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ELECTIONS

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VOTER EDUCATION

articles from 1999

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Apartheid was no laughing matter — but it is now ...

Pre-election violence is mounting in South Africa, but the nation's top satirist is still able to crack a joke

– David Beresford, The Guardian, 14 March 1999


The mayor looked like a man living on borrowed time — not surprising when you considered that he had needed the protection of guards toting sub-machine guns to visit his constituents that morning. 'It's not whether, it's a question of when,' confided Richmond's first citizen, Andrew Ragavaloo, who had just learnt of yet another plot to kill him.

With 117 people killed in the past 20 months, Richmond — located amid the sugar and banana plantations of KwaZulu-Natal — is the epicentre of the blood-letting which passes for politics in parts of South Africa. The atmosphere is growing particularly tense with the country's second general election since liberation due on 2 June.

Nevertheless, there was happy anticipation on the faces of the townsfolk — the ANC's Mayor Ragavaloo included — as they drifted into the Richmond Memorial Hall this week for a one-off visit from Evita Bezuidenhout who, despite being a one-time handmaiden of apartheid — the celebrated ambassador of a (non-existent) Bantustan — is now flourishing in the new South Africa.

Evita, for those not in on South Africa's longest-running joke, is the country's version of Barry Humphries, leading comedian and satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys, in drag. Or — as he himself would have his audience believe — in one of Winnie Mandela's cast-off designer dresses 'with the bullet holes patched up'.

Uys's mother was a Jewish concert pianist who, fleeing the Nazis, came to South Africa and married into the family of D. F. Malan, the founding Prime Minister of the apartheid state.

It was a familial paradox which stood Uys in good stead when, as a self-declared 'moffie' (gay) in an over-whelmingly homophobic society, he took to the boards to mock apartheid's elite, earning plaudits across the political spectrum.

Uys used to boast that he had 'tangoed in front of the firing squad' in every playhouse in the land — with the sole exception of parliament. Now he has done that too, recently appearing before the legislature at the invitation of the Speaker and once again reducing a ruling elite to stitches by mocking them. The chutzpah is essential to his charm.

It is wonderful to be in Richmond, he gushes. 'Of course, you are in the news all the time... like Beirut and Bosnia,' he adds to shrieks of mirth. 'Goodness, you have more bodyguards than P. W. Botha had,' he declares, eyeing the gunmen surrounding the mayor.

As a white Afrikaner, he tells his audiences, he is touring the country apologising for apartheid as an act of penance imposed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. 'I apologise for apartheid,' he announces contritely. 'Apartheid was a silly little experiment introduced to South Africa from Holland. We apologise deeply.

'We are very, very sorry it didn't work.'

The audience, one senses, is partly there to see what he can get away with. As in the bad old days of apartheid, if for different reasons, race is the tightrope he walks.

'My daughter is married to a black man. She doesn't mind. I don't mind,' Uys, as Evita, announces. There are nervous giggles. 'I do have a problem with my grandchildren. I can't see them in the dark,' he quips, to roars of laughter.

His humour does not always succeed. Last weekend a new Sunday newspaper aimed at an exclusively black readership chose his travelling show as the subject for its first theatre review and lambasted it as racist. 'The basic appeal of Uys is to uphold and defend white supremacy and history,' it pronounced. His agenda, the newspaper went on, 'is the symbolic fantasy of the white racist, unwilling to accept black government or even apologise for atrocities... Pieter-Dirk Uys or Evita is not us; he/she has no intuitive connection with the perspective of the majority and his/her claim to want to mobilise support for the election is a lie.'

For this is what Evita's latest show is all about: voter education. Poignantly, the show was at its most educative as well as its most satirical last week when Uys invited representatives of the 41 political parties contesting the June poll to address his audience.

Five volunteered. One, from the ruling ANC, told them briefly: 'We would like you to vote again for the ANC, just this last time round, then we will be able to finalise the plan of action we have at the ANC.' There was one from Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party whose name Uys could not pronounce, and whose speech in Zulu he listened to with an intent air of incomprehension.

The rest were white. There was a striking blonde who announced that she led the 'Government of the People Green Party' and who — after being complimented by Uys on her green dress — delivered a forceful, if confusing, appeal for an end to 'representative government'. There was a young man sporting a pony-tail and a powder-blue wind-breaker who explained that he was the leader of 'God's People's Party', from which position he offered the revelation: 'I'm telling you, I'm not asking you, to vote for the God's People's Party, to put them in power so that they can put the real, honest God's principles there to govern the country. There are only two parties: God's People's Party and the rest, who are against it.

'And if you do not put God in power and if you do not put his principles into government, I can promise you, if your children get murdered and if you get raped and if you get murdered and if you get stolen from and if this country becomes a mess, it is you and you and everybody's fault — and not mine, because I have given you the message.' His offering was met with dutiful if bewildered applause.

Finally, there was a representative of the Liberal Democratic Party, whose members are drawn from the English-speaking community in this former British colony. He was diverted from a denunciation of the ANC government's excessively authoritarian anti-tobacco legislation by taunts from the audience: 'What did you do when the black people were oppressed in South Africa?' they asked.

'I started the first non-racial school in South Africa,' he expostulated indignantly. 'I was the first chairperson of that school, the first school in South Africa to have had black, white, coloured, Asian — whatever you want to call South Africans — on the parent body, in the school, and on the teaching staff. That's what I personally did!'

Towards the end of the apartheid era, Uys liked to characterise his shows as a requiem, a mourning by laughter for a dying society. As the small crowd filed out of the Richmond Memorial hall, the mayor and his nervous bodyguards cautiously among the hindmost, one could not help but ponder who he was now mourning.

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