articles from 2003

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– Margaret von Klemperer, artsmart.co.za, 3 January 2003

"Excuse me, but are you who I think you are?" a member of the public asks my companion as I sit interviewing him over a cup of coffee. "And who do you think I am?" he asks in turn. "Pieter-Dirk Uys," she responds.

She is right, but while Uys obligingly signs an autograph for her, I wonder about the question. Just who is Pieter-Dirk Uys? Is he Evita Bezuidenhout, who may or may not be the most famous white woman in South Africa? Or is he a satirist, an actor, a writer, an educator deeply involved in issues of HIV/Aids and voter education? Has he become South Africa's social conscience, though he hates the suggestion that he might be called any such thing?

All of these must be aspects of the answer, and for the first time Uys is offering something more. He was in Pietermaritzburg last week to sign copies of his book Elections and Erections: A Memoir of Fear and Fun. The first section, Foreplay, talks about his upbringing, his parents, his sexuality, his mother's suicide and other things that in the past this very public figure has kept private.

He describes the book as being about the two things that were illegal in the earlier part of his life — democracy and sex. "The first part is a little bit of history of how one found one's way in the dark." As the title says, Uys has written a memoir rather than a complete, detailed autobiography with its emphasis on names and dates. "It's focussed on the fear and the fun," he says. And talking about his sexuality, he says simply,  “Being gay is just a job description.”  It is a part of him, just as his work and the great Evita are parts of him, but none is the whole man.

The second part of the book covers Evita's Great Trek before the 1999 election. Uys knew that even if he played to full houses, promoting voter education through theatre could only reach 0,005 per cent of the population. So he set out, with Evita packed in a box in the boot so that she could be pulled out and assumed at a moment's notice, and travelled all over the country, giving free shows to tell people to go and vote. It is a fascinating story, sometimes funny and sometimes moving, and an illustration of the depth of Uys's commitment to democracy.

"I have fallen in love with democracy," says the man who grew up under apartheid and whose Jewish mother had to flee Germany to escape Hitler. "I don't want it to be ignored or compromised; it will be a permanent issue for me." And, although Evita’s Great Trek will not be repeated, Uys is already working on plans for the 2004 election. "A quarter of the current voters’  roll are dead. We have to re-register people, make provision for the sick to vote," he says. The reason for this, of course, is Aids, the subject that takes up the final third of his book.

It is unlikely Uys will be getting encouragement from the government for his plans. His comments about the governments HIV/Aids policy on stage, in his schools’  programme and in Elections and Erections have won him few friends in government ranks. He volunteered his services to go and perform for the ANC congress in Stellenbosch this week but when we talked, four days before the congress began, he was still waiting for a reply to his email.

In his book Uys does not spare President Thabo Mbeki, and neither does his illustrator, the cartoonist Zapiro. One cartoon shows the president admiring his new aircraft, and saying that, despite the R400 million price tag, he got a discount on the steps. They are drawn as a heap of skulls, labeled "Aids Babies". And that has drawn cries of "Unfair" from Mbeki’s office. Uys is unrepentant. "I can’t believe that after all we lived with for 40 years, we now have this. It’s the new apartheid farce — the rich will live and the poor will die, and under a socialist government. It pisses me off." He knows that what he does is a drop in the ocean, but it is all he can do. "Nobody has had a second chance like we have in South Africa, but there will be no third chance," he says. He is deeply concerned that the country is now being run by former exiles, many of whom would much rather be elsewhere. And of Mbeki he says with a shake of his head, "We have a Stalinist looking after a young democracy."

It is his determination to make South Africa’s second chance work that sent Uys off around schools to talk about Aids and sex armed with his ability to communicate, Evita in her box and plastic penises, black and white, to get his point across. Instead of having to knock on principals’ doors and try to get a hearing, he now has a waiting list of 400 schools, keen to get Uys’s message across to their pupils.

Uys is also working beyond schools, in the corporate world. He has made a 40 minute video, which allows companies to insert their own information, and which he has titled, Having sex with Pieter-Dirk Uys. "If anything will make people put on condoms, that will," he chuckles.

But Uys insists that first and foremost, he is still an entertainer. "If I take your money and two hours of your time, I have to give value. But my entertainment is based on truth, not jokes. I can’t tell jokes — I can’t remember the punchlines." He admires the skills of South Africa’s array of talented stand-up comics, part of the flourishing world-wide comedy industry. "But they are not putting anger into it," he says. Anger with the way things are drives him, as it always has. He has written a new play, his first since 1991, which will premiere at next year’s Grahamstown Festival. And the subject is an eight year old girl, raped by a man with Aids.

It would be wrong to think that Uys has come over all serious. Anger may motivate him, but his sense of the ridiculous is as strong as ever. He tells how he was recently asked, as Evita, to do a 15 minute show for former President Mandela, always one of his warmest supporters, and Oprah Winfrey. "That was hard. No Winnie jokes, no Thabo jokes, no Nelson jokes. And Mrs Bezuidenhout was the only one in ethnic dress, in honour of the event. Everyone else was dressed like the front page of Vogue. But Oprah loved it — ran after Evita when she left the stage and embraced her. So there we were, whispering into each other’s braids and clasping each other’s corsets."

Uys is wonderful company, on the stage or in the coffee shop. He is continuing to do what he does best, in his own way. "I’ve been without a job for 30 years; I’m unemployable," he says happily. An enigmatic man of many talents, his skill is to turn the anger he feels into something both palatable and contagious.    

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