We meet in a sunny, bustling eatery in the near-in suburbs. Pieter-Dirk Uys is back in Johannesburg again, preparing for performances in May at the Theatre on the Square. The man has already been an institution for 40 years and somehow his humour, his energy and his moral outrage never seem to flag. Today is no exception. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
Speaking about his upcoming show, this time around, it seems a kind of theatrical interpretation of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – if the audience touches it, it changes. He explains that, traditionally, in his shows, he starts out wearing a jacket and trousers and ends up in a dress – a sly, sideways nod of recognition for one of his most enduring and best-loved stage characters – Evita Bezuidenhout. Evita is his alter ego, the former Ambassatrix to Bopetikosweti, who has, through all these years, spoken those uncomfortable, awkward truths to power in the most politically incorrect possible way.
But this time, Uys explains, the show is different. In was in an earlier version at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival last year, then it was performed in Cape Town, and now, finally, it is about to go on stage in Johannesburg. It is a risky project. Stacked on stage are 16 boxes. Each contains a different set of costumes and props while the accompanying stories and routines are locked away in Uys’s own fertile mind. As he describes the arrangement, he has three-and-a-half hours of show material potentially available on stage. But, it is up to the audience to decide which ones are picked and that he will perform – and in what order. Beyond picking the material, the audience is making Uys’s choices for him – and thus influencing how the show’s different elements will actually relate to each other for the 90 minutes he will perform each night. And each night will be different, depending on what the audience selects.
Then he explains how the name for this show came about. He was speaking on the telephone with someone at a theatre in Pretoria and he was having increasing difficulty getting his interlocutor to understand who was calling. The conversation began, “Hello, this is Pieter… P-I-E-T-E-R; Dirk… D-I-R-K; Uys…” “Eh? Who?” “Uys, U-Y-S…” And then from the other side slowly came: “Eish!” This simple bit of word play is truly funny when he tells it, but it is almost impossible to capture this precise delivery in print. It is a strange mix of crisp, lightly Afrikaans-accented English, a dash of RP, and more than a hint of an arched eyebrow and an eye rolled heavenward. To truly appreciate much of what Uys actually does with his voice and then render it in print would require a lexicon of diacritical marks for all of his many inflections, sustained phonemes and subtle pauses. Even Victor Borge’s audible phonetic punctuation wouldn’t be much help here.
We talk about how he achieves his characterisations. He explains that the face is important. When he does (or did) Margaret Thatcher, he sought what he called the lavatory face with its accompanying, extended vowels, a kind of “Ouuuwwwh!” Actually, he says, he prefers not to do actual current politicians. “I don’t want to come across as a second-hand Leon Schuster, he does that much better,” he says. Rather he likes to set out a more protean character, but one locked in a politically charged situation set up by the politicians. Having said that, he must surely realise, too, that his legions of fans still live for just one more repetition of PW Botha and his finger wag – even if the old “Groot Krokodil” has long since vanished from the political scene.
Uys adds that for him, doing current politicians means that “The red line of racism is close to the toe of my shoe. I have to be very careful not to cross that line.” And doing some scenes – and some people – as points of ridicule may well provoke the precisely wrong reaction on the part of people who have come to the theatre for the first time in their lives for his show.
The word “kaffir”, he says, is a particularly difficult word to deal with successfully – is a very fraught word for him. Yes, it fitted into a much older sketch with origins back in 1984 that portrayed an angry racist kicking and excoriating a black man on his bicycle. Now it has been updated, but the kicker in 2013 is that the racist has become the gardener for a black professional woman, a university professor. But the backdrop for the sketch is now more complicated. “I just don’t use that word in that sketch.” Pausing for a moment, Uys adds a verbal footnote. On the other hand, a word like that should be used so often that its power to hurt is drained right out of it. As a comic, a satirist and deliberate mirror to his society, the meaning and power of words remains central to his work and he wants to draw upon that power as a weapon against such words.
Speaking of symbols, he speaks about the DA’s appropriation of that still-politically potent old South African flag, with its orange, white and blue horizontal stripes, now married to the current ANC emblem as a weapon against the majority party by the DA. Uys is theatrically angry about this usage. Not solely because of what it means or says, but rather because he adds, “They’re using my material! We’ve really got to deflate that…. It plays into the racism of the other side…. Excuse me. I have had that in my show for several years already! I have just written a letter for the newspapers…. They either have to acknowledge it and pay me royalties – or stop using it.” Is he serious about this, or is it a clever way to take the sting out of yet one more artefact of the rough and tumble of politics? Or perhaps both?
On the other hand, he worries that “Racism is back and it is in the hands of the party I fought for and I am very upset about this…. Of course at least we have freedom of expression, but the day we are compromised we are in trouble…. The day he signs that [the secrecy bill] into law and I criticise the government, I have revealed a state secret.” That, in turn, provokes a recollection of the Apartheid-era Publications Control Board, Uys giggles for just a moment and says, “Ah yes, my old PR department…. But the thing I do worry about now in our democracy is self-censorship…. And I am coming across it everywhere.”
We turn to the decline in the quality of education in the country. Uys has been a strong advocate of high-quality schooling (and honest and thorough sex education) for years. But he says, now, “I’ve stopped being exasperated, it’s too exhausting…. But I still go to schools with my programmes, but it is no longer just about HIV/Aids.” He tells pupils, that yes, “Sex is nice, but it is like swimming in a sea full of sharks. Now let me tell you about the sharks…” He then remembers, that when he was at a school six months ago, he was speaking to the Grade 12 pupils, men really, and “they tell me, I don’t use a condom, I take a shower” – it’s that still-lingering echo of an infamous presidential statement and an excuse. “I laugh but the students are no longer so friendly as before.”
He shuffles around with some papers that have been sitting in front of him all this time and he says, “I have a novel – coming out next month, I’m very excited about it.” The book jacket blurb begins, “Panorama – Robben Island – right on the edge of the world like a full stop at the end of a long sentence called Africa” and the book begins in 1987.
Is he ever fearful he has been overtaken by events? He replies that he tries hard to imagine the worst possible things and then he is never surprised by anything because he has already imagined much, much worse than what actually is happening.
Is it time for some of Uys’s older characters to be retired? “Oh no, Evita has lots of time to go still before the retirement home, she’s gone to Luthuli House instead, which is almost the same thing.” We reminisce about his introduction of the Jacob Zuma puppet with the trademark showerhead during the previous national election. Uys explains that he now has a new puppet, a Julius Malema doll – the little child who was crying in an alley whom Evita has adopted. Uys warns not to write Julius Malema off just yet – because there is something there still. There is more about Malema in a few minutes.
As far as new characters and situations go, Uys says some characters have been with him for decades – and audiences have come to know them and watch how they have changed and evolved. And as far as the Mandela family’s troubles? Well, he has added a Mandela granddaughter. “Free Mandela from his family!” he says. And of Winnie? “She’s okay as long as she takes her medication…. And my new project for the election next year will be, ‘Nkandla – Don’t cry for me Nkandlakosweti!’”
Turning to the country’s actual political future, Uys says, “I see an Arab Spring.” He argues that if he were a young South African who votes for the first time next year, given the poor quality of their education and governance, he scowls and says, “I would take a stone…. I can’t tell you how perplexed I am by the generosity and patience of this generation so far. But do not underestimate their anger…. They really and truly want their dreams to come true. They are not interested in what their parents went through…. And that’s why I miss Malema because his voice was important to listen to from that side of the ANC. That fact that he did it wrong is not relevant, he focused on things that needed to be focused on.”
Even so, if we have a good election we’ll be fine for the next 10 years, he adds. Good? Good equals a strong turnout, a good of balance of choice, little racism in the campaigning and the DA focusing on all the areas of society that did fight Apartheid, not falling back on things like that snide use of the old flag. “That’s my job – not theirs!”
So who is leading by example right now? Uys says that Trevor Manuel is one (until he trips over his own halo), Lindiwe Sisulu is one, the minister of health is another, and Graca Machel is a great Southern African. He pauses at Mamphela Ramphele. He says that he just hopes she is doing a huge amount of work to build credibility with the people who matter. As for the larger shape of the country’s future politics, Uys says he actually hopes for a split in the ANC – that would help the country’s democracy mature, along with an alliance of the opposition parties.
The conversation turns to Jacob Zuma. Surely it must be hard to imitate him? We agree the best thing might just be to have a large stone on stage sitting on a chair – he, it, never says anything. Then he adds, “Of course I always like to think of him like a chameleon, with those eyes.” And as for the new fad of blaming everything on Apartheid? As one of Uys’ other characters, Bambi Kellerman, says, “That’s like blaming the mini skirt on Adolph Hitler!” But even after having said that, Uys adds a footnote that of course it is true with middle aged people and above that the emotional legacy of Apartheid lingers into the present. For example, he explains how at his Boerassic Park venue in Darling, there are some of those old racial segregation signs – Whites Only/Blacks Only – and the older generation continues to be flummoxed by them when they encounter them at the venue’s various doorways.
Thinking further about the country’s political shape, Uys adds with characteristic bluntness, “There was a moment when I thought the Malema-factor would split the party at Mangaung, but Zuma was brilliant… and he’s doing it the African way, he’s creating his own tribal homeland…. And if you cross him? Malema was bankrupted in a month. The rest of the Cabinet should have been bankrupted in four years and they’re still in their jobs. The majority of the voters are poor. They will be poorer still by the time of the election. If Malema formed his own party and called it the ‘real ANC’, he could be elected.” It could happen, he insists.
Are there things he won’t touch in his performances? “There are things I should do like religion. I’m courting the area but it is not what is dangerous for me, I don’t want to lose the audience. But there are ways of doing it.”
Then he tells a wonderful story about his father who was actually on the Apartheid-era’s censor board. Uys says that after a few weeks of doing this work, the elder Uys met up with his son and told him to make fun of the censors because they were idiots, they didn’t know what they’re doing, they were destroying the films they dealt with.
But then he offered still more advice. His father had been dismayed by some of the language Pieter-Dirk had been using on stage and so he told his son that he didn’t have to use all those words. Instead, he said, “Don’t put your finger in my eye, tickle me behind my ear and eventually my eye will find your finger.” Being on stage you have tremendous power, Uys explains.
Finally, returning to current politics, what about the DA’s efforts to expand its political heritage back 200 years and simultaneously airbrush out some of its history? Of all the unexpected comments, Uys proffers ex-party leader Tony Leon’s advice not to fight this coming election on the basis of the past. As far as the DA’s sudden embrace of Nelson Mandela, Uys says that of course he too embraces Mandela, “we all embrace Mandela”. But this must mean that Uys believes this is simply not enough to win the hearts of the born-frees.
As we wind up lunch, he notes he once learned that Madiba, when he was president, had on his desk a framed picture of the president embracing Evita in full costume. Now that’s something we’ll bet most readers didn’t know before reading this article. DM
Pieter-Dirk Uys is at the Theatre on the Square in Sandton from 6-25 May.
● Pieter-Dirk Uys, the man’s own website (contains comprehensive links to recent reviews of shows and other materials)
And for a look back, try two stories from around 10 years ago:
● Satirist of Apartheid Finds New Target at the New York Times
● Piano Returns To Berlin, Releasing Family Secret at the New York Times (about his family history, a family piano and his sister’s musical career)
Photo: Pieter-Dirk Uys (from the man’s own website)
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