Satirist beholds paradoxes of life after apartheid with eyeliner, gimlet eye
Pieter-Dirk Uys, South Africa\'s best-known political satirist, performs as the character Evita Bezuidenhout at his theater in Darling, South Africa. (Karin Retief/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
DARLING, South Africa -- Evita Bezuidenhout, South Africa's grand dame, sweeps into the room in a purple African mumu, her scarlet fingernails clutched around a clear plastic bag holding a gold-sequined purse and Nelson Mandela's autobiography.
"Just back from London!" she coos to the audience. Then, settling herself into her on-stage parlor, complete with a bust of apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd fashioned into a lamp -- "He who gave us darkness will now give us light," she quips -- she proceeds to chat about Fidel Castro's health, the accomplishments of her mixed-race grandchildren and her job making koeksisters, a syrupy Afrikaans pastry, for the ruling African National Congress.
Evita is perhaps South Africa's most famous white woman, a talkative eccentric aunt and former politician who has interviewed Nelson Mandela on live television, addressed parliament and for nearly 30 years been a kind of gracious, if sometimes biting, national conscience.
That she doesn't actually exist, except as an alter-ego of famed satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys, hasn't been a handicap. In 2000, when organizers of the U.S.-based Living Legacy Awards for outstanding women notified Evita that she'd been selected as one of that year's recipients, Uys had to call them back.
"I said, `Thank you so much. This is great. But do you know Evita Bezuidenhout doesn't exist?'" the bald 60-year-old humorist said. "There was a long pause, then the woman gave a big laugh and said, `You don't have to exist to be a legend.'"
Uys -- and Evita -- got their start in the 1970s as playwrights in South Africa struggled with apartheid limitations. Faced with censors that frequently banned his plays or cut his scripts, Uys, a young theater graduate, settled instead on doing scriptless one-man shows, and Evita, the outspoken wife of a National Party parliament member, was soon born, first as the fictional author of a newspaper column and then as one of his central characters.
Censors, not sure what to make of a well-coifed Afrikaans lady who fried traditional koeksisters and served as ambassador to the fictional black homeland of Bapitikosweti as well as lambasting apartheid leaders, let her speak, seeing her in some way as one of their own. Nearly 30 years later she's still jabbing errant politicians, black and white, with a guileless style that makes her hard to dislike, not least because she's honest.
"The secret of Evita's success is she has no sense of humor at all, no irony," Uys said. "She gets away with things I could not."
Post-apartheid South Africa, in the eyes of both Evita and Uys -- whose name is pronounced Ace -- is a remarkable success, if a sometimes frustrating and puzzling place. More than a decade after the end of apartheid, Evita has a black son-in-law, a son who is HIV-positive and a job in the kitchen of the Native Club, a new and controversial blacks-only social club for South Africa's nouveau riche.
She laments that in a country with 11 official languages, effectively warning neighbors about your vicious dog means putting up a sign so big that "the sign becomes the gate." And she frets for President Thabo Mbeki who, unlike many of his ANC colleagues, never served jail time in the apartheid years. In a country where "you first go to jail, then you do politics, not the other way around," he's never quite fit in, she says.
But if "the apartheid era was cancer" South Africa's current woes are simply "a heavy chest cold," Uys insists. "We knew apartheid could only end in a holocaust. That it didn't is still the most extraordinary thing in the world."
The glaring exception to his optimism is AIDS. Uys, who is gay and figures he missed getting the deadly virus in its early days purely by luck, is infuriated that in a country where 5.5 million people carry the virus and nearly a thousand a day die of it, the government still has a health minister who promotes a diet of garlic, beets and African potatoes instead of anti-retroviral AIDS treatment drugs, and a president who sows confusion by questioning whether HIV infection causes AIDS.
"We have a 9-11 situation in this country every three days. Almost 3,000 people die every three days. And not one of them needs to die," he said. On stage, he sometimes ends shows by dressing as P.W. Botha, South Africa's last apartheid strongman president, and congratulating Mbeki -- a ventriloquist's dummy sitting on his knee -- for having killed more blacks than the apartheid regime.
Fed up with the government's dithering on AIDS, Uys since 2000 has put on nearly a thousand one-man shows in schools across South Africa, doing, he says, "what parents and the government should be doing."
In a nation where many people remain embarrassed to talk about sex with their children, Uys carries a banana and a condom into classrooms and talks frankly about anal sex, rape, condoms, AIDS and how to avoid getting the virus. Parents and teachers often blanch, but kids who saw his first AIDS shows years ago, many of them now grown up, write him letters saying that thanks to him "I'm still alive."
Uys is "very generous and very outspoken about things he believes in," said Barrak Alzaid, a Northwestern University student who spent last summer watching and working with the humorist as part of an undergraduate thesis. "His work always speaks to South Africans."
For the last 11 years, the balding comic icon has made his home -- and done most of his shows -- in Darling, a tiny village an hour's drive north of Cape Town, his hometown. He spotted the town, and the old train station that has become his theater, after taking a wrong turn on a weekend drive.
"It was definitely meant to be," he said, not least because Evita can now tell friends, "I'm in Darling, darling."
The theater's grounds include what Uys terms a "nauseum" -- a collection of old apartheid-era memorabilia teamed with congratulatory letters from luminaries like Winnie Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu -- and Boerassic Park, a tribute to the absurdities of apartheid that includes, among other things, a statue of white supremacist Eugene Terre'Blanche falling off his horse and an old Ford Fairlane in which Evita's late husband was once purportedly caught in a violation of the Immorality Act with a Swazi waitress.
Publicly, Uys and Evita have a thorny relationship. "She's not a fan of mine," he says. Evita often refers to him as a "third-rate comedian" and dismisses the letters of criticism he's prone to fire off to politicians like Mbeki as impolite. In a pre-taped obituary for Uys, Evita decries his crudeness and bad language.
"We gave him freedom of speech and he used it to attack us," she says disapprovingly. "But at least he had nice legs."
Evita almost certainly will outlive her creator, a prospect that delights Uys. Some South African schools are considering using her biography, "A Part Hate A Part Love," as a vehicle for teaching apartheid history, and her perfume, Jeau Mour -- which sounds suspiciously like "up yours" in Afrikaans -- fills department store shelves. For someone who never existed, she has become remarkably real.
© 2006, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.