrant and fragile target. It is not carved out of granite. It is a crème caramel that dissolves in the heat of disrespect. Politicians eat freedoms and replace them with Teflon facsimiles. Be free today to fight for your freedom tomorrow! Not a struggle, darling: a battle!

Thank heavens politicians are like monkeys. The higher they climb the pole of ambition, the more of their arses we can see!

And suddenly the party I had voted for lay down and opened its arms to me. A show emerged called You ANC Nothing Yet. That was 1996. Then came Dekaffirnated, a title so edgy it was taken off the shelves by NuMetro video. Then came Elections & Erections. Forget not The End is Naai! And what about Desperate First Ladies?

The National Party of apartheid were my scriptwriters from 1970 to 1990. They gave me more material than I could conjure up in my wildest dreams: Non-European toilets in which Americans would go and be arrested for having a pee next to a bergie! Homelands that put the monopoly boards to shame. Corruption in drag as policy! And Bothas for Africa: PW, Pik and Bothalezi.

Suddenly it was all gone. No, maybe gone, but certainly not forgotten. Through these last 20 years of rainbow reinvention, old political recipes have been dusted off. Forgotten Publications Control Boards have been replaced by Secrecy Bills. Apartheid will never come back again under the same name, but let us not underestimate the inventiveness of bad politics. Of course it will be back!

It made huge money for a political elite then; it will make even more money for a political elite now. It won’t be the segregation of colour. We’ve been there. We’ve sung that freedom song. We’ve got the T-shirt. It will be the segregation of language, of tradition, of education.

The bitter comedy around Nkandla could have been written in the 1920s, in that Weimar Republic between those two terrible world wars that celebrated so many of the democratic freedoms we here take for granted. There citizens ignored their rights and the wrongs and soon were forced to make way for the man with the swastika. Or did he also wear a red beret?

I hate comedy about death, because it can never help me to come to terms with fear. I need humour, because then nothing is ‘funny’. It is so deadly serious that it needs me to laugh at my fear to make that fear less fearful. That gasp of shocked laughter is better than drugs, booze or politics. It can also be a wake-up call.     

So happy birthday, dear Rainbow Democracy. Ignore the fact that black and white are not part of its colourful spectrum. Laugh at your spectacular shortcomings and your familiar weaknesses, because as a democracy you’ll always be in trouble. Everyone’s greedy fingerprints are on your silver chalice of freedom. That’s what it’s all about.

Just protect your freedom of speech. Your freedom of expression. Your freedom of choice. Your freedom to vote. As long as you have that, we’re all going to be okay. We will never love each other madly, but at least we will have the freedom to dislike each other with dignity and respect.

Democracy. You can take it seriously, you can ignore it, you can criticise it, you can try and improve it. But when in doubt, laugh at it! Not always at the corruption, the carelessness and the ineptitude in democratic governance, but at yourself for allowing all to happen so easily.

Pieter-Dirk Uys writes, not in his familiar disguise of Evita Bezuidenhout, but in his private and personal capacity.




articles from 2014