If it is true that behind every successful man there is a woman, Pieter-Dirk Uys is the exception to the rule. Known as the man behind many desperate women, this complex character is also a man of strong opinions. And be warned, Julius Malema, don’t touch him on his democracy. By EMILY GAMBADE.
Tremble, politicians: Pieter-Dirk Uys is on stage. Darling in his furrow, he brings Evita, Mother Theresa, Winnie and other hysterically disparate ladies at the Baxter Theatre until 1 October, turning any current political drama into a festive, funny, fabulous moment.
Don’t be fooled, for under the unbearable lightness of laughing, Pieter-Dirk Uys opens a world of paradoxes. South Africa is a beautiful country albeit in trouble. Our democracy is alive albeit clearly at risk. The peaceful transition is yesterday’s news and the honeymoon lasted too long. The show is a firework of laughter, gnashing, wonder and inconvenient truths. And the man behind the women, make-up and fake eyelashes, is a rather improbable teacher.
“I need my audience to come there and to leave as optimistic as the characters. But I also need them to be aware of the problems. Once you are aware of the problems, you can solve them. If you are just negative and angry, it gets worse and worse. We are an extraordinary country. We have so many generous people in this country, considering what we did to the majority of our people for so long with apartheid, they had all the reasons in the world to take revenge themselves, and tell us, get out or die, but they didn’t.
“I don’t think there is anybody here saying, ‘Oh, I hope this place falls to pieces’. And if there are, I want them to leave. I’ll drive them to the airport.”
The tone is set. Pieter-Dirk Uys is an iron fist in a velvet glove. “I have a definition in my work: 49% anger, 51% entertainment. It has to be entertainment. Because that’s why you come to the theatre. You are coming to enjoy yourself. Anger is always there. I’m angry at the callousness of the government. I’m angry at the terrible education structure. I’m angry that the majority of our young people cannot have a future, but it doesn’t help if I stand and I shout. Nobody’s going to listen to me. What I have to do is put on costumes and entertain.”
And the public is there, laughing out loud while, behind the jokes and the wide smiles, the words make their way to our worried consciousness. In “Desperate First Ladies”, now showing at the Baxter, Evita is working under the new government of President Julius Malema. Unbelievable? Maybe you want to think again.
“Julius Malema is a very interesting shock in our 17-year-old democracy. We had a honeymoon for too long. We had a Mandela-Madiba era and suddenly the kids, who were born after Nelson Mandela was free from jail, are now 18 years old and what are they going to do? There is no education, there are no jobs, but there is Julius Malema who says: ‘We are the future! We must take over the country. We must take over the economy. We must nationalise the mines.’ We, of course, go ‘Oh my God, what is this?’ because we don’t want to talk about it.
“The ANC has come to power on the trust of the majority of the people. I am really angry that the government I vote for has become, I think, more corrupt now than the apartheid government. This democratic government knows what should be done and their attitude is ‘To Hell with it’. There is no excuse for everything that’s going on in this country. There is no excuse for the huge amount of money they are stealing from the people. Could Malema be the next president? He is the only choice! Who is there, in South Africa, who really, truly, has an extraordinary gift of political … what is it? Is it political philosophy? Idealism? Vision?”
Pieter-Dirk Uys admits that Julius Malema has charm and all the good reasons in the world to rule over the country. “I’m very careful when I say this, but history does repeat itself. Julius Malema says: ‘We must control the economy – it’s in the hands of the whites.’ Hitler said: ‘We must control the economy – it’s in the hand of the Jews.’ Hitler appealed to the millions of Germans who had no jobs, after the First World War. Malema appeals to the millions of South Africans who don’t have a job after the apartheid era. I’m very careful about these comparisons because they are very dangerous. But do not underestimate the incredible craftiness of people who make noises on the sidelines and then move into the centre. Hitler also went to jail in the twenties. He wrote ‘Mein Kampf’ and then came out and ruled Europe. So if Julius Malema is thrown out of the ANC, I think he may form his own party. It’s a very interesting time – very dangerous, but very interesting.”
Interesting times, indeed, forcing people to have opinions and debate. “Unfortunately, the argument always ends up with ‘You are a racist. No, I’m not. Yes, you are. No, I’m not.’ My point is: yes I am a racist; I was born and raised in a country where people were racists. For 50 years of my life segregation was law; it was politically correct; so, I am now an alcoholic who doesn’t drink; I am a racist who will not be a racist; every morning I will wake up and I will say to myself, I will not be superior to anybody because anyone has a right; and of course, in the traffic, you become a racist in 40 seconds; so you must say ‘No, let the taxi go first!’
“Many of our attitudes in South Africa are a choice of words. Words, which could mean, yes, there is a problem, but I am optimistic that we can get around it, or yes, it’s a problem and I am angry because we can’t solve it and I am a victim. We have to really think and judge our own racism, prejudices and fears. The moment you are frightened, you are deaf and blind; and in politics, that is dangerous.”
Pieter-Dirk Uys is angry with politicians, and more so at the lack of integrity, concern and interest. Indifference and fear are more destructive poisons than the politically correct talk poured into our ears every day. “In democracies, things must never be safe. And if things are safe it means we are not concentrating on where our freedoms are going. In a democracy we must always wake up in the morning and make sure that the sun is rising. And we do not do our homework; especially the whites, it’s a pity to say that, but the white South Africans were the first ones to complain. The media is not doing its homework either. They’re not paid enough, not professional, they have one person doing six jobs and then you have a journalist sitting in a big political event and writes as a headline, ‘Malema is corrupt!’ Well they haven’t proved anything yet. And then the ANC comes back with a law, the Protection of Information Bill because (it claims) ‘You are accusing us of things and you are wrong’. And, yes, you are not wrong all the time, but if you’re wrong once, it’s enough. I believe in democracy as the only solution. But I know that democracy is not perfect because it’s touched by human hands. Everybody has the right to make a fool of himself. Do not underestimate your enemies, they also have a sense of humour.”
Being aware, responsible, taking charge of one’s life are important values, at the core of Pieter-Dirk Uys’ work. “One of the questions I keep asking to people is: ‘We had our municipal elections; municipalities are the closest government in our lives; how many people voted in the municipal elections?’ It’s shocking to find out. And when you ask, the reply you get is ‘Oh, what’s the point?’
“What’s the point? Ok, who is your ward counsellor? Who represents your street in your municipality? ‘I don’t know…’ Why don’t you know? Why don’t you find out who it is? Find out their cellphone numbers and phone them every single day at 3am and tell them service delivery is not happening. We can make it happen. We don’t do it. We keep on looking around saying ‘Oh, please, I don’t want to see this, I don’t want to hear that.’ Every country deserves the government it gets. And I’m afraid we got it. Now there is Julius Malema, who comes out like a Chihuahua costumed as a Rottweiler, biting the boss and I’m very pleased that people are saying ‘Jesus, what is this?’ I never thought that I’d see the ANC using the riot police to control the Youth League. In the week of the Luthuli House fiasco, our president was not in the country, our deputy president was not in the country; now the minister of defence, Lindiwe Sisulu, very verbally on the side of Julius Malema, the former minister of police, Charles Nqakula, a friend of Julius Malema, they could have had a coup d’état, thank God, we are not in South America. The only reason they didn’t is because the army would have said: ‘Sorry, you want us to do what? Are you mad? We haven’t been paid.’ The police? ‘Oh, please, we are having sex’.’’
Is there hope in the opposition? Could there be a party to balance the persisting cronyism? “Cosatu won’t be a political party, (because) it doesn’t have the organisation. It is a union, and important in Parliament. The Communist Party is a mosquito on the bum of the elephant, which must keep biting the bum. The opposition is a bad word, because I don’t want to have an opposition to democracy. I want alternative to democracy.”
Pieter-Dirk Uys wants an alternative to democracy and more than anything, citizens of South Africa using their rights and fulfilling their duties. “Humour is a weapon of mass distraction. How can you be frightened of something you laughed at? You didn’t laugh because it was funny, you laughed because you are in charge of it. Yes, (I am) showing corruption on stage, if I can say ‘Ha, you bastards!’ I can also say ‘Hey, I’m watching you stealing’. My point is, leave the till open so the politicians know where the money is. Get them out of the way. Let them steal money, but let us organise the education of our children and not wait for the government. We have 70 children, between the ages of three and five going to pre-school. No government money. Why must the government help us? The moment you take money from the government they have you by the neck. We need the government to help us with education, housing, security, transport, health, pension, but not with creativity and art.’
Touching on the freedom of speech, which he would rather describe as freedom of expression, Pieter-Dirk Uys is adamant: “There is too much ‘democratisation’ around art in this country. You want to do a play, so let’s discuss the play; we have to sit around the table, and the playwrite is here, and the manager is there, and someone from the party is there and we’ve got to see what we are going to do. Don’t come tell me what to do when I’m a writer! I will write my play and we will put it on and you, the critic, will come and tell me it’s not working. But self-censorship is probably one of the most dangerous things in the world and that’s where we are heading in our model of democracy. When you are writing something critical of political issues, and you suddenly think ‘Maybe I shouldn’t say that because I’m a stand-up comedian and I want to get a TV show on SABC and I want to do corporate and I want to be a millionaire…’ If you are not prepared to die for your point of view, then don’t have one.
“Some of us have to be fighters. I’ve been unemployed since 1975, because the apartheid government stopped my work. I became my job and I am totally responsible for what I say, for what I do, for earning the money to do what I do. I also have to earn the money to go out and do my Aids programmes at school for free, but I do not have sponsorships. I do not have subsidies because somebody will then tell me to stop what I’m doing, because they don’t like it. So we’ve got to be brave. I tell the young people at school, you will never get the job you want so become that job now. Find out what is your dream and make that dream come true. The biggest mistake we make is that we keep on talking about the struggle. The struggle is over. The kids are not interested in the struggle, because the struggle lies ahead and that is the most important thing to say to the young people. It is not going to be easy. If you think people are going to help you, you’re wrong. Nobody’s going to help you so you have to be in charge.”
In charge, free and inconveniently vocal, desperate ladies all behind him, Pieter-Dirk Uys smiles at the audience. Standing ovation, curtain down, laughter gone, one thing remains: Yes, we have to be brave. DM
Desperate First Ladies is at the Baxter until 1 October 2011, 20:00.
For more information, check http://www.baxter.co.za/comedy.htm#pdu
"I know of a cure for everything: salt water...in one way or the other. Sweat or tears or the salt sea." ~ Karen Blixen