Anyone worried about the future of press freedom in South Africa can officially relax. South Africa’s “most famous white woman”, Evita Bezuidenhout, announced on Thursday that she intends to chair any forthcoming media tribunals. But don’t get too comfortable – Mrs Bezuidenhout now professes herself a loyal ANC member. By REBECCA DAVIS.
Evita Bezuidenhout has served as something of a cultural lodestone for the nation for decades. When it comes to South Africa, Evita has always told it as she saw it. That hasn’t changed, but Evita has.
After years at the centre of the National Party, playing a critical role in the homelands system as the ambassador to Bapetikosweti, Evita has jumped ship. She has joined the ANC, she explained to the Cape Town Press Club on Thursday, and is full of theories as to how best she can advise the ruling party to govern.
Arriving on stage, Evita paused before a poster of her alter-ego, satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys. Reaching into a voluminous handbag, she extracted a pot of red paint and a brush, and proceeded to calmly and deliberately paint a large X over Uys’s face. Referring to agriculture minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson’s refusal to address the Press Club in the presence of a DA shadow minister earlier this month, Evita explained: “If I see any presence that I don’t approve of, I use the democratic red paint of the ANC”.
The date of Evita’s address was auspicious: 31 May, Evita pointed out, used to be Union Day in South Africa when she was a girl. It was an occasion when the country celebrated freedom from the clutches of Britain and “being on our own two feet, though we were still part of the Commonwealth, which was horrible”.
When prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd created the Republic of South Africa on 31 May 1961, the day became “Republiek Dag”, which meant a day spent in church. That all ended on 27 April 1994, when South Africans voted in the first democratic elections, “many of them many times”. Now, thankfully, 31 May is “just Thursday”.
With the transition to democracy, Evita found herself in a confusing space. “So I decided I must just get on with what I can do well – cooking,” she explained. “Those in the kitchens always know more about what’s going on than those around the tables.” Cooking for Mandela was easy, she said, because he’d only been used to bread and water. Cooking for Zuma was a bit more of a challenge, because she is scared to get in the way of his wives.
“When does he sleep?” she pondered rhetorically.
Despite the challenges, Evita was determined to make a contribution. “I’m not going to be one of those white South Africans sitting outside the tent, or in this case kraal,” she decided. After all, white South Africans got off lucky. “We got away with apartheid!” she squealed. “There were no Nuremberg Trials, and none of us got hung like Saddam Hussein.”
The obvious answer seemed to be the ANC. And so, Evita explained, she duly trotted off to Luthuli House to take out membership, offering to pay back-arrears for 15 years of membership out of guilt.
“They are all in desperate need of help,” Evita said. “Do you know how many good people there are in the ANC? There are excellent people. I have grown to like them very much, but the trouble is that they will never have an opinion – just like the old days in the Nats.”
But we never hear about the good people in the ANC, Evita complained, only about the “famous ones, the ANC heavyweights – and that’s an understatement”. She proposed that the more corpulent members of the national executive committee, such as Gwede Mantashe, be sent to the Hydro in Stellenbosch every six months to slim down a bit and think about policy.
In order to be of maximum assistance to the ANC, Evita decided to bone up on the thoughts and writings of South African political figures. She started with the biography of Pik Botha, a book she described as being printed on “very high-quality paper, full of fibre and roughage, so if you can’t read it, you can eat it. You might want to send it to Somalia, where I’m sure they’ll enjoy every page.”
Not finding the answers she sought there, she turned to the writings of Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki, she holds, is a “very clever, dangerous man”, and warned journalists with apparent seriousness that they would be foolish to ignore or underestimate him. Evita has an idea for Mbeki’s future: “We should make him ambassador to the UN. He looks like Kofi Annan’s son. We could call him Cappuccino Mbeki.”
As much as she admires Mbeki’s intellect, however, Evita is a big fan of his successor. “I really like Jacob Zuma,” she said, and confessed that if she had come across the painting of The Spear she would have taken it to the dump to be destroyed. But we were all wrong to allow the ANC to use the matter of the painting to deflect attention from other issues, she maintained. “We all ran along as if they were handing out sweets to stray dogs!”
This wasn’t the only statement that drew earnest murmurs of agreement from the members of the Press Club. Her declaration that the ANC Youth League should disband and be forced to re-form with their own money and battle it out at the polls was greeted with noises of enthusiasm from the audience.
The Spear saga was a political game of “I can frighten you quicker than you can run away,” in Evita’s opinion. But she was at pains to reassure the audience that South Africa’s democracy is healthy, and that no democracy is perfect. And with Evita at the head of the Media Tribunal, she promised journalists: “I will promise you freedom of speech. It’s after the speech that the freedom will go.”
She said journalists would be treated kindly under her reign, because “it’s only when you’re irritable that you’re irritating”.
Although Evita has only been a member of the ANC since April 1 – she dismissed April Fools’ Day as a coincidence – she says the effects on South Africa’s political sphere are already plain to see. Consider the evidence: since then, she points out, the ANC Youth League president has been expelled, General Bheki Cele has been proven unfit, Richard Mdluli will be moved to “some far-off office”, the e-tolling plans have been stymied, “that horrible painting has been neutralised” and Charles Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in jail. It’s certainly an impressive list.
So what’s the future for South Africa? Evita doesn’t have a crystal ball. But, she says, “change can happen without panic, without anger, with food and a nice glass of wine.” Presumably she’ll take care of the last two – after all, it’s her job as South Africa’s unofficial First Lady.
- Pieter-Dirk Uys’s Adapt or Fly is on at the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town, from 11 – 30 June 2012.
Photo: Evita Bezuidenhout