Profile: South African comic Pieter-Dirk Uys uses humor to educate young people about HIV and AIDS

– Broadcast transcript, All Things Considered, 16 November 2002

JOE PALCA (host):  South Africa has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, and young people are by far at greatest risk. Pieter-Dirk Uys, widely regarded as South Africa's leading satirist and comic, has embarked on a crusade to educate young people on how to protect themselves against the disease. Louis Freedberg reports.

LOUIS FREEDBERG:  The auditorium at the Tanda Kulu High School in Cape Town is crowded with over 1,000 enthusiastic students. The all-black audience has gathered to hear Pieter-Dirk Uys perform his extremely graphic, as well as comic, hour-long show about the dangers of unprotected sex. It's a routine he's repeated at 200 schools and colleges over the past two years, reaching about 400,000 young people.

Mr. PIETER-DIRK UYS: I mean, the only reason we're here is because of sex, you know, not in school, but you know what I mean, huh? I mean, sex is the one thing that makes generations grow. I mean, what does it mean? What does sex mean? Sex means a boy and a girl grow up and they meet and they're adult and they get married and they fall in love and the boy looks at the girl and his pee-pee goes up and the girl...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FREEDBERG: He tackles deeply rooted attitudes in the youth culture, like the insistence on what young people here refer to as flesh-on-flesh sex. `If they must have sex,' he tells them, `use condoms, but be sure to practice beforehand.'

Mr. UYS: So, gentlemen, ...(unintelligible) you must get your condoms. Go into a room, lock the door, switch on the light, think about Britney Spears and get that thing up and practice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FREEDBERG: During the apartheid era, Uys, who is white and gay, became famous for his one-man shows skewering the white minority regime. By far, his best-known creation is Evita Besuidenhout, a white Afrikaaner matron who has been forced to come to terms with the new South Africa. Uys, who is short and balding, recreates Evita, expertly applying lipstick, eyelashes and a brown-haired wig in front of the astonished students.

Mr. UYS: In the old South Africa, I used to be the South African ambassador in the independent black homeland republic of ...(unintelligible), days when they had all the black homelands ...(unintelligible), Bophuthatswana, (unintelligible) but that was during the 1980s. Do you remember the 1980s? Michael Jackson was still black. You remember that, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FREEDBERG: Uys is convinced laughter is one way to attack the unmentionable and the unendurable. `It's the first step,' he says, `towards piercing the denial that's still cloaks the disease in South Africa.' Eighteen-year-old Nquobani Mkwanazi says Uys' explicit message is what's necessary to reach young people.

Ms. NQUOBANI MKWANAZI (Student): It is shocking, but at the same time, a lot of things do shock us. For example, AIDS statistics are shocking. So the fact that it's shocking makes us aware, makes us listen, makes us interested, makes us want to see it. It catches your attention and makes you realize just how bad the problem is.

FREEDBERG: Uys says he was propelled into action by President Thabo Mbeki's controversial questioning of the links between HIV and AIDS.

Mr. UYS: I just knew I had to do something. I couldn't just do it on stage. That's not where the performance must be. And instinctively I knew it had to be with kids because kids still have a choice here. Some of them haven't been through sex. If I can warn them what's in the bush so they can take the stick and beat the little snake, that's great.

FREEDBERG: So far the government has issued no public comment on Uys' work, but he has been embraced by health workers, teachers and AIDS advocacy organizations. Geoff Budlender is a human rights lawyer who won a suit against the government, forcing it to give anti-AIDS drugs to HIV-positive pregnant women. He says Uys' approach could serve as a model for others trying to slow the spread of the disease.

Mr. GEOFF BUDLENDER (Attorney): What Pieter-Dirk Uys is doing is he's reaching literally thousands of young people every week. He's doing so for free, at his own expense, no doubt at huge personal cost. He must be exhausted by all of this, and he's performing a public service of the most amazing kind.

FREEDBERG: For now, Uys feels compelled to continue his mission around South Africa trying to reach a generation threatened by AIDS. `In some ways,' he says, `apartheid was an easier target. AIDS is a much more elusive and deadly scourge.'

Mr. UYS: Remember, all the things that you dream can come true, but just be careful tonight after your second beer. Remember, ladies, you're in charge of your lives, so, children, practice safe sex. Thank you. ...(Unintelligible)!

(Soundbite of applause)

FREEDBERG: For NPR News, this is Louis Freedberg in Cape Town.




from 2002