Pieter-Dirk Uys: crossing apartheid lines

– Daniel Lieberfeld, The Drama Review (Cambridge, MA), Spring 1997

Pieter-Dirk Uys, South Africa's premier political satirist, was born in Cape Town in 1945 to an Afrikaner father and a German-Jewish mother. From 1965 to 1972 he studied drama at the University of Cape Town and film at the London Film School. During the 1970s he wrote and directed plays at the Space Theatre in Cape Town and at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg.

Uys (pronounced "Ace") is author of over plays and reviews. His play God's Forgotten was performed in 1978 at La Mama in New York City. Other works performed in the U.S. and U.K. include Paradise Is Closing Down (1977) and Beyond the Rubicon (1986), which were also produced for South African television.

Since the early 1980s, Uys has developed in his skits and revues the persona of an Afrikaner matron named Evita Bezuidenhout, his best-known character. As Evita — whom he describes as "a cross between Miss Piggy and Imelda Marcos" — Uys has hosted since 1994 a series of weekly television interviews with top politicians of postapartheid South Africa. These included many leaders of the African National Congress, including President Nelson Mandela and Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC's Secretary General. The ANC politicians in "The New South Africa" have used their appearances with Evita to humanize their image for a public that for decades had feared them, perceiving them as terrorist demons.

Uys has hosted stalwarts of the formerly whites-only Nationalist Party as well. One of them, Roelf "Pik" Botha, danced a suggestive pas de deux with Uys (as Evita) in the show's opening sequence. This image, remarkable in South Africa's virulently homophobic society, lent credence to the idea that participatory democracy may be revolutionizing sexual politics. On the other hand, it may be that many viewers actually perceive Evita not as a male actor in a woman's wig and clothes, but as a real woman.

At his home in Cape Town in October 1994, Uys chronicled how Evita became "the most famous white woman in South Africa who doesn't exist" and described his approach to political theatre.(1)

LIEBERFELD: In the United States it's hard to imagine any sane politician wanting to appear, at least publicly, with a man in drag. How do you explain South African politicians' eagerness to appear with you?

UYS: Because it's not a man in drag. Believe me, if it was a man in drag they wouldn't do it. And if my job was to be a man in drag, I wouldn't have asked them. That's why gender is so interesting. I have made such a huge division between Evita and myself — and have started talking about her in the third person — because she needs that space. She's got nothing to do with me whatsoever now. I give her only two percent of my time. She's so divorced from me that in the press they refer to Evita Bezuidenhout and don't even mention that I'm doing her. And that's fine. That's the way it works.

I find that when I do Evita, I have to do her totally for real. I've got to take every hair off my arm, because if anybody sees that fluff, I've lost it. I mean, she is not about balloons. She's not absurd. She's so real that women recognize the femininity in her, and men forget that there's a guy inside.

It's different for women. Women have been so liberated in their fashion that a woman who walks into a place in a man's suit with a tie and a hat becomes the ultimate fashion statement.

LIEBERFELD: So politicians are willing to appear arm-in-arm with you because they perceive Evita as a real woman?

UYS: They do. And what I've found out is that the African National Congress people I had on the show, while they were in exile, kept in touch with South African politics through what I was doing, which is extraordinary. Nelson Mandela saw my videos in prison. Nelson met Evita Bezuidenhout in prison. And when I met Nelson here for the first time, wearing my voortreker [Afrikaner pioneer] dress, he came up and said, "My dear Evita!" I suppose appearing on the TV series is a very generous thing that they're doing for me now.

LIEBERFELD: How do you account for the fact that people take Evita so literally?

UYS: They've gone on a long journey with her. She's been around since 1980 — we're talking 14 years. She's been a very visible reality. And the media always have given me wonderful support, and put in pictures and funny little things like fashion shoots.

LIEBERFELD: You can see the legitimizing power of the photograph in the "biography" you've written of her.(2)

UYS: Absolutely extraordinary. I'm writing a book about the making of the television series, about what happened behind the camera, and it is fascinating. I meet these people for the first time, and they meet Evita, because I'm ready by seven in the morning. I've known from experience that if they meet me first and then I get into Evita, they see through her. And then it's very hard for them to act. But when they meet her first it works. Also, I don't sit preciously sewing in the corner. I go over to them and make jokes and defuse the thing. And I make them aware that I am not there to make them look bad — that I'm not going to trap them, just have a nice time. Then they start to suggest things that would make them look funny.

When I was filming with [the South African Parliament's woman Speaker] Frene Ginwala, I was sitting in a dress in the Parliament building — with those monsters staring down at me from the portraits — and I said, "What are we doing? Please Dr. Ginwala, what are we doing? I mean, I'm in a dress. You've got work to do. Isn't this crazy?" And she said, "It's absolutely crazy, but I want people to know that Parliament is open to them, that it's not a citadel on the hill for the gods to play around in. Now either I can do a documentary — which means that nobody's going to watch it — or I bring Evita to Parliament." And I can understand it, because that's what people would look at, you see.

LIEBERFELD: There is a way in which Evita's character seems exaggeratedly femme. I wonder whether you've had any responses that she's a distortion of women?

UYS: I've had some really interesting conversations with feminists, who are very interested in her. Many Afrikaans women have been supportive purely because Evita represents something that Afrikaans women have not been allowed — a political voice. Evita's a very strong female clown. Most women have not been allowed that voice in politics. And women have said, "I'm so proud to see Evita there."

LIEBERFELD: When you impersonate black leaders, is it different from impersonating a white woman or white man?

UYS: No, it's either doing it well or not doing it at all, I'm an actor. Well, listen, I wasn't that glib about it some time ago. I didn't do black people. I thought, "I can't." And then Desmond Tutu said [imitates Archbishop Tutu's voice], "Hey, where am I? Why is there apartheid in your show? Where am I?" And so I did him, and I invited him. He came backstage and said, "It's very good, but you don't have enough rings on your fingers." And he brought me a box of costume rings. The most divine man. So that gave me the Tutu approval. And then friends of Winnie's [Mandela] said, "You've got to do Winnie." Just for the whole balance, I mean where was Winnie? And of course I didn't do Nelson at all, I mean what for? He was just like Mother Theresa. But now he's a politician. In One man, One Volt [the preelection performance piece just before the first nonracial election in 1994], I did him with my back to the audience because I couldn't get the face right, but now I've got the face [squares jaw a la Mandela]. And it's wonderful to do.

LIEBERFELD: is there any link between doing a woman and crossing the racial divide?

UYS: To me there's no difference in doing Hamlet or a spear carrier or anything. In America the politically correct lobby said, "You can't do blacks." And I said, "Why not?" "Because you're white." And I said, "Oh balls — I'm an actor. If I do it badly you must tell me." And they said, "No, you do them very well, but you shouldn't be doing them." Well, I suppose it is tricky, but political correctness is my topic — I'm not politically correct.

When I was at Williams College, a woman in the audience who didn't approve of me doing black characters raised her hand and I said, "Excuse me Miss. Are you a... a black American?" And she said, "No, I'm an African American." And Evita said, ",Oh, I'm also African! But have you been to Africa?" She said, "No." And Evita said, "Oh, that's too bad. I come from Africa. It's terrible that you don't call yourself a `black American.' Do they treat you so badly here that you pretend to be something you're not?" Well, I thought this woman was going to fall out of her clothes. But it broke the ice. She was never a fan, but she came up afterwards and said, "Goddamn it, if you weren't in that dress, I would have thrown something at you!"

So there are certain things I can make clearer as a female character than as a male, and obviously some things much clearer as a black man than an Armenian or an Arab. But I play Arabs as well — I've done Khadaffi. The thing is that when I play black people, I don't put on black makeup. You see, to me apartheid has never been about color, it's been about sound. What I mean is that we were educated to sound ethnic. [Imitates accents of blacks, English-speakers, Afrikaners, coloreds.(3)] Every group has its way of talking. That's why Bill Cosby was so successful. He didn't sound black — he sounded American. Ethnicity is sound. I think the one thing that has divided the people in South Africa is the sound of their language. You hear someone talking in a certain way and you say, "That's not a white person." It's different in England. You get the black kids with Cockney accents.

LIEBERFELD: But in English society itself, there are such boundaries that come from language.

UYS: Oh yes, that's why I've always said that the English language is the ultimate "whites only" sign. Unbelievable. So that's why, when I perform someone like [Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu] Buthelezi, I must simply get his accent right, I don't have to "black up" at all to do it.

LIEBERFELD: The "old" South Africa wasn't exactly famous for tolerating political satire. How did censorship and the climate of intimidation affect you as a performer?

UYS: There's no such thing as free speech. Speech is just there. If you're too scared to use it then it's not free. And most people in South Africa didn't use freedom of speech because they were too scared to open their mouths — because they could lose their jobs. So it was fear. I've always said exactly what I wanted to say. One used certain sly ways of getting around prejudice and fear and anger. Humor was the key. Humor was the way to do it — to laugh at my fear, and then find out that people share the same fears. And the Evita character was the specific security blanket or bulletproof vest that I had. Because every time I was really in trouble, I'd get her on the front page of a newspaper wearing some funny hat and looking like an idiot, and everyone would go, "Oh Christ, the drag queen's at it again. Let's move on. It's not worth pursuing." Not taking it seriously, because in fact it was so serious you couldn't even think about it.

The atmosphere then was terrifying. When I think back now, I can't believe that one just took it in one's stride and trusted things as much as one did. One left one's car in the street, and when the car was tampered with, one thought, "Well, I'll have it fixed." The worst thing that happened was in the early 1980s when people threw poisoned meat over my walls for my animals. But the negative energy can keep you busy all your life. I just used it in the show the next night, you know, said "Nice, eh?"

They also threatened my father to a certain extent, although the fact that my father's cousin was [D.F. Malan] the first Afrikaner Prime Minister, and that the rest of my relatives have been or are in government, has helped me tremendously. My relatives all said, "Why would you do that? Think of your grandparents." And I said, "Yes, I do." So that did a lot too — one used the guilt and the reality of where the roots were.

LIEBERFELD: What are the roots of Evita's character? Were you drawing on elite Afrikaner women from your own family?

UYS: She's a combination of so many people I know — not just South African people, movie stars. She started as a column in a newspaper that I was writing for. It was a means of getting information across that wasn't allowed to be written about. I thought if I created this woman who went to parties in Pretoria, whose husband was a Nationalist Member of Parliament, then she could say, "My dear, you know..." and come up with all the facts about the political scandals happening at the time. And nobody stopped us.

LIEBERFELD: You know she reminds me of Margaret Dumont in the Marx Brothers' movies.

UYS: How interesting! Yes, yes, yes. She's that sort of dowager. These days she's even more of a dowager. And she has three black grandchildren since her daughter has married the son of the President of [the imaginary Republic of] Bapetikosweti.

LIEBERFELD: How did Evita's character enable you to circumvent government restrictions?

UYS: Firstly, it was illegal to do her. It was illegal for men to wear women's clothing. There was a law against it. So that was the first law being broken. And when they didn't stop me from doing that, I thought, "What the hell, I can just go on from here!" Still to this day I use her to say things I can't as me. When I addressed the South African International Film Festival (and I'm pretty angry about the way we've wrecked the film industry here), I could say all kinds of things through Evita about the industry — about how people stole millions through the subsidy system. If I'd done it as myself, people would have said, "Oh, you're a bitter person." So she's stir the most effective way to do it.

Censorship was the big problem. So I got my father on the censor board. I said to him, "Listen, they want people for the censor board, and you're a very decent human being. And you can see movies free, uncut." He was there like a shot. And because he was there, he could tell me what was going on inside.

Up to that time, I was in deep trouble. Everything was stopped, banned. Then came the 1974 Publications Act for submitting the plays. I had a play where the script was banned but the performance could be seen. Three weeks later, I had another play that you couldn't see the performance of but you could read the script. It became crazy. So I read the Publications Act, and I found out how to make them half crazy. One anonymous complaint meant that they would have to come to see the show. So I would send four or five complaints each time I did some new work. And I knew that they knew that I knew that they knew that I was doing it. But they didn't know which of the letters was mine. So they used to come to the shows and they used to ban things. And I'd say, "Recognize this letter? I sent it!" — Oh God! And the press used to give it great publicity, and people started laughing, and laughter made the censors stay away. For ten years they never came near me. I missed them so desperately. I used to send them tickets, and say, "Please come. Look, I'm saying terrible things!" So one had to just keep a sense of humor. Anger is very ineffective when trying to fight something like that because you just explode.

LIEBERFELD: Was there a period when things seemed possible that hadn't been possible previously?

UYS: To be honest, I never thought about that. When something had to be done, I just found a way of doing it. For example, after Cry Freedom [the film about Black Consciousness leader Steven Biko] came out, I thought, "Oh God, everybody's jumping on the anti-apartheid bandwagon" — because all the actresses want to play Winnie — so I did a show called Cry FreeMandela. But to even say "Free Mandela" was illegal. But my title, Cry FreeMandela, I could put in the ads every day. And then there was an actor who played Nelson, but it was Horatio Nelson, so he'd got the wrong Nelson. And I played Joan Collins, who plays Winnie. And she's got the shoulders, and she wants to play Winnie "if I can keep the costumes and the jewelry." And suddenly someone gives her these two little black babies, and she says, "Has somebody not told me something?"

I had got the Winnie biography that had a passage describing her first visit to Polsmoor prison, and the beauty of the Cape. And it struck me. Because being an Afrikaans racist, the first thing I thought was, "Christ, blacks don't look at the view. What the hell do they know about the view?" So I thought, I had to use this. So I started the show off by playing the ANC anthem, "Nkosi sikelel'i Afrika," which was also banned. And I was doing FreeMandela at the Nico Malan Theatre, which was like doing Fiddler on the Roof at Nuremberg. And it had such an impact on people who didn't want to know about Winnie, but who suddenly said, "How can we lock up a man in the Cape without a view?" Because he didn't have a window in Polsmoor Prison. So if there was a law, one had to break it. Laws were made to be broken.

LIEBERFELD: Your shows have running commentary in Afrikaans, so that you seem to make direct statements in English and then make asides in Afrikaans. Do you use Afrikaans to communicate certain kinds of messages?

UYS: I think Afrikaans is the most wonderful language to play up against English. Some people don't understand both, and you can play games with them. Most of my work that was banned was in Afrikaans. My English work wasn't banned, because the censors said, "Oh, the English..." And Evita is Afrikaans, and I am Afrikaans. Interestingly, Afrikaans is now freeing itself from its political bondage, and is becoming a very exciting arena. For many years, I refused to write in Afrikaans. But I still love it desperately and I'm currently writing a novel in Afrikaans.

Evita is becoming a sort of champion for that side of South Africa that is scared of being painted into a corner. I find that the underdog is always the one that I pat. And now suddenly the underdog is the Conservative Party — the right-wing Afrikaner — and one thinks, "Don't chase them back into the caves. Instead, let's lure them out with those little jelly babies and then we can stroke their heads."

The Afrikaners are incredibly adaptable. I mean here we are, after the elections — what everybody thought would be the great Walpurgisnacht of all times — and it turned out to be the most extraordinary party. I have relatives who belong to the AWB [a far-right political party], and they have no intention of killing anybody. They've built cooperatives on their farms for the squatters, who are making things like blankets and beads, which they're selling overseas. They're on first-name terms. They're learning each other's languages. It's extraordinary. I really believe that everyone is very adaptable. Because we've always had something awful to blame. You know, "I want to marry you but I can't because you're black and I'm white. I want to, but I can't because of the law. But we'll talk about other things."

I found much more frightening attitudes in America. There's just no communication there. People don't want to talk to each other. Whoopi Goldberg, when she was here, said to a group of very angry young comrades, "Don't forget what we have done in America. We have taken it to a point where there is no return, and here you have a fresh beginning. You can make it work."

LIEBERFELD: How has being Jewish affected your work?

UYS: Well, being Jewish and Afrikaans means that I belong to both chosen people, so that's been fantastic. Actually, I only found out that I was Jewish after my mother died. I wasn't brought up as Jewish because my mother had escaped the Nazis and married an Afrikaner, and that's just one tiny step below what the Nazis stood for. So she didn't talk about it. I don't think she wanted to go through that again. So we found out only afterward. And I'm delighted. First of all, she brought me this Berlinerschnauzer — this Berlin sense of humor which is wonderful.

And then I think of growing up in the Cape with the Cape coloreds. I'm an honorary Cape colored, I really feel that. Do you know about the Bergies here? They're homeless people, vagrants who live up on the mountain. They have the wisdom of the devil. I think there is this wonderful heart of compassion in the colored people here. I mean, after what we've done to them — and still they vote for the Nationalists!

LIEBERFELD: So there's a theme of adaptability among marginalized groups whose survival tactics include humor?

UYS: Well I feel like I am a part of that marginalized group. I am. I mean I'm a bit of everything.

LIEBERFELD: How does that affect the tone you bring to your work?

UYS: Anarchy is the key word. What I do has got to be social anarchy, sexual anarchy, political anarchy, ethnic anarchy. It's got to overturn all the prejudice. If people come in and expect it to be A, it's got to be B. If they think they're going to get C, they're going to get Z. And if I know people don't like Jews, I tell them about Jews. And if I know English don't like Afrikaans, I speak Afrikaans.

LIEBERFELD: So you're conscious of using the outsider parts of you to make people uncomfortable in a productive sort of way?

UYS: In the 1980s people told me, "You can't be a satirist and have compassion." So I said, "Then I'm not a satirist." If I don't care about the people, I won't do them. But people like P.W. Botha — although I thought he was such a dangerous man, I also felt very sorry for him because I know what happened to him. He had strokes every year, one after another. I saw his face change. And I knew that face better than his wife did. He did more to change things politically than F.W. de Klerk did. And then suddenly he just went mad. And besides, throwing stones is just so easy.

LIEBERFELD: Are there other performers whom you especially like?

UYS: I love Barry Humphries, the Australian performer who does Edna Everage. I think he's brilliant. I think Lily Tomlin is great. Whoopi Goldberg. They've all got an enormous generosity as performers. They're not in their characters in order to get at people they illuminate as well. Robin Williams also.

LIEBERFELD: Since you mention him, it seems that there are a whole spate of films now, like Mrs. Doubtfire, that have men performing in drag. Why do people respond to that?

UYS: I think fear is the issue. I think people are terribly frightened of gender. And I think a hell of a lot can be reflected about that fear.

LIEBERFELD: Perhaps part of why I thought of Margaret Dumont earlier is that the Marx Brothers, in their own way, are very subversive of ethnic stereotypes — the way Groucho uses anti-Semitic stereotypes to undermine anti-Semitism.

UYS: Yes, you see it's a hell of a thin line. Especially now. In the old days it was very simple. I mean we had the biggest target in the world in apartheid. Everybody had the T-shirt. Have you seen any Bosnian T-shirt? No — it's far too complicated. So it was a very easy target. Now the line between satire and racism is very, very thin. If I'm making jokes about white Afrikaners, then I am satirical. If I'm making jokes about black Communists, I'm being a racist. So I've got to be aware of it, and use it in the material. Put it back into the mixture to actually make people laugh at their prejudice against prejudice.

LIEBERFELD: But you don't do it in an aggressive way.

UYS: You know, aggression makes people go blind and deaf. It's as simple as that. It's totally unproductive. My father taught me a hell of a lot. I'll never forget, once after I did a show, I asked him, "What did you think?" And he said, "Why do you go jabbing at people's eyes with your fingers, with your four-letter words? You blind people with your anger and then I can't look. Why don't you just come round and tickle me with your fingers on the back of my neck so I start giggling, and then when I turn around, my eyes will find your fingers?" And that's actually true. If I stood there and was aggressive, I'd stand alone.

I mean all this material is based on anger. The situation here is just appalling. So you can go and shoot the politicians and then end up in jail — and Oliver Stone makes a terrible film about your life — or you make people laugh at these politicians.

LIEBERFELD: How do you transform the anger?

UYS: Well, take the colored lady I did in One Man, One Volt. The fact that my nanny, who used to bathe me when I was six, who is like my mother — I mean she's been with us forever — this woman is the most terrible racist I have ever met. She talks about the "Kaffirs" [highly derogatory term for Africans]. She keeps saying, "There's a Kaffir at the door." And I say, "Please, darling, no!" And she says, "Call it what you will, there's a Kaffir at the door." She cried when [white right-wing leader Andries] Truernicht was buried, but laughed when they buried [assassinated black ANC leader] Chris Hani. I just thought, Christ, this is such a shocking reality — that apartheid has not only destroyed the alphabet of communication, but it has created such poison in the very people who are its victims.

So the character for the sketch was based on my nanny. But the structure came from an article I read in the British Telegraph when I was performing in Germany. (You can imagine that a German joke is no laughing matter. I ended up as Hitler hitching to Berlin. Oh God, was that hard work!) In the paper there was an interview with three women in the Isle of Dogs, where a by-election had brought in a neo-Nazi. And there was an unbelievable uproar. I took out the familiar bits from the interview, and when I came back to South Africa — with the coloreds voting for the Nationalists — it just found its own place.

So the colored woman in the sketch is appallingly prejudiced against everybody. People were quite shocked at the line when she says, "Desecration against the Jewish cemetery down the road — it's the Jews themselves. They were doing it to make us coloreds look bad. Just because some of us are Muslims they think we're all Arabs." It's so absurd, and yet people were saying to me, "You shouldn't put ideas into people's heads." That makes me laugh all the more.

So you find ways. I just have an instinctive thing that knows what to do. And there are some things that I want to do in the material, but it's not the time yet, and then they just don't work. It's so frustrating. I've always found that what I do on stage is at least two years ahead of what the public thinks. That's why most people are shocked and bothered by it. By the time people are used to it, it's time to stop the show.

In the second part of the television series I do the title sequence with [conservative Afrikaner politician] Piet Kornhoof, who now has a colored wife. And he used to be the Minister for Black Affairs. I don't think I could make these things up. I mean the surreal madness, which I think the series puts into a nutshell.

LIEBERFELD: How does the new government change things?

UYS: I'll be honest with you, I'm on their side. I've been fighting for this all my life, and suddenly it's bad for business. I mean a satirist cannot be on anybody's side. But the series is part of my version of the RDP [the ANC's Reconstruction and Development Program]: Reconstructing Prejudice and Developing Compassion. We've got to get to know these people. Most people don't know who any of them are. They all say, "Communists and terrorists," and then suddenly — I mean the reaction to the show with [the ANC's Orange Free State Premier and fluent Afrikaans speaker] "Terror" Lekota from Afrikaners who'd always rejected him as just a troublemaker was just marvelous. They said, "We want to invite him around."


(1.) Since this interview, Uys has written a novel, Trekking to Teema, and is currently working on Truth Omissions (inspired by the Truth Commissions headed by Archbishop Tutu, an ongoing investigation into abuses of power during the apartheid era), a biographical piece entitled Pieter-Dirk Uys Live!, and Rainbow Nation, a look at the state of the nation in 1997. Uys has opened his own theatre in a small town called Darling, one hour from Cape Town, in an old railway station building. The small cabaret venue is called Evita's Perron (perron being the Afrikaans word for station platform).

(2.) Pieter-Dirk Uys's A Part Hate, A Part Love: The Legend of Evita Bezuidenhout (1994, Hond)

(3.) In South African racial parlance "colored" refers to people of mixed race.




from 1997