Culture : Grinning Through Apartheid : Pieter-Dirk Uys is South Africa’s equal opportunity satirist. He pokes fun at blacks as well as whites.
For more than a decade, satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys left audiences in stitches and the censors in knots with his merciless parodies of the thick-accented white leaders of South Africa. But he always knew that his favorite punching bag might disappear if the government ever freed Nelson Mandela, promised to dismantle apartheid and began to shed its jackboot image.
Well, that day has arrived, and Uys is still on the stage. He continues to lampoon the government, questioning its sincerity. Only now he’s added a few new characters to his act.
“Oh my gaaaawd,” sighs Uys, playing Winnie Mandela with a black wig and a long whip. “I am so exhausted . . . contradicting my husband.”
Uys, who virtually created anti-apartheid satire in South Africa, hasn’t switched allegiances. But he isn’t taking sides anymore. And everyone, from the political right to the left, has become fair game.
Amid the breathtaking political change in South Africa, Uys (pronounced Ace) has quietly launched a cultural revolution. His new one-man revue is expanding the limits of contemporary political humor, for the first time winning laughs at the expense of the black leaders seeking political power as well as the whites who already have it.
“It’s no longer so easy to tell the good guys from the bad,” Uys explains. “Everyone is a gray character.” And judging by the ovations he has received from multiracial audiences at the Market Theater in Johannesburg on the first leg of his national tour, many South Africans agree.
Uys’ show has arrived in the midst of a growing debate in anti-apartheid circles over artistic freedom in the “New South Africa.” Mandela’s African National Congress, with its “cultural officers” and international blacklist, has long had a powerful influence over who performs in South Africa. And some artists fear that their freedom--to criticize those in power, for example--would be curtailed under an ANC-controlled government.
Satire, relegated almost exclusively to the stage, has had a small but important role in transforming South African society, helping blacks and liberal whites survive the turbulent 1980s by laughing at the government. And Uys, for years a lonely satiric voice, hopes his new show will help preserve a place for political humor in the future.
Satire as a cultural force already has been extinguished by thin-skinned, autocratic leaders elsewhere in Africa, and Uys doesn’t want to simply replace white censorship in South Africa with black censorship.
“Satire is a tradition that mustn’t stop,” Uys said in an interview. “I don’t want to have to pack my bags one day because these people (the ANC and other black leaders) can’t take a joke.”
His show is called “A Kiss on Your Koeksister,” named for the gooey pastry that is a traditional dessert of the ruling Afrikaners, descendants of the first white settlers.
“Koeksister” is set at a fund-raising bazaar for the newly reformist National Party of President Frederik W. de Klerk, and Uys plays a cast of characters that spans the spectrum from a right-wing white security guard to a tough-talking Winnie Mandela. (So far, Nelson Mandela is absent.)
De Klerk, as played by Uys, is a clown who hypnotizes white voters to accept his reforms and tricks the black majority into believing the reforms are irreversible.
The star of the show is a fictional character named Evita Bezuidenhout, whom Uys plays in a wig and dress, with large earrings and red lipstick.
Evita is the South African ambassador to the make-believe black homeland of “Bapetikosweti” and an unabashed National Party supporter. Through the honeyed mouth of Evita, his most famous character, Uys has over the years bitingly exposed the hypocrisy of South Africa’s white leaders.
But in the new show, Evita manages to skewer both the government and the black liberation movement.
She welcomes “Pretoriastroika,” for example, which she helpfully defines as “the Afrikaans word for the Russian word meaning ‘April fool.’ ” And to show how liberal she’s become in the new South Africa, she says that “some of my best friends . . . now have black friends.”
Evita gushes that “Nelson is a wonderful man.” And although Mandela still calls for sanctions against South Africa, she observes, “Nelson is still big enough to accept a free motorcar from Mercedes-Benz, the one company that ignored sanctions for 20 years.” That just shows, she adds, “how quickly Nelson has become a South African politician.”
Uys, the 45-year-old son of an Afrikaner father and a German-Jewish mother, began his career as a playwright, but four of his early plays were banned by the censors. “I realized then that they couldn’t take a joke, and that’s when I began thinking about comedy,” Uys said.
His first satirical reviews relentlessly targeted former President Pieter W. Botha, and Uys altered his performances nightly to make it difficult for them to be banned by the censors.
When Uys began work on his new show late last year, the country was on the verge of change. But Uys wasn’t convinced and, while he considers De Klerk to be a reasonable man, he still doubts the government’s intentions.
“This government mustn’t suddenly come to me and act like Mother Teresa,” Uys said. “I must lift up their skirts and show that they’ve got a pointy tail underneath there. You can’t trust these guys who’ve been doing this to us for 42 years.”
But he hopes that he makes everyone a little bit uncomfortable. “I don’t think anyone can walk out of my show proud to be a South African,” Uys said. “Everybody must walk out with a slight bloodstain somewhere. Everybody must have a moment of pain.”
Uys has drawn generally positive reviews from the critics and predominantly white audiences for the new show. (So far, Uys says, neither Mandela nor his wife have seen it.)
“He really takes a swipe at all of us,” said Belede Mazwai, a black mother of three from Soweto. “For me it is ultimately a very tragic satire . . . for the fact that all the things he’s saying are true.”
Robert Grieg, reviewing the show in the newspaper Business Day, said it was “laudably colorblind. National (Party members) generally are portrayed as people who give a fair imitation of dyslexics reading the writing on the wall, and ANC leaders as dyslexics inscribing graffiti on that wall.”
Uys has even won a few converts among once-critical Afrikaners. Ruvan Boshoff, in a column in the Star newspaper, said he disliked Uys’ previous work, which he saw as an attempt to ridicule Afrikaners for “the benefit of upper-class English audiences.” Now, Boshoff said, “he aims his shots at every point of the compass.”
But Mark Gevisser, writing in the anti-apartheid Weekly Mail, said he thinks Uys’ sketches give whites an opportunity to laugh at racist jokes--and pretend they aren’t racists themselves. “Half-hearted justifications like, ‘Well, he makes fun of everybody,’ do not mask that naked truth about his craft,” Gevisser said.
Uys has long been a friend of the anti-apartheid movement and says he’s an ardent admirer of Nelson Mandela. Back in 1987, Winnie Mandela sent Uys a photograph of herself with the message: “When you do me, make me look like this.”
When her character became part of his act a few months ago, he complied. But he also gave her character a whip. Winnie Mandela faces charges of kidnaping and assault in connection with the death of a 14-year-old black activist.
Uys says he was at first reluctant to portray Winnie Mandela, but he changed his mind when the ANC appointed her head of its social welfare department. “Winnie is a politician and every politician is fair game, I’m afraid,” Uys said. “If she’d stuck to being a wife and mother, I wouldn’t have had problems with her. I don’t do wives and mothers.”
Evita Bezuidenhout, for one, is delighted that Winnie Mandela is making an appearance in “A Kiss on Your Koeksister.”
And, Evita promises the audience, Winnie “is going to come out and show us how to discipline a 14-year-old boy without spilling your martini.”