Pieter-Dirk Uys converts hit ’80s play into new novel ‘Panorama’

‘Panorama’ celebrates the people who through their shared passion for a beloved country managed to communicate and even laugh with each other in spite of fear, guilt and prejudice.

TheSouthAfrican.com, 6 August, 2014

Panorama, the moving and thought-provoking new novel by Pieter-Dirk Uys  is based on his remarkable early play of the same name.

During the last half of the previous century Robben Island was the international symbol of resistance against apartheid. Nelson Mandela was but one of the imprisoned freedom fighters who eventually led South Africa into democracy in 1994. And yet there was suburban life in the shadow of the prison.

Rosa and Karin are two white Afrikaans schoolteachers who do not look at the walls and barbed wire along their path to their cottage on the island. They sit in their small world and look at the magnificence of Table Mountain across the bay, a view that has become iconic, an inspiration they call their Panorama.

For 24 hours in 1987, Sibi Makhale is allowed to visit her dying father in the maximum security prison. The daughter of banned parents, Sibi comes face to face with the two suspicious and frightened schoolteachers. It will prove a life-changing experience for all of them.

Over two decades later, Sibi returns to the Island — now a World Heritage Site — with her two born-free sons. It is an attempt at closure for her, an adventure for her boys, and for the reader a remarkable journey back from the dark past.

Panorama celebrates the people who through their shared passion for a beloved country managed to communicate and even laugh with each other in spite of fear, guilt and prejudice.

The story and its characters will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading this poignant and funny novel.

I spoke to Pieter to find out a bit more about Panorama:

You’ve written many plays over the years — what made you choose to convert Panorama into a novel?

The original story was told in my play in 1987 — set on Robben Island at the same time, showing audiences a dark place that was shrouded in secret. Mandela was already in Pollsmoor, and yet there were still passions and energies trapped in that island hell. Not just black prisoners inside, but also white ones outside. Then around 2006 with all the build-up to the 2010  World Cup, I realised that the new mega-stadium would be a rude addition on the face of the panorama that my characters looked at in the play. Karin and Rosa and Sibi knocked on the door of my imagination and said: ‘Yes? Don’t you wonder where we all are? Now, all these years after 1987?’ So that’s where it started. First finding a road map of facts: who was where, what happened when. The only artistic licence I took was moving the Purple Shall Govern riot earlier into 1987.

What is the message of the novel?

Message? Impression is what I hope for — a reminder of where you the reader were during that time. If too young then, how much do you know about what happened to ordinary people then? And how different are our lives today with all the freedoms we take for granted and the information we have, but still so little knowldege. PANORAMA is a small story about small people set against a huge backdrop of famous giants and political tornados. So I hope that besides being shocked by the reminders of suffering and fear, the reader is inspired by the survival of the human spirit. And moved to shed a tear for them — and for us.

You describe the life of Sibi’s father, Alfred Makhale, in detail — was he based on a real prisoner?

I had to make sure that he was not mixed up with Mandela or Walter Sisulu or Robert Sobukwe. I did a lot of reading and even more imagining and hopefully I gave him the dignity of reality and place.

What will South African expats find in this book?

I don’t believe there is such a thing called an Ex-South African: there are just South Africans somewhere else. And so let them settle down calmly and read a story that might be very familiar, or go on a discovery of people that sound familiar and end up shockingly personal. A mother, a sister, a cousin. A maid. A whiff of memory from those years in the SADF. Panorama is not Homeland or House of Cards or West Wing. But it is a story that everyone who walked on Table Mountain, swam at Blouberg beach, visited Robben Island on that tour — or have young sons and daughters who filter life through Google and Twitter — will enjoy the journey with Rosa and Karin, Grobbelaar and Sibi –- and maybe stick that postcard of Table Mountain on the fridge door  in Putney just to remind them of another special place called Home.

Panorama is available on Kindle in the UK.

The paperback version in South Africa is now in its second printing.




I was so fascinated, I’m reading the book again!

– Caroline Smart, artSMart, 3 January 2014

Already in its second printing, which is a mark of its success to date, Pieter-Dirk Uys’s latest novel, Panorama, was inspired by the play The Island. Devised by Athol Fugard (director) and actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, the play is set in the world famous prison situated on Robben Island.

Working closely with The Island for two years at the Space Theatre in Cape Town in the mid-70’s, Uys was motivated to create his own play, Panorama, which had its world premiere at the Grahamstown Festival in 1987. Fittingly, the 2013 novel Panorama was also launched in Grahamstown — at last year’s Festival.

For the uninitiated, Robben Island is situated in Table Bay off the coast of Cape Town and is clearly visible from the mainland. It has had a chequered history as a leper colony and an animal quarantine station as well as a prison for dissidents and convicted criminals. Until 1991, it was a maximum security prison for political prisoners, the most famous being the late Nelson Mandela. The island is now a South African National Heritage Site as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the prison has been preserved as a museum.

In Panorama, Uys has focused on three females as his principal characters and their linking history across a period of nearly 20 years. Karin and Rosa are teachers at the primary school which caters for the children of those who work for the prison. Sibi is the daughter of a former inmate. She visits the prison when her father is dying which is when she meets the teachers. She returns many years later with her two sons so that they can experience Robben Island first-hand. The perfect embodiment of today’s youth, they are permanently linked to digital camera and i-phones.

The story moves backwards and forwards through the years as the reader gains an insight to the prison through the eyes of Karin and Rosa — the one timid and terrified of breaking the law, the other more robust and in control of the changes taking place in the country. Rosa also makes regular trips to the mainland on her own make-believe mission.

Through Sibi, we experience the anguish of her father and the kind of life he led. The cover of the book features an example of a censored letter to a loved one. Contrary to possible assumptions, there is no link with this character to Nelson Mandela as Mandela had been removed from Robben Island by this time.

Uys first visited Robben Island on a Sunday school outing when he was 11. Since then he has paid several visits to the island — once as his alter-ego Evita Bezuidenhout filming the M-Net series Funigalore — so his descriptions of his surroundings are accurate. The only figment of his imagination is the house in which the two lady teachers live. As he says: “if the book is turned into a film, they’ll have to build the cottage!”

A further principal character is Table Mountain itself as it dominates the scenery almost as an overpowering watchdog.

Panorama allows one to see the real Pieter-Dirk Uys. While this incredible mind is behind one of South Africa’s most well-known characters — Evita Bezuidenhout, not to mention her eccentric extended family — as well as his stage impersonations of major role-players on the political scene, the novel resonates with his passion and love for South Africa and his constant commitment to question, criticise and analyse in his determination to bring understanding of important issues to a wider audience.

To quote Uys’s own words*: “It was only after I opened the Pandora’s box of satire that I discovered the blood-soaked alphabet of our political legacy and realities. Like the evil genie out of a rusty lamp, the spectre of Robben Island rose again, not as a place for a picnic, but as the secret horror that lay in full view of a comatose white nation ... It is time to tell a small story set on Robben Island, right on the edge of the world, like a full stop at the end of a long sentence called Africa.”

I was so fascinated with Panorama, I’m reading the book again!

Panorama is published by Missing Ink. Retail price R190 and the book is available on Kindle. ISBN 978 0 9922060 0 0

*See Pieter-Dirk Uys’s article in the Mail & Guardian at http://mg.co.za/article/2013-07-12-pieter-dirk-uys-returns-to-robben-island



New horizons for Pieter-Dirk Uys

– Diane de Beer, The Star, 12 November 2013

Think prolific and Pieter-Dirk Uys will probably pop into your head. Currently busy with a run of his latest stage show Adapt or Fly, he also recently launched his latest book Panorama (Missing Ink) which first appeared as a play (performed in 1987) dealing with Robben Island and its inhabitants both then and now.

When the Soccer World Cup happened, Uys again thought of the play because of all the interest in Robben Island from tourists. He decided he could turn it into a novel.

He describes it as a small story told in a political context.

“Things so easily just become footnotes,” he says pointing to our past and the many stories that stem from those dark days and the way people encountered and experienced one another.

Panorama is the story of three women. Sibi is the daughter of banned parents visiting her father on the island when she comes face to face with two suspicious and scared schoolteachers who are resident there. It’s a life-changing experience and two decades later, Sibi returns to the island, now a World Heritage Site with her two born-free sons.

It’s a look at the country through the prism of the past but with today strongly present and that makes it interesting because you can reflect on what was, while contemplating today. What were people doing all that time ago and where are they today? How have their lives changed, what has been learnt and how much a prison the country had become all that time ago, even for those living in “freedom”.

Uys never lets go of the reality of what was to inform the characters as they are viewed today. He is determined to keep the story alive to remind people lest we forget.

“It’s the characters who tell the story,” he explains about the process of writing. This was one he felt compelled to do, and it happened quite easily.

And while there’s a strong political edge to everything he does, Uys knows how to work his audience. He has been doing it for long enough. He knows how to get his message across while making you laugh and cry.

And with Panorama, he has used all his wiley wit.

With only so much spare time at our disposal, we need to choose carefully and he hopes to entice as many as he can to dip into this one.

It is the lives of the women he decides to share that draw you in. None of them is cut from the same cloth and yet there’s an empathy because they’re in a similar position for different reasons, all shackled to some extent.

It’s not only the writing that kept Uys on his toes. As someone who has to fill many empty halls, he goes full circle.

“Certain South African imprints never make it on to Amazon,” he says. As a world traveller and savvy in those ways, he knows that a large part of his market will also be expats. “They want to read about what’s happening back home,” he says. That’s why he joined an author’s co-operative who do their own publishing and distribution and make sure it’s out there for everyone.

He’s also proud that the cover design is his own. “Of course it was streamlined by the designer,” he says but with the iconic image of Cape Town and Table Mountain as seen from Robben Island with a typical excerpt of a censored letter as the background, he gives away much more than one might think.

Showman that he is, he can’t help encapsulating the essence of what he is trying to say in a picture.

Panorama is both a picture and a state of mind for people who were unaware or in denial of what they were doing to others — no questions asked.

“We can’t allow the stories to die,” he stresses. As the son of a mother whose piano lives in Berlin’s Holocaust Museum, he is fully aware of the impact of the past. His dedication in the front of the book also reaches back. It is dedicated to his teacher who encouraged her pupils to write a poem. When he said he could not write, her response was something that inspires and encourages him to this day.

“Yes Pieter, you can do anything. If you believe it and work towards it. You can do anything!”

And his response a few decades on: “Thanks Miss Nell.”

In 2015, he turns 70 and he already has four projects in mind which have to be completed by that time. “I have been out of work since 1975,” he says with a wicked grin referring to his freelance status. With book in hand and the Gauteng run of Adapt or Fly over, he has already turned to other horizons.



The power of a good story

– Estelle Sinkins, The Witness, 23 Oct 2013

NOT even writers are immune from wondering what has happened to the characters they have brought to life.

This is certainly the case for Pieter-Dirk Uys, who says that when two of the characters from his 1987 play, Panorama, knocked on his door, he felt compelled to share their story with a new generation of South Africans.

In the novel — the title of which comes from the panoramic view that two of characters have of Table Mountain from their little cottage on Robben Island — Uys uses four people to tell a very different story of the one-time island prison, now a world heritage site.

While there are passing references to the island’s famous inmates, including former president Nelson Mandela and activist Robert Sobukwe, Panorama revolves around the people, mainly whites, who called the prison island home under apartheid. Pivotal to the plot are the handsome and ruthless prison warder, Sergeant Grobbelaar, and three, very different, South African women: schoolteachers Karin du Preez, a typical Afrikaans meisie, and English-speaking Rosa Benjamin, who drinks, swears and has a secret love life; and Sibi Makhale, the daughter of one of Robben Island’s maximum-security prisoners.

Over a cup of tea at Cascades in Pietermaritzburg, Uys reveals that writing Panorama was an interesting journey.

“I always feel I’m not writing these things to go anywhere. I write them for me, for development of story. For me, it’s always about story. And actually, the bottom line, the reason I’ve done this, is not because there was a play, but because there was a damn good story,” he says.

“When the World Cup Soccer tsunami started bubbling up and getting going, and this stadium [Greenpoint in Cape Town] was built, for some [reason], and I cannot tell you why, Rosa and Karin knocked on my door.

“And I suddenly thought: What are they doing now? So much has happened in all our lives — what has happened in the lives of Karin and Rosa and Sibi?”

Uys hopes, through the book, to reach the attention of those people who did not see his original play. “Half of them were not allowed in the theatre to see the play … of course we let them in, but that was the Grahamstown Festival,” he says. “And then there are the young people who were not born then or certainly not thinking human beings then …”

In the book, Uys shares the experiences of Karin and Rosa on and off the island, and what has happened to them in the two decades since.

He does this by taking Sibi back to Robben Island to confront her past, hopefully find some closure, and to share a bit of family history with her two born-free sons, Matthew and Bongani.

“Her two boys are terribly important … the two boys are, for me, actually the reason for the story because they have their Googles and their iPads and all the technology through which all information is filtered, certainly to that generation,” says Uys.

“And, also through those boys, one could address dangerous areas … like where Bongani talks to the old German lady and wants to know about Auschwitz and she doesn’t get all prickly but actually takes him and shows him flowers …”

It’s a moment that Uys finds especially poignant because he has visited concentration camps. “We went to Theresienstadt concentration camp outside Prague, at the height of spring — a beautiful warm spring Chezoslovakian day. It was green and the flowers — we could smell the scents, and the comparison, the atmosphere, the experience of seeing the ovens … imagining the terror and the horror … and smelling and seeing the rebirth in nature was almost too much and then you thought they smelt it too. Besides the rotting flesh and the burning limbs, they smelt nature and I thought these boys are to me the spring in Sibi’s life.”

In both the play and book, the action builds up to Sibi’s arrival on the island to see her dying father, Alfred, and what happens when she arrives at Karin and Rosa’s cottage to spend the night.

Karin, who has been thoroughly brainwashed by her upbringing, is appalled at the thought of having a “terrorist” in the house; while Rosa is simply furious that the decision to give Sibi houseroom has been foisted on her by the authorities.

The experience is also a novel one for Sibi, but deep inside, this confident young woman has her own fears about seeing her father after a long period of separation. Of course, the situation also provides the opportunity for plenty of dark humour. Sibi is a banned person and can therefore be in a room with only one other person at any one time. Three or more people would constitute an illegal gathering and those caught could find themselves on the wrong side of the apartheid law. That humour contrasts sharply with the revelation a short time later of Grobbelaar’s true colours. Speaking about this unpleasant character, Uys says he got into a lot of trouble back in 1987 for creating a beautiful Afrikaans boy who is also manipulative. “His cold-bloodedness really comes through when he is teasing the other not-very-bright boys,” he says, “but you know that this man has got ambition and that this man is the first one who will turn sides. For him, hypocrisy is the Vaseline of political intercourse.”

The book certainly ends with a shocking twist — one which Uys admits even upset him and he was writing it!

More importantly, though, it leaves you deep in thought about a time in our past when fear was the ruling emotion for everyone who lived in South Africa. Uys is pleased with the reaction to the novel so far and says that he even sent a copy to the Robben Island Memorial Foundation, which has described it as a “significant addition” to its collection. It’s an affirmation of his belief in the power of a good story. As Uys says: “If you can sell a story with humanity, with people, good or bad, one can be transformed.”

• Panorama by Pieter-Dirk Uys is published by Missing Ink, a co-operative publisher in which the author receives 100% of the profits from the sale of the work.



Pieter-Dirk Uys returns to Robben Island

His play "Panorama" made waves in the 1980s. Pieter-Dirk Uys recalls how he updated the story to write a novel with the island prison at its core.

– Pieter-Dirk Uys, Mail & Guardian, 12 July 2013  

It was at the Grahamstown Festival of 1987 that my play Panorama had its world premiere. It was fitting that the 2013 novel, inspired by that human drama, was also launched in Grahamstown at this year’s National Arts Festival.

I was 11 when I went to Robben Island. Not as an anti-apartheid freedom fighter, but as a small Dutch-Reformed Church Christian. It was summer in 1956 and our Sunday school annual outing focused on an adventure at the sea. Op ’n Eiland!

We bundled on to the boat and, happily, a calm day saw us all laughing and happy to run about the beach in the full view of Table Mountain and our Mother City. I think we had a braai and I remember the watermelon treat, especially the fun we had chasing the girls and then rubbing watermelon all over their bodies.

That is all the memory I have. Maybe there was some building behind the wattle bush that was not friendly. Possibly some barbed wire dividing the arid rocky ground into go-go or no-go areas.

It was only after I opened the Pandora’s box of satire that I discovered the blood-soaked alphabet of our political legacy and realities. Like the evil genie out of a rusty lamp, the spectre of Robben Island rose again, not as a place for a picnic, but as the secret horror that lay in full view of a comatose white nation.

By 1975, after two years at the Space Theatre in Cape Town, inspired by Athol Fugard and meeting John Kani and Winston Ntshona while seeing their production of The Island every night during its controversial run, I became familiar with the smell and taste of that terrifying life across the bay.

I would stand on the top of Table Mountain and not just look at the view. I would peer out at the muddy pancake of land drifting on the blue sea and wonder what was really happening there. If one asked that question, no one would answer.

In 1985 the idea of a drama set on the island became more than just a thought. Because the passion of The Island was so obviously focused on the pain and suffering of the prisoners there, I wanted to veer away from that arena and look at other lives being lived at the same time, nearly in the same place.

Who were the white people imprisoned by their work in guarding those behind the walls who would never feel imprisoned?

I wrote the play Panorama with the view of Table Mountain as the linking symbol of what could be better in a life that could not get going.

The two women in the play represented the fears and prejudices of so many of us and the need for comedy — black and white — made the journey even more necessary and unexpected.

Today we read and hear about the humour and laughter that kept political prisoners alive behind those walls of hell. Then it was unheard of to associate Robben Island with a laugh.

The play opened at the 1987 Grahamstown Festival to critical acclaim. It travelled to Johannesburg and Cape Town and eventually saw a production in London. Some years later the play was staged in the United States.

Business Day newspaper called Panorama “a wrenching comedy, a maturely crafted play: each line has layer upon layer of significance; each character strata of biography — they have weight and the encounters crackle with vitality”.

The Eastern Province Herald said: “The dialogue is crisp and entertaining throughout and Uys’s singular genius has succeeded in instilling much needed lightness and humour into what is after all a serious situation.”

In early 1988 I received a message from the lone Progressive Federal Party MP in Parliament, Helen Suzman. She said there was a prisoner on the island who wanted to meet me. He liked my work. He was a fan. He was allowed a visitor. Would I go?

Of course I would go, I said, with a casual smile, while inside my stomach exploded. The last place I wanted to be was there, virtually walking into the lion’s den covered in the smell of satirist mouse.

I was given a permit. I was instructed. This was a maximum security area. Not for public consumption. Do not break the rules. I did. The idea of going there without something creative was a no-brainer.

What would these prisoners in so much darkness crave more than even light? Information! So I collected some news magazines (which were allowed in Cape Town, so they could not have carried a banned picture of Nelson Mandela). A Newsweek, a Time, a Financial Mail, a Weekly Mail.

I thought of rolling them up and hiding them somewhere on my person, but soon found out that such genius is only possible in a Hollywood film.

I put them in a Pick n Pay bag with the banned script of my play Selle ou Storie. If they arrest me for the treason of information, I might as well also be locked up for distributing a banned play!

The journey of the Susan Kruger was uneventful, except the knowledge that most of the people on board were not going for a picnic. Women with carrier bags of blankets and biscuits. Men without smiles. And somewhere, prisoners in handcuffs. I didn’t see them, but in my mind’s eye I heard them. My mind has a Hollywood studio of its own.

We arrived in the small harbour. Everyone was friendly. No one looked into my sling bag. Someone winked at me and said he had seen my show at the Baxter and where was Tannie Evita?

I was taken to a reception room for visitors and their families. I was alone. Then a uniformed man came in and shook my hand. Didn’t glance at my bag tick-tocking with subversion.

A youngish man of Indian descent entered. He embraced me like a long-lost friend. I was visiting him!

The uniformed man left us alone. I glanced around for mikes or hidden bumps in the plastic flowers dusty on the windowsill.

My imprisoned fan talked about seeing my videos. Where? I asked.  Here, he said. On Robben Island? Smuggled in? No, he laughed, we listen to the news, even watch on TV.

With a beating heart I took out my package of danger. This is what I brought you, I whispered, expecting to be arrested at any second.

He looked through the cluster of magazines once, then again into the Weekly Mail.

Seen all these, he said. Didn’t you bring a Scope? Of course! Scope magazine! Maybe things were getting easier on Robben Island, but tits were still at a premium.

The next time I stood on that sacred ground was in high heels. Evita Bezuidenhout was making a series for M-Net called Funigalore, in which she interviewed the new leaders of our democracy.

One episode was dedicated to an adventure with the then minister of transport, Mac Maharaj. Most of the episode played out during their visit to Robben Island.

They visited Nelson Mandela’s cell and the limestone quarry. It was 1995. One photo had Evita and Mac sitting on a bench with the panorama of Table Mountain behind them.

Taking the 1987 drama from the play as the core and encasing it with a further enrichment of a 2009 development of the story, the novel of Panorama took shape.

I made a few trips to the island for purposes of atmosphere and reality checks. Constant media upheavals that focused on mismanagement of Robben Island’s affairs were a constant reminder that, while the furniture of the past might still be in place, existence as a World Heritage Site as well as the legendary “University of Robben Island” was a heavy burden to carry.

Small stories of life there might get lost in the rush for the international close-up shot of the megastars of the Struggle.

It is time to tell a small story set on Robben Island, right on the edge of the world, like a full stop at the end of a long sentence called Africa.

Panorama is published by Missing Ink. For more information go to pdu.co.za