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Speaking Through an Interpreter

Robyn Sassen

Pieter-Dirk Uys and his Mbeki puppet poke South African leadership in its tender spots.

It seems that South Africa's most famous woman ambassador — who doesn't actually exist — is making ripples all over the world. The man behind this Evita Bezuidenhout-like puppet, Pieter-Dirk Uys (pronounced "Ace") is a talent of unquestionable integrity and sophisticated wit. Indeed, he and his puppet have a firm and tenacious grip on the ridiculousness of the ongoing status quo in South Africa.

Born nearly 60 years ago, a white gay Afrikaner in a racist, homophobic land where hatred was legally sanctioned, Uys had a lot of issues to work through while developing into an adult with integrity. The child of an Afrikaans father and a German Jewish mother, he's quipped in his autobiography that he belongs to two chosen peoples (Elections and Erections: A memoir of Fear and Fun, Zebra 2002. Since reaching maturity he's been banned, he's been threatened, he's had the finger of officialdom wagged at him, — but he has yet to be silenced. "They could have put me up against a wall and shot me", he commented, regarding the regime of apartheid that he mocked so overtly for so long, in an interview for the New York Times (2003).

The The New York Times offered a story of trouble brewing between Uys and our current State President, Thabo Mbeki. The article was a preamble to Uys's recently written play Foreign Aids, presenting an Aids-awareness shtick to thousands of schoolchildren all over the country, which he took to the world after developing it in South Africa. This play, which was cushioned in the drag-lampooning style for which Uys has become known, had a hard-hitting core . It deals very directly with AIDS awareness and our president's notorious and public pussyfooting around the issue in apparent avoidance of the crisis. A vignette is cast in Elections and Erections:

". . . as the days go by are Nelson Mandela's footsteps getting larger, while Thabo's are getting smaller?"
"What is killing us? TB? Colds? . . . The urban legends multiply and find fertile ground in townships and ghettoes, around dinner tables and in coffee shops. While the mutter of malice and concern mists up the clarity of daily life . . . the virus gallops into the sunset of another life. And we are all frightened to death!"
"We hoped Thabo would carry the flame of awareness and care. We were wrong. I don't even think he knows what that red ribbon (he wears) signifies."

Mbeki was not amused.

During the height of apartheid, when the thought of Mbeki obtaining presidency was an impossible dream for most, Uys became "court jester" to the apartheid government. In doing so, he took what may be seen to be the path of least resistance, but it was a position which privileged him with being able to thumb his nose and pull other rude tricks directly at the government: to their very faces, in fact.

It was only after apartheid's demise that he was truly able to perform before their faces: he took his material to parliament itself, at the House of Assembly, 10 February 1999. "Doing it here . . . where the apartheid era was born and ended was perfect," he remembers in Elections and Erections, "Here in the sacred place of former enemies, I was crapping on their carpet and asking for toilet paper! It was outrageous!"

His one-man — or rather, one "woman" show — offered the floor to Uys's primary alter-ego, Mrs. Evita Bezuidenhout, the ambassador of a fantasy black homeland somewhere in southern Africa, called Bapetikosweti, during High Apartheid. Evita was modelled on many a feminist icon, including Evita Peron and Sophie Loren. She was also moulded on the stereotypical Afrikaans privileged madam, for whom apartheid was basically too good to be true. So Evita became an amalgam of female elegance, shrinking violet femininity, prudishness — and rousing political awareness. Thus, she became a social pivot to which so many previously hostile audience members warmed — many of them, not fully understanding that this is indeed the offensive political clown Uys himself, just all dolled up with false eyelashes and other false yet convincing things.

Like a prototype, the character of Evita remained pure, but her idiosyncrasies developed into minor characters — also over-the-top in their political ideological values, dress codes and posturing — but individuals who represented powerful back- ups or contradictions to Evita, which challenged and strengthened her iconic role. These included Bambi Kellerman, sister of Evita and widow to a Nazi general (turned prostitute in her widowhood); Evita's black bonnet bedecked elderly mother, Ouma Ossewania Poggenpoel, still moored deep in the 19th century and all its racist values, and Evita's sons; one, De Kock Bezuidenhout, outrageously gay, and the other, Izan Bezuidenhout outrageously homophobic and fascist in temperament.

When apartheid was rife during the 1980s and early 1990s, the repartee Uys specialised in was bitter, biting, black humour, all wrapped up and softened in broekie (panty) lace. To its predominantly white, upper to middle class, politically central and generally wildly homophobic audiences, this act somehow palatably spoke anti-apartheid, anti-government, pro-democracy. The broekie lace cobbled the sweet talk with the anti-government sentiments so cleverly that the words that spewed from Evita reduced the fear of the average (black and white) man or woman of the apartheid regime, to laughter. Even the political leaders of the time laughed.

Thus, Uys wormed his way into the hearts of many South Africans and made them look at the picture of the political status quo from a different perspective. Through Evita's utterances, the pill was less bitter to swallow. Apartheid stuck in the craw of all thinking people, and immorality amongst the apartheid leaders was a reality split wide open for all to see. From a formal education in drama, an activist had emerged with a unique talent, and he had the chutzpah to really change people's minds and make them think about givens.

Then apartheid tumbled, and with the politicians unconsciously still writing his scripts, Uys, more often than not from under his Evita wig, continued to find the loopholes in the system, and to expose the loopiness for what it was. "Towards the middle and end of the 1990s", Uys recalls in Elections and Erections, ". . . Nelson Mandela was in charge, and so all was well. The exploding bubble of violence and the loud cacophony of suburban burglar alarms and barking Rottweilers became part of the soundtrack in our African democracy . . . The tables were not turned, just stacked." His plays, including You ANC Nothing Yet, Truth Omissions, Europeans Only and Dekaffirnated played on the political nuances that were growing out of this transition.

Post-apartheid, Uys developed two agendas. The first was democracy in all its different garbs and pretences, and the second, the scourge of AIDS.

Voter education was something that was embarked upon with enthusiasm in South Africa in 1994, but then things waned and dulled. A million houses in five years was promised for the homeless, in those gloriously optimistic years of infantile democracy when everything seemed possible. A couple of years later, it wasn't clear whether government really meant was that it would provide five houses in a million years. To this day, housing remains a crisis, and illegal squatting and the indignity of informal settlements an enduring reality.

Uys, or rather Evita, developed a plan to motivate for an election train to serve as a travelling platform prior to our second democratic election in 1999. With Tannie (auntie) Evita as its engineer, a voter awareness and education message was developed to encourage the people to vote. The travelling show was about "edutaining" people in far flung areas —: the ostensibly scary, dangerous, over populated townships and the rural establishments — with the understanding that people in these places must be made to realize how they can contribute to the democratic reality of South Africa. On paper the plan was brilliant. Duly submitted to the governmental authorities sanctioning the election, this proposal to stir the populace with a lace hanky seduced the whole lot of them. (So government authorities were encouraging disenfranchised blacks to vote? Really? Yup! It was a new government. Democracy was in!)

Everyone wanted a piece of this idea, and a place on the train, so that they might strut their own party political message. Unfortunately, due to expenses, no one got a piece, and the train never got rolling. You must understand that the election officials do not wish to "rough" it while they're out and about. So Uys decided to go it solo, via minibus.

The 1999 election was smaller in enthusiasm than that of 1994, but the ripple left by Uys, it seems, was not inconsequential. Of his experience Ulys says, "Don't underestimate the passion out there. Don't imagine that people view politicians as anything other than servants of the voters. And don't think they will vote out of habit or fear. They will vote because they want to!"

In 1999, our president fairly and squarely became Thabo Mbeki: a pipe-smoking, suit wearing, academic who had, relatively early on in the game, set the tone by wearing the red ribbon of AIDS awareness, while pontificating what he deemed the "non-relationship between HIV and AIDS" (hence, the previous mention of the "red ribbon"). Naturally, this flummoxed international and local media, to say nothing of those who were testing positive. Sadly, it enforced already cross-eyed policies surrounding AIDS education, such as the governmental withholding of retroviral drugs and a patent lack of general educational openness. It incensed Uys.

Packing Evita again into the boot of his car, Uys embarked on another, potentially more direct campaign, this time, with a focus on the children. And from high school to high school, in the most trying of circumstances — under difficulty imposed by weather and language, by closed grownup minds and likewise indoctrinated kids — he developed his shtick. His eyes were opened to the knowledge and the ignorance of young urban and rural township kids with regard to unprotected sex, and its repercussions. To get his message across, his presentation went lower and lower beneath the belt: and this is what kids responded to.

"Children . . . today we are going to talk about the facts of life. I'm going to tell you about the birds and the bees'. The township kids laughed. They'd also heard about the birds and the bees that lived in the First World. Here some of them were raped at the age of five. 'The birds and the bees?' I shrugged. 'I've never worked that out. How does a bird fuck a bee!' Fuck! The word was out! I'd passed the test to join the gang! Not a new word by any means, but certainly the last one they'd expected today! It suddenly made us the same age and we spoke the same taal (language)." — Elections and Erections

The term, sexual intercourse doesn't hold meaning to a teenager growing up with a very casual mix of already bastardised languages and an extensive sexual repertoire . Uys used the word naai when speaking to the teens.(naai is the only correct Afrikaans word for the verb to fuck). It's an expletive that sent most conservative Afrikaners running for cover because it's so rude. But hey, Uys was just doing his job in the most effective manner he could think of.

But the plot thickens. South Africa is on the brink of another election, which is scheduled to take place on 14 April 2004. This is a biggie: it's our 10th year of democracy. Uys is staging a new play that will premier in South Africa at the time of the elections. Called The End is Naai this play echoes the pattern cast by his previous one-man performances, but it embraces all the experiences, both AIDS and democracy related, that Uys has weathered over the past few years.

Obviously he courts a certain level of danger: but not a danger of the banning or censorship sort. Our new Constitution contains many references to freedom — of speech, of association, from unfair discrimination on grounds of race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth — the whole shoot 'n' shebang, in fact. In our constitution now, "everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected" (Act 108 of 1996). So the danger that Uys courts these days is more about allowing issues to remain fallow, by not addressing them sufficiently bluntly. If he thins the notion of using rude words in talking about AIDS to children, or shies from calling a spade a spade, his message will lose its power and his tongue its edge. South Africa's most famous woman ambassador, who doesn't actually exist, has a vocabulary and a wardrobe that has become endemic to South Africans' growing self-awareness, self-critical faculties and the idioms in which we speak and understand ourselves.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu responded, upon Uys's impersonation of him during the 1990s, "You're so naughty, it's nice. But you still don't have enough rings on your fingers!"

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