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An hour in London with iconoclast Pieter-Dirk Uys, opening up on Mandela, Ramaphosa, courage, madness – and sex

– Alec Hogg, BizNews.com, 15 June 2018  


To listen to this interview, please follow this link.



LONDON — Last night, I was among 300 relocated South Africans at London’s annual fundraising dinner for Afrika Tikkun and its associated charities. It was a splendid black tie affair whose theme in this 100th year since Madiba’s birth was to honour 30 iconic South Africans. Each table of ten was named after a national hero. Alongside Nelson Mandela were familiar names like Desmond Tutu, OR Tambo and Dr Chris Barnard. Included on this elite list was Pieter-Dirk Uys, the iconoclastic actor, playwright, activist, raconteur and politic analyst. Unfortunately, Uys wasn’t able to make the dinner — it was the last but two night of his three week run at the Soho Theatre at the other end of London. But seeing him being honoured in this way brought home just how special an afternoon I’d just had.

– Alec Hogg


This is the Rational Perspective and I’m Alec Hogg, and in this episode a rare treat, an hour, with South African icon Pieter-Dirk Uys.


Last night I was among 300 relocated South Africans at London’s annual fundraising dinner for Afrika Tikkun and its associated charities. It was a splendid black-tie affair whose theme, in this 100thyear since Madiba’s birth, was to honour 30 iconic South Africans. Each table of 10 was named after a national hero, alongside Nelson Mandela, were familiar with familiar names like Desmond Tutu, OR Tambo, and Dr Chris Barnard, and included on this elite was Pieter-Dirk Uys the iconiclastic actor, playwriter, activist, raconteur and political analyst from Cape Town.


Unfortunately, Uys himself wasn’t able to make the dinner. It was the last but two of his three week run at the Soho Theatre at the other end of the London and he had to get himself prepared for an event, which went on at the same time. But seeing him being honoured in this way brought home to me just how special an afternoon I just had, because earlier in the day I had spent an hour with Pieter-Dirk Uys, in the lounge of The Soho Hotel, just around the corner from the theatre where he is giving his show. It’s a convenient haven, he tells me, for his quiet time ahead of each performance. What transpired between us was a deeply personal, courageous, thoughtful and wickedly funny discourse.


As you’ll hear, it ranges from Uys sharing his own creating process to his famous stage personality — Evita Bezuidenhout’s relationships with Madiba, Pik Botha, and others, to some rather outspoken views, the activist was speaking here, on HIV/Aids. Looking ahead at SA’s personalities like Malema, Ramaphosa, and the country’s world-famous comic export, Trevor Noah. Thinking about the interview afterwards it dawned on me that its timing was just about perfect.


Uys is now 72, but still learning and improving so, he’s at the peak of his intellectual powers but also, beyond the point where he has to count his words. Also, putting together a 90-minute biographical show in London at a top theatre, would have also been a deeply reflective process unearthing much new material from his early years. Plus, as I’ve found with South Africans in London, there’s something about being outside their own borders that frees up discourse in ways that we don’t really hear back home. But as you’re going to hear in this extraordinary interview, even though admitting it’s tough for his white mouth to now be heard by a black ear. Pieter-Dirk Uys hasn’t lost his knack of getting fellow South Africans to ask uncomfortable questions of themselves, in so doing, opening eyes.


You’ve got a show on here, in London. Once again, a one-man show. Have you ever done any theatre outside of just yourself?


I’ve always done theatre outside myself. I’ve always hidden behind costumes, and make-up, and eyelashes, and lipstick, and working fingers, and Botha’s and all those creatures. Although, this is the very first time that I’m unplugged, unpowdered and unplugged, and it has been a completely, shockingly, exciting experience. I never thought I’d do it.




Meaning that there’s nothing there. There’s no set, there’s no flag, there’s no reality of politics. There’s just me sitting on a barstool and telling you a story.


Wearing black?


Wearing black — I started just going into black when I was in about my twenties because I do colour on stage and I keep black for me.


So, this is you on the stage?


Yes, it’s me and it’s extraordinarily… They asked me to do this at the Grahamstown Festival two years ago. They said, ‘do something you’ve never done before.’ I thought, oh my god, what’s that? I’ve never had a baby onstage, I’ll try and do that. So, I thought let me just tell a story and I took other sketches and put something together and suddenly my father stepped into the picture, and I never thought I’d write about him, (we didn’t get on at all), and there was my dad and then Sunny Abada, who was our maid in Pinelands, my Cape Flats mother. Suddenly these two characters just took my life and bounced the ball around and I suddenly had this story, which took me from my small time, when I was a boy soprano voice, right through my family, my grandmother, my father’s mother Ouma Uys, her cousin was Dr DF Malan, the first apartheid prime minister so, we had an interesting high ground just to be on. My mother being German-Jewish, we only found out she was Jewish after she was dead so, I was a graduate from the University of Denial, my whole life, and of course, fear of even asking questions. When my father died the first I thought was, why didn’t I ask him more about his life? I knew more about Sophia Loren’s life than my own family, and that’s all happened and developed. Since two years ago this has really become a very interesting opera, I call it Queen Lear because once I start that’s a 90-minute run down a hill with full handbags.




Oh, yeah, cathartic very much in the actor, who  me,the actor, can manage to do that — that’s cathartic for me. The fact that I, as a human being can actually wait till the 72nd year to actually do this is strange. Could I have done this when I was fifty, no, I couldn’t, because now I really feel the disease to please has been cured. The audition is over. If people don’t like what I do, well gaan kak, it doesn’t matter, really and truly. I say, go and see a movie. There’s lots of Marvel comics, you can be entertained, but I know I have things to say, and this is what I have to say.


You’re a great inspiration for many people, not just from your activism but from the fact that you seem to be getting better, enthusiastic. Every day when you wake up in the morning do you look forward to life? Is your art improving?


Oh, what a loaded question. First of all, optimism — I’m a terminal optimist purely because I’m in the theatre, you have to be an optimist. All the things that we treasure from Les Mis to Shakespeare started probably at a table with a glass of a beer. ‘What are we going to do? Let’s do a musical about storming the barricades,’ they did it, optimism, believe it, it’s going to work. So, I’ve always had this wonderful balance of 49% anger and 51% entertainment. I want people to have a good time. I want to fight fear with the ‘F’ word ‘fun.’  But really, very little of what I do is actually funny. It’s because it’s humour and not comedy. Comedy is the joker, which I really envy, I’m not good at jokes. But humour is very personal. It’s like your fingerprint. Everybody has a different reaction to their fear. When you walk into the room and there’s somebody behind the door and they go, ‘boo’ and you skrik jou dood, and it’s somebody you know, and you go, ‘ha-ha,’ not ‘ha-ha’ funny but ‘ah-ah’ I know who you are. I know my fear, I know who you are.


I think through my development, thanks to the very — I must be careful not to call them stupid because they were not stupid. Apartheid was not because people were stupid. It’s because we were stupid to allow them to get so far -but they forced me to reinvent communication. Forced me to reinvent, it was survival, to take anarchy as my carnation on my blouse so, that it was political anarchy and sexual anarchy. I mean, ‘who’s on stage now?’ ‘Evita Bezuidenhout.’ ‘Evita Bezuidenhout?’ ‘Ja, maar Pieter-Dirk Uys is ‘n communist.’ ‘Yes, but Evita is a member of the National Party. Who do we lock up?’


Now, they can look back and actually answer. I couldn’t have answered this question 20 years ago, but now that I’ve actually found out what actually makes sense to me. I think my work is improving because I am not frightened as I was for so long because it was very seldom that somebody was on my side.


You were frightened? If I think about during the apartheid era, you were the last person I would have thought was frightened. You were right there, saying it as it was. Wagging fingers, PW Botha-style.


I wasn’t frightened of the politics I was frightened of the quality of the work on that stage, and that’s my life. That is really, truly, the like and dislike of my life. I feel the safest in the theatre. When I do a play or a show, I’m in two-hours before the time, I’m in the dressing room. I’ve got nothing to do but I’m safe, I’m in charge, I know everything about where I am. If I sit at home waiting to go to the theatre I want to run away. I can understand Marylyn Munroe for running away and not doing it, because I am frightened. ‘Can I do it? Am I going to be able to do it? Can I remember?’ Kak-kak, nonsense, I get cross when I even talk about it because the moment I’m at the theatre I’m calm, I’m fine.


And there isn’t a script?


Oh, there is. There’s always a script. There’s always a structure, mainly more than a script, meaning it’s the most important thing. Once you know the meaning you can say what you want to say. It might not be the words written on the paper but the meaning is there. People always say to me, ‘how do you remember these words?’ ‘Oh, well I never think of the words.’ I need to actually sometimes learn words of ‘blah-blah’ that politicians now use, collateral damage, I have to use. I want to say, the death of children. We have now tarted-up such tragedy with ‘blah-blah.’ Brexit — blah-blah’ what does that mean? It’s the end of a country. They have to reinvent a new country? Can they do that in the next ten months? Of course, democracy in South Africa, is it the mock in democracy and the con in reconciliation? Zuma was the most terrible thing that has happened to South Africa since Verwoerd.


I want to get into that in a moment. But your creative process, how does that work? Looking at your website you’ve got so many plays that you’ve made available to everybody. At some point in time you must have gone through some kind of a process that others can learn from.


Okay, that’s interesting also, let me think now. I start with titles, when a title comes I write it down. I might not use it for 10 years. In fact, the show I’m doing now in South Africa is called, ‘When in Doubt say Darling,’ and I wrote that down in 1968, when I was working for CAPAB in CT as an assistant PR for English drama, and Taubie Kushlick was there doing a play and I was, let Peter Uys look after Taubie. Kushlick I mean she ate me for breakfast but she was a great doyenne diva. Saying, darling this and darling that. When I eventually, after a very, I think a very fruitful relationship with her, me being the gofer. I did my job bloody well and she was pleased. She’d say, ‘darling, you’re wonderful, take me to the airport.’ So, when we got to the airport I said, Mrs Kushlick, when you write your autobiography you should call it, ‘When in Doubt say Darling.’ She didn’t get it. So, this has taken me until now to use it as a title.


The Echo of a Noise — it came to me one day, I thought what does it mean? Am I the echo of a noise from the past? Yes, possible, has been, yes, or am I an echo of a noise reinventing itself for the future, or if that’s possible? Or is the echo of the noise, the noise of laughter when it was illegal to laugh, also possible? So, once I somehow analyse where that comes from, it somehow gives me a tune. Is it a jazz tune, a classical, a dirge? Music has got a lot to do with it as well.


Because you’re from a musical family?


Yes, especially in this monologue. It’s all about music. Mozart was my best friend. I grew up with Schuman, Schubert, Scarlatti, and Brahms. I sang boy’s soprano in a choir. I sang for weddings. I got a guinea. One pound, one shilling. Pa kept the pound and I got the shilling. So yes, the process is, and again as I’ve grown my second skin of confidence and young people say to me, how do I do it? How do I do what you do? I said, the first thing you do is you just put your finger down your throat and you vomit out what you want to say. Yes, but what about the publisher and the theatre? I said, it’s got nothing to do with anything. Writing is the most private thing in the world. You can write War and Peace and burn it and nobody will know. The trouble is we show it to be people too soon. We open our womb of imagination and show the little embryo to people too soon, and they say, ‘Oh god darling, what’s that?’ Pfft, dead.


So I’ve also learnt that my failures, which I treasure. I mean I love my success, it’s fabulous, but it goes into a box. But the failures, you think, why the hell did that not work? It goes on and there were plays that didn’t work and I still think about them forty years later and it’s usually because I listened to advice, and that I took shortcuts and that I did not follow my instinct. I now blindly follow my instinct, knowing I won’t understand it but it will always be right.


Mozart your best friend. Have you seen Mozart in the Jungle?


I have. I recorded it and watched it with great interest.


Can you relate to him, with Trevor?


No, not at all. It’s a very specific commercial story with that very interesting young man being the conductor, and behaving very unconductorish, which I loved, with all his little earrings and funny little things in his ear. But I loved the story because yes, Mozart in the Jungle in New York, I thought originally, is this about playing Mozart in the Jungle because I had a friend who introduced me to the most wonderful, and I can’t remember her name, and she was quite elderly so, she’s obviously not alive anymore. She explored the Amazonian jungle, this was her job and they had done a documentary about her, which they showed at the London Film School. Her story was, she met these tribes and this very specific tried, who had never seen a white woman before, she had brought music. She brought her wind-up record player and she had Mozart and other music and she played other music and nobody took any notice. Then one day she put on Mozart Requiem, very specifically that and the music came out of this box and the people stopped doing what they were doing and they looked up. They looked up, what did that mean? Was that the music of the gods? Had they heard it before, or was it possible that somebody had come down? So, that also, music is so important for me to create the atmosphere of what I’m writing and what I’m doing.


Do you listen to Mozart when you’re writing?


I listen to everybody when I write. I listen to everybody. I love Scott Weil. I love modern music, but I have to choose the right modern music because some of it is noise. Hip-hop, I’m a huge fan of hip-hop and rap because everybody says, agh, they’re drunk. Oh, darling you want to be drunk and do rap and remember those words at that speed, are you mad? It is the ultimately dignity and the ultimate discipline. Of course, there’s crap as well, but of course, there’s crap everywhere. You’ve just to make sure that you find the right thing because crap is usually copies of copies. But the original, and I’ve said to the kids, who I go to drama departments and speak to them. I love it because I’m just so interested in their interest, and I start off by saying, who here wants to be an actor? And all the hands maybe go up. I’d say to them, you know what, the last thing we need is another fucking actor. But if you are going to be original you will survive through the ages. Don’t copy. Be inspired, steal blind, steal, make it yours, and then cut by half and lose 50% and speak another language, wear another costume and you’ll be Lady Gaga. She didn’t copy Madonna. Madonna didn’t copy anyone.


They Tweet maybe, a stolen Tweet?






Yes, of course. What I do is, I saw Marlene Dietrich alone on stage and I thought, I want to do that. I’ve seen many people do these extraordinary things on their own and survive and be entertaining but it takes time. Everybody thinks it’s going to happen in 10-minutes. And then I said to the kids as well, that’s the thing. Just work, it’s all about work. You’ve got to get up early. You’ve got to be relatively sober because the next day could be the last day of your life. If you make a mistake, you can’t make mistakes. You can do things wrong but you have to find out how to do them right and don’t take shortcuts. You’ll be a success for ten minutes and then you’ll disappear. That’s why failure is still something that I wish we could get rid of that work. You’ve got to fail in order to succeed. You can’t just succeed, which everybody is doing now — a quickie, boom. Oh, my gosh, where are you tomorrow? I don’t know, I can’t remember your name.


Just to go back into South Africa, specifically South Africa now, and generations have watched you in awe. That you could firstly put on a dress. Secondly, lampoon some pretty seriously, scary people and make us laugh through the darkest times. Where did all of that…? Dame Edna in Australia, was she the inspiration perhaps, for a start of Evita?


A great inspiration was Danny La Rue, who did some great drag. Drag, I grew up thinking everything was drag and I have a great respect for it but it’s not what I do. Drag is a career and it doesn’t stop on stage. You will see the same character with the eyelashes having a drink with you in the bar so, it’s a lifestyle. I do Evita because she’s a character. I’ve never did a tree, would you call me a forest, you know what I mean. But it wasn’t Dame Edna that inspired me but Barry Humphries was the inspiration. This brilliant man and his early work from the fifties, when Edna was a lelike ou tannie, just with a brown kak wig and a hat on, and looked like any lady from Mowbray, white lady, or an Afrikaans lady from Goodwood and I just was so inspired by his anger but never his preaching. The fact that he did some very risky things, like that diplomat with the banana down his trousers in the front, rude, and of course, Edna who was just this monstrous suburban beast.


Then when Evita happened I think she maybe started as a suburban beast with that echo of Barry’s work, but the Evita became that scorpion in politics, and developed also through the challenge of people saying, what is she going to do about that? Does she have a family? What do they think? That’s the whole baroque reality of Evita, was built around that and of course, today she can rule a country because she’s got an answer for everything and that’s why she’s the only one I’ve got left now, because I find it very challenging to criticize my government because I have a white mouth and that is a black ear, and I do not want to cross that line of racism because that is the answer to anything somebody doesn’t agree with, (oh, you’re a racist). But Evita is beyond that. First of all, she doesn’t exist. It doesn’t mean she’s not real but she doesn’t exist. She’s a member of the ANC. She cooks for reconciliation and she has that inside echo of opinion coming from there and not from opposition. She’s useless in opposition.


I think opposition is a very unfortunate word because I’d rather talk about alternative to democracy, and not opposition to democracy. Today, again, to answer a previous question about where I’m going? The strange quicksand we find ourselves in now, the minefield of #tags and hate speech is a huge challenge for me because really, and truly there are things I can’t do. I was even challenged last year. I had a little group of born frees, now in their twenties, with a major irony bypass, they don’t get the joke at all, and said to me, you can’t do Zuma. I said, ‘Why, do I do him so badly?’ They said, ‘No, you’re white.’ I said, ‘No, I’m a performer.’ That’s my job. No, it’s considered racist and soon you won’t be able to do women because of #metoo. Okay, I’ll cross that bra when I get to it.


But now I do Jacob Zuma, in my next show, having done PW Botha because it’s like I have to. He’s my ‘bread and Botha.’ The old generation wanted the new generation to say, what the fuck is that all about? Then I said to the audience, I want to do, and obviously the president is the cherry on the cake, but I was told that it’s politically incorrect so, I’ll tell you what, I don’t want another #tag. I will ask PW Botha to do his impersonation of Jacob Zuma. Far better, and much more dangerous. So, again one can always lift the lid and see where there is something to play with.


How do you feel when you’re doing something like this? You know its edgy, you know you’re pushing the envelope, when people stand up and leave, how do you feel about those few in the audience, that minority who were so outraged that they can’t watch anymore?


Well, the people that left, the few people that left over the last four years are those six students from Wits, having seen my first half of the show, and walked out loudly, muttering rude words (fuck you), and whatever. They waited, they were in the foyer and they were drinking at the bar. I saw them afterwards and I said, I’ll tell you something. First of all, I gave you comps and you walked out so, you owe me money, firstly. Secondly, I said let’s talk. They said, we’re not talking to a racist and they walked away. I thought, lazy children, what a pity. It would have been a lovely conversation. I want to know what it’s like, that’s part of that. But very few people leave. Some people stay, when I do a show without an interval, and I go back to the dressing room after having been in the foyer, talking to friends and there are people waiting for the second half. I said, ‘No, it’s over.’ Oh, they were so disappointed. I love my audience. I am totally committed to my audience. Every performance is my last performance because that’s the performance that I’ve got to be the best ever. And then tomorrow, oh, I’ve got another one tonight — I’ve got to be the best ever. That’s kept me young. I’m 72, but I don’t feel it. I sometimes feel 105.


Do you have a muse? Are you connected? You said earlier, inspired. Do you feel that when you’re on stage, is it you or is it something else, something bigger?


I think it’s the stage manager in me. I was trained as a stage manager because at drama school they said, oh, darling you haven’t got talent. You can’t act. Okay, I believed older people in those days. So, I’m a trained stage manager, which was the best background to my work I could have asked for because I know how to do everything. I know how to do lighting, I know how to do everything. I understand the whole structure. I understand delivery and performance. Great, I’m glad I can do that as well, and having, then being at film school for 4 years and then had gone to The Space Theatre for 3 years was, it was just the greatest training in the world so, I’ve had enormous amounts of inspiration and muse. I had a whole chorus line of inspirations and memories of great things I’ve seen. Great performances I’ve seen and that I need. I need to see other peoples’ courage because when I really watch them and I enjoy them. I believe that that’s the first time they’ve said those words.


What about a young man like Trevor Noah? When he gets on the stage he’s almost a younger version of you. He’s also pushing the envelope. He has a black mouth though, which I suppose is better learned to a black ear.


I am such a fan of his. I’m so proud of him. I’ve watched him again this morning. I just keep with him all the time. I record his show every day and I get it, I look at it, and he’s not lost who is. He is still an immigrant. He is still a Barak Obama page. He can – I can’t, well of course I can but I don’t want to be Leon Schuster, with respect, because Leon Schuster, who is so aversely racist with what he does. He makes millions because he has a black audience. Black people have got a great sense of humour. I wish we wouldn’t have this hate speech shit, come kaffir, come on whitey, they’re the first people to throw it back at you and make a joke. I find it such an insult to people to say, we’ve got to protect you with the law because it might offend you. I want to offend everybody but not all the time. I don’t want to insult them. I don’t want to demean them.


What’s the difference?


Oh, there’s a huge difference. If you offend somebody you’re rattling their cage of opinion. If I say something and you think, no, I’m offended because I don’t think that way. Well, great, rethink yourself. Who’s wrong? Am I wrong or are you wrong? Fine, I can adapt. When somebody is upset, and I saw this happen. There’s a comedian in South Africa who will remain nameless, and who did his one man show and I know that he picks on people in the front row so, I sat at the back. And he did, he picked on this woman in the front row and said, oh, god, look at your hair. You can’t come to the theatre like that. You must be ashamed of yourself. On and on he went, and people laughed. At the interval I saw this woman in the foyer crying. It was a wig. She had chemotherapy and she had just come out of hospital and this was her first night out on the town. I went to him after the show and said to him, do you know what you did? He was so mortified. I said, it’s too late. We’ve got tremendous power, we can do terrible things on that stage. Look at Trump and the power he’s got just doing that and playing silly buggers with everything. So, that’s the difference. I don’t ever want to do that. I don’t want to make people feel small or pick on them. I want equal opportunity offence, if necessary. So, if I’m going to the left I want to also do the right.


Pieter-Dirk, when you changed to become an ANC member, I’m talking about Evita Bezuidenhout now. She had the privilege of a 30-minute interview, or you had the privilege of a 30-minute interview with Nelson Mandela.




Now, it’s his 100thyear this year and there’s great celebration. I was at the South Africa House last night, where his food was being explained to the British people by his chef and his warder was there, etc. You got close to him, I suppose as close as many people would, in front of a camera, in a different persona. How are you thinking about the way the world is now looking at this icon and how did you see him?


He changed my life, as he changed all our lives. First of all, my job was gone. Apartheid is gone. There’s Nelson Mandela and how do I make fun of him? It’s like doing Mother Theresa with a dildo, I can’t do that. Yet, his great sense of humour inspired me immediately to carry on. There I had the new costume, which was the ethnic shirt, and he was like, yes, Pieter-Dirk. He just loved Evita. I met him for the first time just before the election in 1994 in Retreat, of all places. The ANC were having a meeting because Madiba had said at some stage, if you don’t vote for the ANC we will know. And somebody said, you can’t say that because it’s supposed to be secret so, they had to have another thing. Alan Boesak was in charge of the ANC in those days, and he phoned me and said, bring Evita. Nelson Mandela wants to meet Evita.


I thought okay so, I took Evita in her orange, white and blue Voortrekker rok and he wasn’t there yet. So, I was quite disappointed and Alan Boesak said, ‘No, go and entertain them.’ I thought, Christ, there’s about 40.000 people here in this thing, and out comes Evita and she was being who she was. Saying, ‘Gosh, I didn’t know I’d see the ANC here because it’s in Retreat but maybe that’s a good sign for the National Party.’ And they just loved her. They were so wonderful, and I thought, my god, I’m passing this audition, it’s working. Then, when I thought it was over, I can now change. No, said Alan. Nelson wants to meet Evita. I thought oh, Christ I’ve got to now sit and act this woman. You can’t just sit there as me.


I remember sitting there and you could hear the excitement that he had arrived, and there were some kids with balaclavas, little black boys they were, pst, hey, madam, catch and they threw sweets at Evita so, I put the sweets down and I had a bowl full of sweets. So, Trevor Manuel’s two kids, his two sons. They came and they stood looking and they said, are you a man or are you a woman? I said, go and ask your father. Trevor said, oh, please. Then there’s Nelson on the stage. It was so emotional and there was a whole lot of hand shaking and everybody was like this. I had to stand there like Dora die drol in this bloody dress. Then he suddenly looked and he said, ‘Oh, it’s Evita.’ Hugs. She gave him koeksisters and then I had to sit next to him and hold his glass of water and his glasses. It was like Nancy and Ronald Reagan. Crazy.


Therefore, I had an enormous amount of demand. ‘Ah Pieter, this is Nelson Mandela, bring Evita. I need her on Friday.’ And there she would have her fifteen minutes of fame and the world was there, as you can imagine. From Oprah Winfrey to Bono to every queen of Holland, and Nelson being the leader of the laughter. Every time Evita said things like, oh, I’ve got my four little grandchildren but I can’t see them in the dark. Of course, Oprah didn’t laugh at all until Nelson Mandela nudged her. At one time, I think it was the twentieth time that I was standing next to him, just as Evita, and very seriously. You know, Evita had just always had to be real. I want the women to recognise the woman and the men to forget the man, and he always treated her like a lady, always. And I said to him, ‘President Mandela, every time you see me I’m dressed as Evita Bezuidenhout.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, Pieter, I know you’re inside.’


Yes, celebrate this wonderful, and again, let’s go back to a sense of humour. He used a sense of humour to change the world, not just South Africa. Somebody one day will do a thesis and get a degree on the way he used humour. Coming out of 27 years in jail and forming our government with the people who locked him up. That shows a sense of humour. Wearing the rugby jersey — sense of humour. Having all the wives of the prime ministers of the apartheid government to tea, when he was president — he poured the tea for them. Going to Mrs Verwoerd when she wouldn’t come to him.


In Oranje nogal.


In Oranje, yes, and there was this wonderful moment it was on television, it was up on the hill behind the house where the only statue of Hendrik Verwoerd is, it’s a small one because they haven’t got money, and there’s Nelson Mandela and the statue, and he said, oh, Hendrik Verwoerd, I didn’t know he was so small. He was diffusing the tensions, which we are not doing. The ‘K’ word. For god’s sake, common. A stupid woman who used it 48 times, it’s a recycle. Two years in jail? While Malema says, we’re not going to slaughter the whites yet. This doesn’t make sense so, that is not working out because people are still too confused about exactly what they’re trying to protect. Madiba was terribly clear about what he was protecting. He was protecting South Africa for everybody and look what he did. I don’t think he was a very good politician but he was a great statesman.


Thabo, of course, was the politician. Thabo knew what he wanted. Cyril was supposed to be the next president, well, I thank God he’s there now because we need him more than ever before. But Thabo was another story, when Thabo suddenly announced that HIV doesn’t lead to Aids. Then I realised, I had found my next virus. The first virus was apartheid, the second virus was Mbeki, and that’s where we started fighting. That’s when the gloves were off.


The white mouth, the black ear?


No, the gay man and the straight man. No, colour wasn’t in it. It was just that you’re wrong, you can’t say that. It’s nonsense. People are dying and it’s not just Thabo Mbeki, what about all of you standing around him, do all of you agree? They said, no, we didn’t agree. Then where the hell is your voice? By the way, have you seen the Death of Stalin, the movie?


Not yet.


Please, treat yourself to owning it, and that is exactly… I’m going to send a copy to Cyril as a gift, with the people around Stalin saying, yes, and then suddenly he’s dead. Then the people were like oh, fuck, oh, god, what now? It was like this NEC of the ANC.


Was it the same with Zuma, the Death of Stalin?


No, there was nothing. When Nelson Mandela and those great warriors came out of those years at the University of Robben Island. Knowing exactly how to handle the confusion and the fear, a great sense of humour. I think the first big thing that Nelson Mandela did was to invite Evita to the Opening of Parliament dinner, and that was amazing. He also invited Nico Carstens met sy boereorkes. When he was overseas, Thabo as the deputy president, quite a few times invited me to come and do a cabaret for them in the president’s residence in Pretoria. He would say to me, don’t do easy things, do us. We need to laugh at these things. We don’t know these things. Make us laugh. I thought, Jesus, this is fantastic, and he had the red aids ribbon and I thought it couldn’t be better.


I would do it and they would all be sitting there, all the ministers, with me doing all sorts of things. Then the first person to laugh was Thabo and he would stand up and clap. I thought, fantastic. Then he became president and I never head from him again, but that’s what he did. He just used and move on. With Zuma, it was just toxic. The whole thing was just… I’m very glad we are where we are now. Did you see the thing in The New York Times yesterday? A huge front page full story of the theft that has crippled our country and how it’s going to take a long time to get back to square one, and he’s still there. We should have given him a one-way ticket to Dubai and sing, take what you took and go, but we didn’t. Now, he’s got to be in court and he’s going to destroy the peoples’ faith, he’s going to create a civil war, probably in KwaZulu-Natal, it’s happening already. It’s bad.


South Africa has been described as a vehicle that was going over a cliff. The first two wheels were over it, but fortunately it was a 4-wheel drive so, it could reverse back. Do you like that?


That’s nice, yes, I use that very often. I keep on saying, how many times have we, in South Africa, ended on the edge of the cliff, and we just go, oh Jesus Christ, we’re going to fall, no God, please? And we open our eyes and the cliff is gone, and how many times has the ANC said that? I have this in the show where Evita says, the ANC is old, 104 years old, usually you’re on a bed pan and you’ve got a heart-lung machine and you can’t remember anything. The ANC will investigate every cul-de-sac before they find the freeway. One thing that Evita now does, of course, is she says, when I became a member of the ANC because my grandchildren said, gogo what are you going to do to protect democracy so that one day when we need to vote freely and fairly democracy will be there, in full working condition? Well, obviously, I must get involved with active politics, which is Luthuli House.


She said, I must honesty say, when I walked in Luthuli House and signed up, I came in with all the prejudice that all of us shared, for a good reason. That everybody in the ANC is crook, everybody steals. She said, yes, I can give you 6 names every day but there are 100’s of thousands of members of the ANC who are not stealing, who are not crooked. Who are sitting at their desks trying our democracy more or less balanced otherwise we wouldn’t be here tonight. We’d be at the Croatian border with a Pick ‘n Pay bag in our hands, which is very true. We must not blanket them because of third rate politicians with forth rate ideas. There are some very good people in all the political parties, but you see we, the voters, we didn’t do our homework, we can’t pronounce their surnames, bad. We don’t read their books about them or know nothing about them. Have opinions about them? No, you’ve got to do your homework.


You’re a fifth generation South African?


I think so, I’ve never worked it out. Except I know that in 1791 we had a great-great grandmother who plied her trade on the road between Cape Town and Paarl, and her name was Wilhelmina Opklim, so there you are.


Nice name, for that trade. What do you say to other fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth generation white South Africans, who see the grass greener elsewhere?


Well, then they must go. I’d say it’s your freedom. You’re not running away, you’re running towards. If you’ve got children you’ve got to decide for your children. The world has become a village. Don’t even ask, just go but when you’re there, don’t moan, and don’t tell me when I come with a show of optimism from SA, don’t tell me that I’m telling lies just because you know you shouldn’t have left. But again, going to Evita, she says to the white audience, and there’s many, of my generation, all the old people from The Space Theatre and all that. She said, we whites are so lucky, we are so totally irrelevant. Nobody cares about us. We can do anything/everything to make this a better place. We don’t need to tender or permission. If you’re a retired teacher, get into your car on a Tuesday, go to the local school and help the kids with their homework. You won’t understand a word they say, but you will encourage them to ask questions and that’s the ‘A’ of the alphabet of democracy so, all those things I try to weave into my work, which is not the work of a satirist. A satirist is the ISIS of comedy. You go, poep, no prisoners taken. I don’t take prisoners. I embrace them and go to bed with them. I have to respect the fact that they, by the grace of God go I.


I want to go back a little bit, to go forward. During Evita’s time, during the darkest hours of apartheid, you lampooned PW Botha to a large degree. Pik Botha I don’t recall how strongly anti Pik you were, but I say this now because I would love to get your insights into it. His son is an esteemed economist in SA, Roelof Botha. But his grandson is one of Silicon Valley’s brightest. He’s one of the senior partners at Sequoia Capital, which invested in Google, Facebook, etc. so, there’s a line of intelligence that comes back there. Tell me about Pik?


Well, first of all, Pik was Evita’s boss when she became the ambassador of Bapetikosweti so, lots of fun was had there and we spread the rumour that Pik Botha was having an affair with Evita Bezuidenhout. He started believing it. I used to get faxes, eight-page faxes, handwritten, from dronk oupa, My liewe ambassadriese, het jy geweet? … and it would go on and on. So, slowly but surely, Evita would write letters to Pik and Pik would write letters to her. We then had a little interview for a British program, which was something he didn’t enjoy at all because he knew that they would take him wrong, and they did, because he was sort of apologising for apartheid and saying, everybody does it, which I thought was very funny.


Then of course, in Funigalore, when I did these interviews with, and including Cyril Ramaphosa when we caught trout together, she also interviewed Pik and he took her down one of the mines because he was the minister of mines, and dit was my Pa, Evita, and all of this. They were like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and he’s become a very good old friend and a very bright man, and he’d keep on saying, I was the very person to say we’ll have a black president in SA, and of course I love doing him, and my conscience is clear because I’ve never used it.


Does he have a sense of humour?


Oh, yes. He’s the last of, what I keep on saying, he’s the old rinoster. PW Botha was the krokkodil, and Pik is die rinoster met sy horing — die laaste rinoster met ‘n horing. Now, in fact this year, at Die Woord Fees, they wanted to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 100thyear so, they asked if I would to be part of it? I said, god, there are so many other people that can share things. Well, we want to talk to people about books and things they’ve written. I said, I’ve written an autobiography of Evita Bezuidenhout where she actually meets Nelson Mandela and he saved her life, and then he was caught by the police and that’s why he went to jail. I said, what about Pik? They said, that’s a great idea. So, we had Evita, Pik Botha, Melanie Verwoerd and another man, who’s name I’ve forgotten, who wrote a religious book about his experiences with Madiba. Of course, Pik had a very intense relationship with Nelson Mandela. They talked deep things. Like eewige lewe en die wereld daar buite, and there was Evita, of course, as well. I just knew — let Evita come in late. Let them first establish themselves as serious people then she can quickly come in, and kiss everybody and say, she must go back to parliament because there’s too many red berets running around and stealing the vegetables.


Are we right to be scared about those red berets?


Oh, be scared about anybody who is instinctively as clever as Malema. He’s very sharp. I don’t think he’s read Mein Kampf. I think it’s too thick and a bit too thick for somebody who is not exactly somebody, and why should he read? He doesn’t have to read. Nobody has to read anymore, unfortunately. They just Tweet and then they believe what they Tweet. But everything he has said should have been said twenty years ago. Everything he says needs to be looked at very carefully, the land thing — very carefully. He knows exactly how to do this. He is as charming as hell. He can talk to liberals, white liberals, and have them eating out of the palm of his hand, and he can insult them the next time, talking to black radicals. He’s got a very clever team in his hands that also know how to demean parliament and to actually do a Donald Trump on South Africa.


Will he?


If he can he will. I just worry that he and the ANC will actually go into a coalition, like Hindenburg and Hitler, and that Cyril or maybe no longer Cyril, because there are some people hot on his heels, like Mabuza who is not good news for anybody. That the president is the president of the ANC, and the prime minister is Julius Malema, like Hitler was the chancellor. Well, then pack up darling and run for your bloody life because if we are being hunted one day, like the Tutsis hunted the Hutus, nobody in the world is going to give a damn because everyone is being hunted at the moment. So, hopefully democracy will keep a balance. Let’s see where the 2019 election goes. A very important election and I think Cyril should actually call it for now because by then there’s going to be such a fracture in the ANC because the Zumas are in there chopping away. We’re in very much, a thin ice — thin Uys, I hope thin Uys more than thin ice. But Malema, no, I would keep a very sharp eye on him.


In my work I’ve got a little puppet, a little doll — Julius Malema, based on the Zapiro cartoon with the eyes right there. I’ve had wonderful fun because Evita found this little black baby in the ally outside Luthuli House in the rain. She brought it in and he’s very clever because she past the Nedbank Building and he shouted out and he said, nationalization. But what is she going to do with this little boy? Her grandchildren say that she must adopt him. She said that she thinks his father might be Jacob Zuma. Anyway, I’ve just played with him and I’ve played with black audiences with him, who love him. They just think it’s the funniest thing, and even Malema fans with red berets come and they say they want a selfie with the little puppet.


So, one plays. When they became the party in parliament and I knew that they were not going to get help with their office. I got a big red box, and I got all red things for an office, red pens, red rubbers, red condoms, and all. I took it there. Evita should have taken it but I thought let’s not overdo this and I took it to parliament and I took it to their office. They were in the house causing ructions and I left it as a present for the EFF. They didn’t react. There was nothing that came so, that was my test to see if they had a sense of humour beyond themselves, and they don’t. That’s interesting. So, it’s very interesting for me to just see where we go with this.


Cyril is, of course, a great one because he and Evita caught trout together so, we’ve had lots of giggles in the past. But no, listen, in twenty-four years, we’ve done some remarkable things considering where we’ve come from. We could have been Syria. I’m not saying that we aren’t going to become Syria but we could have been Syria, and we’re not Syria.


Do you fear that?


Listen, look what Mugabe did after twenty years. It just takes one trigger finger and bang all hell can break lose.


And Ramaphosa, who came so close to not winning. He did win, he lifted spirits, but now the reality, as you mentioned, The New York Times article, the reality of the task ahead is huge.


The reality and also, the experience that we had far too long a honeymoon with Madiba. When we woke up with hangovers of joy, who the hell is this little man called Thabo Mbeki? We didn’t know who he was and he also, just went his own way with his own dictatorship and probably was there as a reason for the rise of Zuma. Zuma was the tampon, anything that could stop the bleeding let’s just pop him in there. I think Cyril is a very astute leader. He knows and understands the game of leadership. He didn’t decapitate all the Zuma ministers. He changed all their boards. He changed their DGs. He took away their feet. Now, they’re doing this, and they don’t know where they’re going, good. Nobody knows, the Tweeters don’t quite understand them so, there’s no Tweeting about that. The fact that people are now finding it easy to hit Mandela is just so disgusting and puts them exactly where they belong, the rubbish, and we must just not allow them to get the upper hand.


You described, where I read it, because there’s so much written about you, including a wonderful piece, in The New Yorker, which there’s not too many South Africans who feature in that way. But you describe humour as a means of mass distraction or a weapon of mass distraction. Now, Warren Buffett talks about financial instruments or the derivatives as financial weapons of mass destruction.


That’s destruction – I talk distraction.


You talk distraction, he talks destruction. At the annual general meeting (AGM) in Omaha this year he was asked, how do you want to be remembered and he said, as a teacher. He also uses humour. So, there’s a bit of the two of you, there’s some parallels there. You did want to study as a teacher, if I recall?


Yes, I did. I had a wonderful teacher at school, Ms Nel who, when I said one day that I can’t write a poem in English. I can’t Ms Nel. She said, yes, you can, you can do anything. If you believe in it and work towards it you can do anything. But I got diverted on that day and instead of going to that desk and signing in to do a teaching thing – I signed in to do a BA drama and that I can’t explain. I think I followed a girl, who was wearing a beret and she had sunglasses on, and she had this cigarette holder and I thought, what are you doing? She said, I’m an actress. I thought, god, I also want to look like that. I think that’s maybe how it happened, I don’t know. So, I think things have led me. I’m only in Darling because I took a wrong turning, in 1995. In 1995, on the first Freedom Day, I thought I’d go to McGregor and have a look at it. Everybody said it was lovely and I ended up in Darling.


What a name for a place though, where does it come from?


It’s after Sir Charles Darling, who was the governor of the Cape and of course, it’s English for skattie. So, I have no reason to be in Darling so that’s again, all these strange coincidences so, maybe things are meant to be. Maybe one has chosen the right choice every time there’s a Y-front choice with two routes in your life — you just hopefully choose the right one.


But do you believe that they’re coincidences or do you believe that the universe is…?


I don’t know. That’s too confusing, I don’t know.


Keep it simple.


Yes, it’s again instinctive. It’s just something that says, it’s lekker. There’s something nice here.


How has life been like in Darling?


Oh, I love it. It’s wonderful and challenging. To be part of a community that is in real desperate need of help, unemployment, alcoholism, and drugs, violence, racism, lots of stuff but no statistics. Everybody has got a name and that’s the difference. You know who belongs to who, and we have got so much communication with each other and The Darling Trust is my most important reality, and we’re in our twelfth year of that. I can see the difference. I can see the kids who came out of our little school and went into their sub-A are miles ahead of any of the other kids. That, to me, is the logic. Now, everything should be focussed on three, four, five, and six-year-old South Africans for their education, and for everything. Yes, I know, tertiary education, we must give free education at the universities — I hate saying this, but it’s too late. They haven’t been taught how to read, and write, and understand and think. They have no idea what they want to do and what it is. That’s why they are so easily moved by somebody with a red beret. Burning the libraries because they’re not doing what I want them to do? Not so clever.


But the little ones, no wonder they don’t know what we’re talking about when we talk about that. I can see them, the little ones, they start off like this — all children are like this and then within three months they’re up there and they’re drawing. I gave them a globe. And I asked, wat’s dit? Dis ‘n globe. Then I asked, where’s South Africa? There. I said, no. Ja, dis bo. I said, no, South Africa is there. They say, no, we’re going to fall off the world. I said, no man, that’s South Africa. No, we want to be on top. I said, you can always be on top of the world, you just turn it around and Cape Town will be on top of the world. Yay, and that’s it. I see leadership happening there, in front of my eyes. Five young leaders could lead five countries. It just takes about 300 bright young people to become the leaders of the whole world.


So, what happens when a farmer comes to your show in Darling? He comes to your theatre and reminisces with all the old relics of apartheid that you’ve got on the wall and listens to you, and you’re optimistic and you’re trying to lift his spirits in the way that you do, and he says, but I have these fears. Is there anything you can say to someone like that as he’s sitting having his brandy with you after the show?


No, I want to hear his fears. I say, what are they and I think the more you talk about them the thinner they get. It’s because people don’t talk about their fears because they’re scared they might be saying the wrong thing. The more you talk about it, you suddenly hear it and you think, yes, and fears are always based on something that is fearful. But laughing at your fear makes it less fearful. It still is lethal, it can still kill you, but you know what it is. I always say to people, fear will never be taller than you. But if you look away it becomes as high as Table Mountain and the fear will kill you. You’ll be frightened to death.


A wonderful answer to that sort of idea was, where the dressing room was there and the little museum or the nauseum, with all these pictures, and Verwoerd en alles is daar, and I hear grandparents, parents, and grandchildren — I hear them and they go through talking. Then I hear the grandparents, the ouma and the oupa, ag papa, kyk, dis Oom Hendrik, dis Dr Milan, ooh ek voel so… Terribly emotionally. Their children, the parents, saying, agh ek kan nie die mense nie vat nie, ek haat hierdie goed, loop-loop. And I hear the little girl, ouma, wat beteken whites only? Now, that very decent, Christian, old Afrikaans 80-year-old ouma, for the first time in her life, has got to explain something to her beloved grandchild that she’s never had to explain to herself, she took it for granted. That’s the reason for that.


I have no agenda, I don’t tell people what they did. I don’t even have the words architect of apartheid. She’ll ask what’s that? If you don’t know, it’s okay. If somebody tells you or maybe it’s their opinion, or yours — that’s it. That’s to me, the excitement of that living room, it’s a very living museum, or nauseum, it’s very important to have the nauseum. But then I’ve also got the balance of the ANC. All the letters I wrote to the minister of the police. I want to take my play, just like home, to Nelson Mandela — there is no such person. I never got a chance to do that. Then the censorship stuff, and a lot of humour and a lot of laughter because of the madness.


Now, you’re in London. You like asking questions of people and you like to get people thinking. Are you getting South Africans who come to see you, doubtless the audiences are full of South Africans who are living here, do you get them thinking about maybe going home and looking at their own lives?


Well, in this case, I don’t have much of a political chat because it’s not about politics. I can sense my South Africans within the first minute because I use Afrikaans. The introduction is in Afrikaans. I sing in my boy soprano voice. En hier kom Pieter-Dirk Uys en hy sing hierdie liekie and you can hear where they are, and I’ve had many. But I’ve been thrilled to see that there is a big audience under thirty years old, which is really nice. The Soho Theatre is thrilled to see that there is a very big audience of over sixty-fives, which they don’t usually get. It’s a very young theatre, The Soho. Many of the people wait for me afterwards and say, we’re coming back to see our parents. We’re going to come to the Perron, and everybody has got an emotion about the play, about the piece. So, it’s been very nice, it’s very nice to meet old friends as well.


What questions are you asking of them?


Well, I’m not asking anybody in this show. I’m not asking questions of people.


You’re just sharing?


Yes, it’s a story. It’s sharing experiences that they are also experiencing. I have a whole section about moving to London, living here and studying here.


How long were you here for?


I was here for five years, where I’m at the Film School in 1969, and three of my friends at the Film School were communists. I said, are you a communist? They said yes, and I said, don’t say it so loud. They asked, are you a white South African? I said, yes. They said, you should whisper, and how all those familiar poles that held up my roof just dissolved into candyfloss. Everybody has to re-adapt to all sorts of things here but I think it’s much broader now because it’s okay.


Was that the watershed in your life, coming here at that stage?


Oh, it was. My mother gave me a return ticket to the Northern Hemisphere when I passed Matric, she said, go and see where I come from. And that was obviously, the first time of seeing the world. Seeing Lawrence Olivier play Othello. I called him Lourens Olivier, I didn’t know how to pronounce his name. But theatre really probably was the first adult wakeup call. Stunning plays, stunning relationships of people in drama through the Centuries and then thinking is this the reality or is my reality going out of that door where I cannot even have a drink with those two friends of mine in the drama department because then are not white. What is real here? That made me start thinking and start realising that I can’t change it but I can break the law, and I did. I didn’t kill anybody but I slept with them, and that was against the law.


That’s one story I tell in one of my shows. How in 1967, at Drama School, a friend of mine had a birthday and we were both criminals because we were gay, but there wasn’t a word for it then. We had a party and there were young coloured boys there, or young men, which was again, everything against the law but we never thought about that. Then the one young man said to me, do you want to come home with me? I said, oh, yes, and we got into my car and we drove. I originally said, let’s go up Signal Hill and he said, are you crazy? Me, in the car with you on Signal Hill? I’d be killed by the police, are you crazy? So, we start driving and he said, keep going. I suddenly though, oh, god, I’m on the bloody road to the Cape Flats, I don’t want to go there. He said, no, turn right so, I turned write and we’re in Kenilworth. I thought thank god, Kenilworth, and we stop at this beautiful house and now we had to whisper. He said, wait at the gate. He went into a little shed and candle light. I thought, Jesus, he’s the garden boy.


So, there I was in the shed with the garden boy and in the candle light, when we took our clothes off, we had the same colour. There was nothing different. The next morning, when I woke up, because the sun is shining through the tin roof. He woke up, and he said, Jesus, you’re still here — you must go. I said, no, but I haven’t got classes on, it’s Saturday. He said, no, I’ve got to wash their cars, and I’ve got to do their .... The terror. He said, take your clothes and go, go. I said, no. Then he said, Master Pieter… phew. Then I say to the audience, I can’t really explain much about what it was like to live in those days but if you want me to tell you about fear, I can keep you here for a long time. So, all those things one has to find frames to hang these sketches in, these realities, these emotions, not trophies because they’re not trophies, but I suppose there are blood clots that dry on something, but you survive. You see, that’s the whole story so, you survive.


When you look back on that, I guess one has to be optimistic because we’re a long way from where it was back in the 70s and 80s?


A long way, but there are still moments where people, young people, are told, you cannot go out with that person because that person is not a Muslim. What about that person, is that person Jewish? Why do these people have such horrible things to say about Israel? We must take them, the minister of education in Gauteng and put him on suspension because he said, Johannesburg is a friend of Israel. What are we talking about here? First of all, it’s freedom of expression, freedom of choice. Yes, you might not agree. We can have a discussion on it, what you think and what they think, and apartheid and Israel. There are some terrible comparisons, which are totally uncalled for. It’s like comparing Nazism and Afrikaner Nationalism, you cannot compare them. But one death of one person, because of those two countries policies, is enough to make me angry for the rest of my life.


So, where does the optimism come from, when you say you are optimistic about your country?


I don’t know, I just think being negative is too exhausting. What’s the point? There’s no point to it. It just ends there. It makes you ill, and I haven’t got time. Who knows, maybe when I reach heaven, it’s based on the negative, and I’ll be sorry. I couldn’t care. I couldn’t be bothered. My year used to be 365 days. Now it’s two days, it’s today and tomorrow, and really today is just every inch of today, it must be absorbed and looked at, and analysed and enjoyed because if one doesn’t really do it properly — tomorrow is not going to have all the little… Dit sal nie al sy varkies in die hok hé nie. It will just not be the same thing and that does help as well. Although again, as a performer, I have to plan two years in advance. I am now planning 2020, but in pencil.


Well, that was an hour with the inimitable South African iconiclastic Pieter-Dirk Uys, and this has been the Rational Perspective. Until the next time, cheerio.

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