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GADFLY

The satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys adjusts to the new South Africa

– Calvin Trillin, The New Yorker, 10 May 2004

Pieter-Dirk Uys often refers to Evita Bezuidenhout as "the most famous white woman in South Africa." Not long ago, I happened to be visiting Uys, the country's leading satirist, on a day when Mrs. Bezuidenhout's name had appeared in the newspaper yet again. "There are some people one cannot say no to," an article in the Cape Argus began. "Nelson Mandela is one and Evita Bezuidenhout is another." It occurred to me that the writer could have gone further; apparently, even Nelson Mandela can't say no to Evita Bezuidenhout. Not long after Mandela became the President of South Africa, in 1994, he granted her a thirty-minute television interview — a smiling Mandela in one of his trademark African print shirts, a gushing Mrs. Bezuidenhout in the sort of flowery frock that your Aunt Hilda made a serious mistake wearing to the Fourth of July garden party. The Argus item was referring to an event the previous day at a Cape Town hotel — a press conference called by Evita Bezuidenhout to encourage voter registration for this spring's election, the third national election in the ten years that South Africa has had universal suffrage. Mrs. Bezuidenhout, promising to furnish coffee and the sticky pastries South Africans call koeksisters, had invited the dozen or so leading political parties to send a representative, and nearly all of them had. A spokesman for the ruling African National Congress was there, and so was the leader of the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, and so was a young woman from the New National Party, which evolved from the party that had run South Africa for nearly half a century under apartheid. Pieter-Dirk Uys told me how remarkable he found it that someone like Evita Bezuidenhout could command the presence of politicians across the spectrum. When Uys discusses her, it is sometimes difficult to keep in mind that he himself is Evita Bezuidenhout. She is his invention. Those are his frocks.

Particularly in public, Uys tends to speak of Evita Bezuidenhout from a distance, and with great respect. She rarely deigns to talk about him in public — his name was not mentioned by anybody at y the voter-registration event — and when she does she is not complimentary. In "The Essential Evita Bezuidenhout," a small book in a series whose other offerings collected the sayings of heroes of the struggle like Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the entry for "Uys, P-D" begins, "A third-rate comedian who couldn't make it as a playwright and then found out how susceptible our society is to obscene language, and to men wearing women's clothing."

Pieter-Dirk Uys (pronounced Peter-Dirk Ace) ostensibly has little in common with Evita Bezuidenhout (pronounced, more or less, b'ZAY dun-hote). Uys customarily wears black, offstage and on. The wardrobe of Mrs. Bezuidenhout is, well, colorful. He speaks English in a Gielgudesque accent that may come from having attended theatre school — he graduated in theatre from the University of Cape Town, where he was informed by the doyenne of the South African stage that he had no talent whatsoever — and she speaks English with the pinched vowels of someone who might be more comfortable in Afrikaans. Uys is an animated man who often follows a zinger from the stage with a knowing little smile; he is among the few people I've encountered who can be fairly described as having a twinkle in their eye. Even in offstage conversations, he accompanies his words with the appropriate sounds and gestures — so if he says the cat was sleeping on the piano he suddenly folds his arms and cocks his head and closes his eyes to become a cat sleeping on a piano, and if he mentions the noise from a horde of little kids chattering in front of the stage he somehow becomes a horde of chattering little kids. Evita Bezuidenhout — who is said to be sixty-nine, precisely ten years older than Uys — moves like someone acutely conscious of the limitations imposed by her corset. She is free of irony. When people laugh at one of her lines, she sometimes looks vaguely puzzled, if she notices the laughter at all.

Uys does indeed use graphic language, whether straightforwardly in discussing South Africa's AIDS pandemic or sneakily in his stage performances. His newest revue is called "The End Is Naai," which sounds O.K. out loud in English unless you know Afrikaans slang well enough to understand that it's the equivalent of saying "The end is screwing." (In the late seventies, one of his shows was banned for what amounted to salacious use of the name Nigel.) He has always made a minor specialty of tossing in a word here and there that sounds obscene but turns out to be a total invention, or perhaps a small town in the Transvaal. Mrs. Bezuidenhout would never use coarse language, and, as for H.I.V./AIDS, when one of her sons worked up the nerve to tell her that he was positive she said that it's always good to have confidence in one's opinions.

In the decade before Nelson Mandela emerged from the prison on Robben Island to lead what South Africans often call "the transformation," Pieter-Dirk Uys was best known for one-man revues ridiculing the Nationalist government. He did a wicked impression of Prime Minister P. W Botha, for instance, and a sendup of censors as clodhoppers who would ban a play for having such obscene phrases as "the crack of dawn." Evita Bezuidenhout, on the other hand, was very much a part of the apartheid regime. Her husband was a Nationalist M.P. She herself became the South African Ambassador to Bapetikosweti — a fictitious addition to the apartheid system's supposedly independent (and often unpronounceable) black homelands, which were, of course, pretty fictitious to begin with. (In an early-eighties newspaper interview, Uys said that the homelands, which tolerated the mingling of the races, existed partly "so that people can cross borders to go and pinch black bottoms.") During apartheid, Mrs. Bezuidenhout's statements seemed on their face supportive of the government. Describing the glories of a country that did not permit the vast majority of its population to vote, she would smile, put her chin up, and say, "Democracy is too good to share with just anyone."

Pieter-Dirk Uys and Evita Bezuidenhout do have in common the Afrikaans language, which both have a tendency to revert to for asides, even when speaking from the stage in English. The two of them are steeped in Boer culture, although the Uys family is Cape Afrikaner, traditionally suspected of being a bit wet by Afrikaners whose ancestors left the Cape on the Great Trek inland, and Evita Bezuidenhout was born in the Voortrekker stronghold of the Orange Free State — "in the little town of Bethlehem," Uys says in one show, "but not in the stables, because that was for blacks only." It's easy to get the impression that the only other thing that Pieter-Dirk Uys and Evita Bezuidenhout have in common is, as Uys often reminds the audience, "great legs." But then, in some revues, Evita Bezuidenhout, with a quick shedding of eyelashes and wig and shawl, becomes Pieter-Dirk Uys right onstage. "It's only me," Uys is likely to say at that point. "A middle-aged, fat, bald, Afrikaner-Jewish drag queen from Cape Town."

Uys and I were having our conversation at his home in Darling, a little town about an hour's drive from Cape Town — in a mainly Afrikaans-speaking dairy-farming area where, as in the rest of the Western Cape, the non-white population has always consisted principally of the mixed-race people South Africans call coloreds. Uys insists that he didn't choose the town for its name. He says that eight' years ago he happened to stop there for a schnitzel while out on a drive, and the service was so slow that he had time to accompany a local real-estate agent to a dilapidated old house he instantly fell for. It's true, though, that he tends to call people "darling," so that he often finds himself saying something like "I'm back in Darling, darling." When the abandoned railroad station of the town came up for sale, Uys bought it and turned it into a cabaret theatre that eventually included a gift shop and a restaurant that serves such Afrikaner specialties as koeksisters and biltong (jerky) and boerewors (the iconic Afrikaner sausage) and bobotie — a dish that is customarily compared with moussaka, although not always favorably.

Uys crammed the old station with apartheid-era artifacts — kitsch to some, memorabilia to others. There are "Whites Only" signs and schoolroom reproductions of heroic paintings depicting Boer military victories and any number of pictures of the Voortrekker Monument and group shots of the Nationalist cabinet ministers' wives and many busts of Hendrik Verwoerd, the Prime Minister who is often described as the architect of apartheid. Most of the Verwoerd busts have been made into lamps, as a way, Uys sometimes explains to the audience, of enlightening the old boy. Outside, there is an antic garden called Boerassic Park. The entire complex is called Evita se Perron, which in Afrikaans means "Evita's railroad platform." Darling, which used to be known mainly for its annual wildflower festival, now greets visitors with a billboard of Evita Bezuidenhout.

I should say that, despite the Boer artifacts, Evita Bezuidenhout now identifies herself as a proud member of the African National Congress. Alluding to the fact that Hendrik Verwoerd was brought to South Africa as an infant by Dutch parents, she regularly refers to apartheid as "just a silly little experiment from Holland." Leroy Makoeloeli, the son of the President of Bapetikosweti — which, like the independent homelands that were only quasi-fictitious, no longer exists — is now her son-in-law. With a brave smile, she tells the audience how proud she is of her three little half-black grandchildren. At that point, her hand goes up to her mouth and she allows the brave smile to be replaced, just for an instant, by a stricken look.

She is not, of course, the only person whose memory of pre-transformation South Africa is fading fast. During performances in Darling, she has sometimes asked members of the audience to raise their hands if they voted Nationalist during apartheid — this is a question posed to an overwhelmingly white audience about a political party that won elections overwhelmingly when only whites were allowed to vote — and then waited patiently, in vain, for a hand to be raised. When the question was asked at one performance in the late nineties, the audience included Piet Koornhof, who had been a favorite target of Uys's while serving as the Nationalist government's Ambassador to the United States and its Minister for Cooperation and Development — an official whose job was described by Evita Bezuidenhout in one revue as moving black people around so white people wouldn't see them. A baleful stare from Mrs. Bezuidenhout was required to get even Koornhof's hand up.

It was no surprise that Evita Bezuidenhout jumped quickly to the party in power. Once, in a rare moment of discussing her as a device rather than as a person, Uys wrote that her value has always been as "a member of the targeted side. . . . She could damn with faint praise. She could condemn with flattery. In opposition, however, she was of no use." When she first emerged, as a woman quoted (but not named) in a weekly newspaper column Uys wrote in the late seventies, she was already privy to the inside gossip of the National Party's ruling circle. She became visible to the public only in 1981, when, at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, Uys first tried doing a one-man revue. He appeared in a small venue called the Laager rather than in the main theatre, and didn't begin his performances until eleven at night — an hour by which, he figured, the "censors were in bed, maybe with each other." The show was called "Adapt or Dye," and it was described as having been "written, directed and performed by Pieter-Dirk Uys in both official languages and sexes." In men's clothing, Uys played P. W. Botha and a South African Broadcasting Corporation anchorman and a Cape colored policeman talking about his grandmother's life on the Cape Flats after the forced resettlement of District Six — a particularly lunatic episode of the apartheid era in which the government pulled down a vibrant neighborhood of sixty thousand residents which had been designated white under the Group Areas Act and left it as a vast empty lot.

Among women, Uys played not only Evita Bezuidenhout but Nowell Fine, who in South Africa would be known as a kugel — a somewhat disparaging use of the Yiddish word for pudding to mean a spoiled Jewish housewife. In the days of the old regime, Nowell, while preparing for a cocktail party she was holding to benefit some township charity, would say, "The two things I hate most about South Africa are apartheid and the blacks." It almost goes without saying that she, too, is now a member of the A.N.C., even though she gets irritated at being called Eurocentric, a common put-down among A.N.C. supporters in the new South Africa. Sometimes she points out that the Armani suits and S.U.V s favored by some members of the government are also rather Eurocentric, and sometimes she says, "All right, I'll go back to Europe, but I'm taking the electricity with me."

In the many one-man revues that followed "Adapt or Dye," Uys has created a number of other characters — including Evita Bezuidenhout's sister, Bambi Kellermann, a former exotic dancer who was married for some years to a fugitive Nazi war criminal, now deceased. (Before he served as Paraguay's Minister of War, the war criminal actually lived with his wife in London for a while, managing to avoid detection, according to Bambi, "because the British never look you in the face.") There's some bad blood between the sisters. It is Bambi who, after mentioning in one revue that Evita is sometimes described as South Africa's answer to Dame Edna Everage, pauses for a beat and then says, "But, then, what was the question?" None of these characters — not Bambi, not an old Afrikaner granny, not a Holocaust survivor living in what has become a crime-ridden neighborhood in Johannesburg, not, for that matter, Pieter-Dirk Uys himself — has the clout of Evita Bezuidenhout. Mrs. Bezuidenhout has actually addressed members of Parliament at the opening of the parliamentary session. In South Africa, the word tannie, which literally means "auntie" in Afrikaans, can precede the first name of an older woman as a matter of respect, and Mrs. Bezuidenhout is sometimes called the tannie of the nation.

The politicians she summoned to the voter-registration event covered by the Argus often referred to her as Tannie Evita, as they took the microphone to speak briefly on the importance of voting or on the issues confronting the next government. (When people were asked in a recent survey about the country's most pressing problems, roughly three-quarters of black South Africans mentioned unemployment; roughly three-quarters of white South Africans mentioned crime.) Mrs. Bezuidenhout gazed up at every speaker with the sort of adoring stare that has rarely been matched since the days when Ronald Reagan was delivering his stump speech over and over in the presence of his wife. Tannie Evita did the introductions cheerfully, somehow managing to refer to a Bible-based party known as the A.C.D.P as the A.C.D.C. and explaining, as she presented the representative of the Inkatha Freedom Party, that the Party's leader, Minister of Home Affairs Mangosuthu Buthelezi, hadn't been able to make it to the event because his interpretation of being Minister of Home Affairs is that "he stays at home and lets affairs take their normal course."

The one politician who seemed to bristle at Mrs. Bezuidenhout's remarks was the representative of the ruling A.N.C., a white member of the Western Cape provincial legislature named Cameron Dugmore. In a reference to President Thabo Mbeki's fondness for world travel, Mrs. B. had said how pleased she was that the President "was in South Africa for a state visit," and her introduction of Dugmore included her hope that he could "say in two minutes what the A.N.C. hasn't been able to say in ten years." When Dugmore took the microphone, he said that the last thing he expected of Tannie Evita was for her to join the "prophets of doom" who can't seem to focus on all that has been accomplished in the first decade of democracy. The hostess, effusive as ever, didn't seem aware of any tension, although she did say how generous the A.N.C. was, since "we are allowed our freedom of speech — within reason."

Tannie Evita's description of Pieter-Dirk Uys as someone who couldn't make it as a playwright is technically accurate, but she might have said in his defense that one reason he couldn't make it was that the government kept banning his plays. Uys had not emerged from the University of Cape Town with any plans to defy the government. In fact, after spending several years in London, most of them studying and then teaching at a film school, he had convinced himself that he was going to live in England permanently as someone named Peter Ace, who happened to have been born in South Africa. Eventually, he told me, he decided that he was not an Englishman. He also told me that he returned home with a clearer picture than he'd had before his English sojourn of how his own country was being governed and what the rest of the world thought of it. When he came back to Cape Town, in 1973, a small theatre called the Space was just beginning. First at the Space and then at the Market, theatre people were regularly breaking the laws that prohibited mixed audiences and were creating stage plays unfriendly to the regime.

The Space and the Market were able to stay in business partly because censorship of theatre was less relentless and thorough than censorship of, say, film. When plays were censored or banned, it tended to be, at least ostensibly, on the basis of blasphemy or obscenity or nudity rather than political content. The government's relative flexibility about what was permitted onstage might have come from the simple fact that theatre had a limited number of devotees in South Africa and many of them were presumably opposed to the National Party's policies already. Possibly, in the view of Marianne Thamm, who was a reporter covering the culture beat in those days, "the police never read the arts page." For whatever reason, theatre censorship, under myriad legislative acts, was spotty and wildly inconsistent. A play by Uys might be banned in Afrikaans but not in English, or in written form but not on the stage. More than once, Mannie Manim, who ran the Market in those days, persuaded the censor board to hold its appeal hearing onstage, in front of the audience, following a performance of the offending production.

Since people or organizations that had been officially banned were usually not involved, all of this could be covered in the press, and the resulting publicity was often good for the box-office. Uys sometimes revealed to the newspapers that the three or four letters of complaint that censors reported receiving about one of his plays had actually been written, under a variety of names and on an improbable selection of stationery, by the playwright himself. When Robert Kirby, who was the most prominent satirist onstage during that period, received a letter from the chief censor listing the words that would have to be excised from one of his revues, he filed criminal charges against the censor for sending obscene material through the mails. In 1978, one of Uys's plays, a faux radio serial about an Afrikaner family entitled "Die van Aardes van Grootoor" ("The van Aardeses of Big Ear"), was banned in its first few weeks at the Market, won a reversal of the ban, and ran for another nine months. Still, Uys later wrote, in explaining why he turned from playwriting to one-man revues, "It was just not `an investment' to produce my plays with the danger of more bannings. So I was wondering how I'd feed my cat." Before he began performing "Adapt or Dye" at the Market, Uys was making a living, such as it was, mainly by writing B-movie scripts. After the run of "Adapt or Dye," a video of which had become the best-selling video in South Africa, he was famous — although not as famous, of course, as Evita Bezuidenhout.

Pieter-Dirk Uys's one-man revues were never censored. In fact, it was said that some Nationalist politicians — Piet Koornhof for instance, and Pik Botha, the Foreign Minister — were pleased to be among those he was lampooning. There was a range of opinion concerning how he managed to get away with what he said. One reviewer of "Adapt or Dye" wrote, "It's my belief that he `gets away with it' because he knows to within a decimal point of a millimetre just how far he is allowed to go — his brushes with the censor board serve him well." Uys also seemed to know how far he could go with the people who had come to the theatre for the purpose of entertainment rather than surveillance. He was acutely conscious of a basic rule governing political satire: it doesn't matter how brave you are if nobody laughs. "Forty-nine per cent anger versus fifty-one per cent entertainment has always been the sacred recipe," he has written. "So there had to be more tickles than punches."

Some apartheid policy was so weird that Uys could get laughs simply by reading the government's own public documents. Every year, for instance, Helen Suzman, of the Progressive Party, who for years was the single member of Parliament consistently willing to pose embarrassing questions about racial policy, would ask for the statistics on changes in racial status. The government, which was observant of parliamentary protocol even in the days when it was dispatching agents abroad to murder its opponents, would dutifully provide the answer, and Pieter-Dirk Uys could read the results onstage, right out of the gazette: "In terms of the Population Registration Act and in answer to a question from the Member of Parliament from Houghton, Mrs. Helen Suzman, five hundred and eighteen Coloreds were reclassified as Whites, fourteen Whites became Colored, seven Chinese became White, two Whites became Chinese, three Malays became Whites, one White became an Indian, fifty Indians became Colored, fifty-seven Coloreds became Indian, seventeen Indians became Malay, four Coloreds became Chinese . . . "

In the view of Cyril Ramaphosa, a prominent ANC. leader who is now in private business, those in charge of figuring out how to respond to Uys "didn't realize the deep subtleties of what he was saying. If they had, they would have taken action. Also, he was one of their own. Also, they were pretty dumb." (Robert Kirby has described the members of the Publication Appeals Board during part of that period as "heavily powdered middle-aged women, Dutch Reformed Church mandarins, and retired security-police officers.") Uys believes that the censors were uncertain how to categorize what he was doing; he encouraged the bureaucratic confusion by calling his performances "concerts." It presumably did help that he was not some toffee-nosed Anglophone who managed to look down at Afrikaners while taking full advantage of the system they so harshly administered. In those days, Uys spoke Afrikaans onstage about half the time, and even when he spoke English his Afrikaans asides drew the Afrikaners in the audience closer to him. It might have also been that, to some extent, Uys glided under the radar in Evita Bezuidenhout's frocks. His appearing in woman's clothing turned the revue into the sort of broad comedy the English used to call a pantomime — not serious enough to ban. Uys believes that a lot of Nationalists thought, Oh, it's just a moffie in a dress, moffie being the Afrikaans pejorative for a homosexual.

In "The Essential Evita Bezuidenhout, "Tannie Evita says that the Nationalists put up with Pieter-Dirk Uys "to show how democratic we were. Besides, the jails were full." The first part of that analysis, at least, may have some truth to it. P. W. Botha, who had been known previously as a hard-liner, presented himself as a reformer after he became Prime Minister; the title "Adapt or Dye" was a play on Botha's statement that white South Africans had to adapt to a changing world or die. Although many of Botha's reforms were cosmetic, he did dismantle such laws as the Immorality Act — making it legal for people of different races to marry, even though, as Uys and others pointed out, the retention of the Group Areas Act meant that the married couple could not legally live in the same neighborhood. There are people who think that the ability of some Nationalists to laugh at Pieter-Dirk Uys was an indication that the totally unbending attitude of previous years was finally beginning to soften.

Robert Kirby, who has taken upon himself the role of Pieter-Dirk Uys's most unrelenting critic, would say that Uys got away with it because what he and Evita Bezuidenhout and Nowell Fine and the others were saying wasn't that damaging to the regime. Kirby maintains that what was thought of as a devastating imitation of P. W. Botha actually made Botha into somebody "avuncular and a bit lovable instead of the horrible, lethal fascist that he was." Of course, a lot of people would take the opposite position: they would say that the power of Botha, a furious figure who was known as .the Great Crocodile, was undercut once it became difficult to see him speak without thinking of the jabbing finger and flicking tongue and grotesque expression of Uys's Botha. Still, some people on the left in those years did see the Nationalist Party's tolerance of Uys as an indication that he was serving as a court jester — someone who took the mickey out of the government, as English-speaking South Africans would put it, but pulled back when the opportunity came to go for the jugular.

Uys would acknowledge that he consciously tried to avoid viciousness. He has an unusual disposition for a satirist — particularly one who found himself making fun of a repressive regime that was capable of violence toward its detractors. He isn't sour. Although he may seem cynical about politicians — he often says "the higher they climb the pole of ambition the more of their asses we can see" — Uys is manifestly not cynical about, say, democracy. Before the second national election in the new South Africa, in 1999, he held rallies across the country to encourage voting, using his own money or funds he had raised privately to finance what he sometimes called the Ballot Bus. He is also someone who couldn't feel completely detached from the people he was criticizing. "My targets were so close to my roots," he told me. "For Afrikaners like me, they could have been my parents. I just felt if I don't have some compassion for the people I target, then I don't want to waste my time targeting them. I never do Eugene Terre'Blanche, who's the leader of the neo-Nazi Afrikaner resistance movement. There's no redeeming feature. Whereas P. W. Botha, although the man was so guilty of so many things, I could understand the obsession with thinking he was right."

Uys's parents were apparently much more interested in music than in politics, but Pieter-Dirk and his sister, who is now a concert pianist in London, did grow up in a traditional Afrikaner household whose paterfamilias played the organ every Sunday at the Dutch Reformed Church — a severe institution that undergirded apartheid with the teaching that Afrikaners had been selected by God to rule South Africa for the good of themselves and others. Uys's father, a civil servant who took early retirement to concentrate on the organ and musical education, was a cousin of Daniel Malan, the hard-line Nationalist Prime Minister whose government, just after the Second World War, passed the laws that established apartheid. Uys remembers playing in the garden with his sister while their grandmother, an early Nationalist supporter widely known as Tannie Gertie, had tea with the Verwoerds. (In the eighties, Uys says, a staunch Nationalist told him, "The only reason you're not in jail is your grandmother.") Uys's description of himself as half Jewish has to do with blood rather than with culture. His mother, who was also a concert pianist, arrived in South Africa in the thirties from Germany, and Uys says that it wasn't until after her death, when he was in his twenties, that he learned she was Jewish. Helga Bassel Uys may not have brought any Yiddishkeit into her son's life, but she did provide him with a dependable and characteristic line: he sometimes describes himself as belonging to two chosen peoples.

In his memoir, entitled "Elections & Erections," Pieter-Dirk Uys wrote that when the African National Congress finally came to power "my career as a South African satirist was in severe trouble. I was thrilled." He actually declared a sort of honeymoon. Evita Bezuidenhout's interview with Mandela was one of a dozen or so respectful and not particularly funny television programs she did in a series called "Funigalore," partly as an effort by Uys to humanize people who for years had been portrayed to white South Africans as terrorists or worse. On the "Funigalore" programs, Mrs. Bezuidenhout combined the interviews with, say, a fishing trip in the case of Cyril Ramaphosa or a visit to the swimming pool on the program dealing with Joe Slovo, the white Communist who had become Minister of Housing. Uys was embraced by the new government. For the A.N.C.'s first congress as a governing party — a particularly celebratory event held in the old Nationalist stronghold of Bloemfontein, on a day that had been a national holiday celebrating a Boer victory over the Zulus — Cyril Ramaphosa, then the A.N.C. secretary-general, asked Evita Bezuidenhout to entertain. "At first I didn't know where to come tonight," Mrs. Bezuidenhout said when she took the stage. "But when I saw all the new Mercedes cars, I knew where you were.

Uys's feeling that he might be put out of the satire business by the transformation of South Africa was based on more than his relief at the fall of apartheid. He plainly reveres Nelson Mandela. When it came to the new President, Uys couldn't manage anything harsher than the observation that Mandela had brought the country freedom and reconciliation and "some of the most hideous ethnic shirts ever seen." In those days, Thabo Mbeki, then Mandela's Deputy President, sometimes had Pieter-Dirk Uys entertain at functions, and Uys says that Mbeki encouraged him to feel no restraint about making fun of the A.N.C. government. But Uys believed that doing the sort of imitation of black officeholders that he'd done of an Afrikaner like Piet Koornhof (that imitation required a mask to approximate Koornhof's ample nose and ears) could be construed as racism.

Any commentary on the government by white South Africans is made more sensitive by a peculiar situation South Africa finds itself in: the majority black population is finally in control of the government, but the minority white population remains in control of the wealth. Much of that is in the hands of English-speakers, the segment of the white population that also produced most of those who thought of themselves as opponents of apartheid in pre-transformation days. The principles that had sounded good when advocated in the abstract by white liberals — multiparty democracy, for instance, and civil rights and protection of property rights — often sound to black South Africans these days like arguments for maintaining privilege by staving off, say, land reform and affirmative action. The put-down phrases commonly used by A.N.C. supporters, particularly younger A.N.C. supporters, include not just "Eurocentric" but "protectionist" and, often, "white liberal."

In that context, even some good-citizenship activity, like encouraging voter registration, can look suspicious. "This election can go two ways," Uys wrote in a piece for the Sunday Independent about Evita Bezuidenhout's voter-registration event in Cape Town, an event also covered by Mrs. Bezuidenhout in another newspaper. "It can be a reaffirmation of the democratic ideas enshrined in the constitution. Or it can lead to South Africa becoming a one-party state. . . . A two-thirds majority in parliament can change that constitution." That may be true, but an election strategist in the headquarters of the African National Congress, the party that could (and, as it turned out, did) come out of the election with a two-thirds majority, might be forgiven for seeing it as an argument not just for voting but for voting for any party other than the A.N.C.

Gradually, Uys came to regard the A.N.C. as the government rather than as a liberation movement. In revues, he was capable of reminding an A.N.C. minister that it's possible to fly from Pretoria to Harare without going through Paris. Evita Bezuidenhout, discussing the promises made by the A.N.C. about the construction of new housing, might ask, in her distracted way, "Was it a million houses in five years or five houses in a million years?" Uys also criticized some A.N.C. politicians for what he saw as a tendency to defend themselves against almost any criticism by calling it racist or Eurocentric or colonialist or unpatriotic. One of the revues I saw in Darling begins with Mrs. Bezuidenhout rushing in and explaining breathlessly that her car was missing from where she'd parked it. "I'm not saying my car was stolen," she says. "Nobody can call me a racist." Essentially, though, Uys thought of himself as observing a modified version of a honeymoon through the five years of Mandela's Presidency.

During that time, AIDS had not surfaced as a major issue — partly because there was so much else to deal with and partly because the proportions of the problem had not yet become apparent. Uys doesn’t recall mentioning AIDS when he toured the country in his Ballot Bus to encourage voting in the 1999 election that brought Mbeki, Mandela's hand-picked successor, to power. When AIDS did arrive, it was as a mainly heterosexual disease and it was on a devastating scale. Eventually, South Africa had arguably the most serious AIDS pandemic in the world. The formidable task of figuring out how to deal with it was abruptly made more complicated when President Mbeki reported, not long after taking office, that his own research on the Internet had convinced him that the drug commonly given to pregnant women to prevent transmission of H.I.V. to their babies, was toxic.

A lengthy lawsuit was required to force the government's distribution of such a drug to expectant mothers. The people whose theories Mbeki had found on the Internet — some of whom he appointed to his advisory panel on H.I.V../AIDS — turned out to be among a tiny group of scientists who doubt whether AIDS is caused by H.I.V. It became clear that even if anti-retroviral drugs, used everywhere else as the standard treatment for the disease, could be paid for and distributed and administered, the government would not agree to make them part of the health system. In line with the President's belief that there should be African rather than Western solutions to African problems, his health minister — a medical doctor named Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who had at first seemed prepared to combat AIDS with conventional methods — eventually suggested that South Africans strengthen their immune systems by eating African potatoes and garlic and olive oil.

Mbeki said that AIDS was in a cluster of diseases that should be combatted by addressing poverty. (Nobody doubts, in fact, that the malnutrition and lack of hygiene that go along with poverty exacerbate the problem.) He seemed particularly unwilling to accept the mainstream scientific belief that the virus was being spread in South Africa through sexual contact — a belief that he saw as a reflection of the colonialist and racist notion of the African male as a licentious, sexually irresponsible beast. Pieter-Dirk Uys had no difficulty accepting the assumption that H.I.V. is spread through sexual contact; he has written that he himself might have been saved from acquiring the virus by a last-minute change of heart at the door of a New York bathhouse, in the days when AIDS was about to become known as the gay plague. Making use of one of his invented words, he says in one revue that Dr. Tshabalala-Msimang's remedy could indeed work to prevent H.I.V. if a woman puts olive oil on the African potato and then inserts it into her k'waaa, like a boulder in the mouth of a cave.

What a Mbeki loyalist would consider the Eurocentric view of all this was summarized bluntly in 2000 by a subhead in the online magazine Slate: "Why has South Africa's excellent president gone loco?" The loyalist would maintain that there is nothing wacky about the premises that apparently guided Mbeki's research — a deep suspicion of the motives of Western drug companies, for instance. Still, the pressure on Mbeki to allow the distribution of anti-retrovirals came partly from his own party. It also came from an activist patients' group called the Treatment Action Committee and from people concerned with foreign investment and from American supporters who were worried that Mbeki's stand on AIDS was becoming the single story on South Africa. Finally, after three years, the government announced that a rollout of anti-retrovirals would take place this spring — although the decision seemed to be made with some reluctance, and the Treatment Action Committee soon began complaining about bureaucratic delays.

While this was being argued out, no widespread AIDS-education program was being mounted. Aside from the fact that the President seemed to be denying that AIDS was spread through sexual contact, both the black and the white cultures in South Africa are reticent about discussing sex in public. In 2000, Uys began his own program — a venture that has by now taken him to nearly five hundred schools. His presentation, which I heard at a sort of community college near Cape Town, doesn't vary much even when he's addressing grade school children. Weaving in brief appearances by Evita Bezuidenhout and P. W. Botha, he compares the H.I.V. virus to the virus of apartheid and then describes his own experience of being told in school about the birds and the bees — the little Afrikaner boys sitting on one side of the auditorium, the little Afrikaner girls sitting on the other, and the physical-education teacher walking up and down the aisle in between with a cricket bat to keep them apart. Then he adds, almost casually, "I still can't work that out: how does a bird fuck a bee?" At that point, the students, as they erupt with laughter, become aware that they are about to hear the sort of talk they never thought they'd hear from a grownup behind a microphone. Uys goes on to discuss such subjects as condoms and anal sex and rape and oral sex. When he speaks plainly of these subjects to grade-school children, he told the community college students, "the teachers go white. The black teachers go white."

Some of the grade-school children were already H.I.V. positive. Meeting them in school after school seemed to fuel Uys's anger at what he saw as inaction or even obstruction by the government. "At every opportunity, the President, his advisers and especially his Minister of Health have demeaned the seriousness of the pandemic and created havoc among those who seek help," he wrote in a magazine article in February of last year, some months before the government announced its change of policy on anti-retrovirals. "The national comprehensive strategy is starting to look like a systematic, planned extermination of an entire group of South Africans: those who are poor. . . . The new apartheid has already established itself. Black and White South Africans with money will live. Those without money will have no access to medicines and drugs. They will die!" He said that the President and his health minister should be brought up on charges of genocide. In reply, the government issued a statement that said, in part, "While we are convinced that there are limits to satire, we do recognize Uys's right to overstate matters and respond flippantly to serious issues.

Then, last September, during a trip to New York, Thabo Mbeki told a Washington Post reporter, "Personally, I don't know anybody who has died of AIDS." Asked whether he knew anyone with H.I.V., he said, "I really, honestly don't." In fact, more than one of Mbeki's aides have died of what everyone else thought was AIDS. When Evita Bezuidenhout rushes into the theatre with her missing-car story, she tells the audience that she had been at a funeral for someone who worked for the President, and then says, after a pause long enough to take in what the audience is obviously thinking, "Died of natural causes." Sometimes, Uys says from the stage that if Rock Hudson had been a member of the A.N.C. he would have died of natural causes.

The statement to the Post infuriated Uys, who was performing in London at the time. He e-mailed a letter to a list of friends and to the newspapers. It said of Mbeki's statement, "He lies and so condemns his nation to death. It is time to replace this man with a leader who cares about his people!" As if that weren't strong enough, Uys then invoked the name of Steve Biko, the black activist who was murdered in jail by the security forces: "Like when Steve Biko died, the then-apartheid Minister of Justice Jimmy Kruger famously said: `It leaves me cold.' South Africa leaves Thabo Mbeki cold."

An A.N.C. spokesman said that Uys's comments revealed a malicious agenda that did not have the nation's interests at heart. Essop Pahad, an A.N.C. minister close to the President, attacked Uys in a long statement that Uys characterized to me as "marvellous fifties Stalinist gobbledygook." Some people who disagree with Mbeki about AIDS thought that, given the fact that the government was finally beginning to come around on the anti-retroviral issue, it hadn't been helpful to call the President a heartless liar who should be removed from office. "I blew my top," Uys acknowledged to me. "You don't push the `send' button after a bottle of red wine." He did not appear to be filled with remorse.

Still, a couple of weeks after his e-mail ignited the furor, Uys decided that the question of whether or not the President knew anybody who was H.I.V. positive was a distraction from the real question of what was being done about the deaths of six hundred people a day from AIDS. The next letter received by those on the Pieter-Dirk Uys e-mail list was from Evita Bezuidenhout. "I am ashamed to see in all our newspapers how an Afrikaner is using his freedom of expression to insult and criticize Thabo Mbeki," she wrote. "Unfortunately, President P. W. Botha wasn't brutal enough to end Uys's self-serving and malicious agenda with imprisonment and/or death, and the present Government is trapped by a democratic constitution enshrining tolerance and free speech. . . . I believe President Thabo Mbeki when he says he knows no one with H.I.V. or anyone who has died of AIDS. Nor do I. The A.N.C. must rise above Uys's grandiose posturing and attention-seeking comments. They must not let a third-rate comedian turn them into fourth-rate politicians by over-reacting with similar phrases once used by P. W. Botha's regime."

Robert Kirby, who has a newspaper column these days, wrote that Pahad had foolishly fallen into the trap of a master self-publicist. But the arts community in general was supportive of Uys. A playwright and arts administrator named Mike van Graan wrote a piece that began, "No longer playing the fool." Van Graan mentioned that talk about how brave it was for Uys to speak out reflected less than total confidence in the government's commitment to free speech. Several months after the controversy, Uys got a standing ovation when he received one of the lifetime-achievement awards given by the theatrical community of Johannesburg. "They say it's unpatriotic to criticize," he told the assembled. "Nonsense! A patriot is somebody who protects his country from its government."

In his revues, Uys now regularly uses I lines like "Of course, I'm not an expert on medicine like President Thabo Mbeki . . . " or "I really wish I could look at a headline which says `PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI FINDS CURE FOR AIDS IN FRIDGE.'" Sometimes he says that the kids he meets in his school visits refer to Mbeki as Comrade Undertaker. One of his revues, "Foreign AIDS," includes material from the school programs, and at times it is chilling rather than funny. It includes perhaps the harshest line Uys has ever written, a version of which is the opening passage of his memoir: "Once upon a time, not so long ago, we had an apartheid regime in South Africa that killed people. Now we have a democratic government that just lets them die."

"Foreign AIDS" has had runs in London and in Australia. When it played LaMaMa, in New York, last fall, it received a warm review in the Times. But there are those in South Africa, some of them long-standing fans of Pieter-Dirk Uys, who believe that with "Foreign AIDS" he has allowed himself to forget the sacred recipe governing the balance of tickles and punches necessary for an entertainer to hold his audience. They believe that the AIDS crisis may, in effect, have rendered him serious. The other way of looking at it, of course, is that the AIDS crisis has, as Uys himself told me one day, brought him back into the arena. He is no longer having any difficulty figuring out how a white satirist can comment effectively on a black government. He finds himself battling the government in power from the moral high ground once again.

Uys has decided that at the end of this year Evita Bezuidenhout will be absent from South Africa for about nine months, and it's partly because she is not comfortable discussing AIDS. She's going to Cuba, where her son-in-law Leroy Makoeloeli will be working in the South African Embassy. The audience in Darling and Uys's other venues will be seeing more of Bambi Kellermann, who is H.I.V. positive herself and, given a conversational style that owes something to Marlene Dietrich, not averse to talking about it. Bambi, who has been back in South Africa for some time, has already related onstage how she takes advantage of the brief residency that she and the war criminal had in England by popping over to London now and then to get a supply of anti-retrovirals on the National Health. There are a number of other reasons to send Mrs. Bezuidenhout away for a while. Her popularity has put her creator in the position of a pop singer who's so bombarded with requests for his top-of-the-charts hit that he can't get on with anything new. Uys wants to develop some ideas he has for films -- not the sort of films he was writing twenty-five years ago when he was trying to figure out how to feed his cat. He's also interested in doing more material on matters beyond South Africa. In London this month, he'll open a revue that is now called "Elections & Erections" but once had the working title of "Mbeki, Mblair and Mbush."

Before she leaves for Havana, Uys told me, Evita Bezuidenhout will have a full schedule. After starring in a touring revue called "Evita & Co.," she is going to play one of the female leads in the Afrikaans version of a revival of Uys's 1974 play "Selle Ou Storie." Bambi Kellermann will be playing the same role on alternate nights in the English version, "Same Old Story," which, unlike the Afrikaans version, will be set in the present. Precisely how two female actresses who are actually a single male satirist will go about playing the same role in different languages would presumably require more than a theatre degree from the University of Cape Town to explain. Uys didn't try. Instead, he began to talk about what juicy battles the sisters are likely to carry on in the press over billing and dressing rooms. "It will be like having Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the same play," he said.

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