(additional articles about PDU can be found in the Archives)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.