Evita’s still prick­ing egos

Sunday Times - - Front Page - By JONATHAN ANCER

● Some peo­ple picked up Kalash­nikovs against apartheid; Pi­eter-Dirk Uys used a dif­fer­ent kind of weapon — hu­mour, which he aimed be­tween the eyes of the Afrikaner es­tab­lish­ment. He had a tan­nie-shaped nu­clear mis­sile in his arse­nal — Evita Bezuiden­hout. She was con­ceived in 1978 in a weekly, 100-word col­umn in the Sun­day Ex­press and came to life three years later in the show Adapt or Dye, which was “writ­ten, per­formed and di­rected by Uys in both of­fi­cial lan­guages and sexes”.

It was il­le­gal for a man to wear women’s cloth­ing at the time, so Uys de­cided to tick that box as well.

With huge hair, large ear­rings, thick red lip­stick, and eye­lashes that had their own postal code, Evita looked like a drag queen, but she has grad­u­ally trans­formed into a boere-chic su­per­star in­spired by Uys’s child­hood idol, Ital­ian heart-throb Sophia Loren. Evita’s leg­end keeps grow­ing; the for­mer am­bas­sador to the in­de­pen­dent home­land of Bapetikosweti is now the Duchess of Dar­ling, an exracist, ex-na­tion­al­ist, de­signer demo­crat gogo of three black chil­dren. Forty years later, Com­rade Evita re­mains the most fa­mous white woman in SA (eat your heart out, He­len Zille).

And that’s one of the rea­sons Uys’s rel­e­vance has en­dured: he keeps adapt­ing. For more than four decades, the now 73-year-old Uys has re­mained a sig­nif­i­cant force in South African satire, pok­ing fun at hypocrisy and laugh­ing at the fear.

The un­ex­pected ac­co­lades

I meet him in Evita se Per­ron, the Dar­ling sta­tion plat­form he trans­formed into a restau­rant-cum-cabaret venue in 1996. With the smell of syrupy koek­sis­ters, the gen­tle sounds of boere­lied­jies (“Bobbe­jaan klim die berg”), and walls crammed with colour­ful posters and por­traits of politi­cians from Ver­wo­erd to Madiba, it’s a feast for the senses.

On the wall above us is a photo of CR Swart, the coun­try’s first state pres­i­dent.

“When I was a boy he was my hero and I wrote to him,” Uys ex­plains. Swart replied and sent him the pro­gramme of the in­au­gu­ra­tion.

“I was a nor­mal Afrikaans kid. I lis­tened to all the pro­pa­ganda and be­lieved it. I had a photo of Ver­wo­erd on the wall. And then I dis­cov­ered Sophia Loren — her legs were bet­ter than his, so he came off the wall and she went on.”

Uys was re­cently named the re­cip­i­ent of the 2018 Life­time Achieve­ment Award at the Sa­vanna Comics’ Choice Awards, the high­est ac­co­lade for a South African co­me­dian. It’s the lat­est in a string of awards, in­clud­ing the 2012 FW de Klerk Good­will Award — named af­ter the same FW who once warned Uys he was not above the law.

“Isn’t it won­der­ful?” Uys gasps. He also gasped when he opened the news­pa­per re­cently and read that Evita had won the Hert­zog prize, which is the most pres­ti­gious prize in Afrikaans lit­er­a­ture.

“I thought, ‘Shame, she got it for her cook­book,’ ” says Uys. But it wasn’t for Evita, it was for Uys.

“They [the Afrikaans es­tab­lish­ment] gave it to me for the dra­mas they banned 40 years ago,” he laughs.

He didn’t find it funny then — at least, not at first. He felt like he had been ac­cused of mo­lest­ing the cul­ture. They banned his plays be­cause, they said, he was sow­ing dishar­mony among the races. Wasn’t that the whole point of apartheid?

“I de­cided to con­front them us­ing hu­mour as a weapon of mass dis­trac­tion. The cen­sor board taught me to fight fear with laugh­ter. If you’re fright­ened of some­thing, don’t look away: laugh. And that’s be­come the sub­ti­tle to my life.”

He set about lam­poon­ing Die Groot Krokodil, PW Botha, who, af­ter be­com­ing prime min­is­ter in 1978, told white South Africans to “adapt or die”, in­spir­ing Uys’s Adapt or Dye.

“We must adapt or die,” he says, scrunch­ing his face, wag­gling a finger and trans­form­ing into PW be­fore my eyes. Uys is a bril­liant mimic.

“These days I don’t need makeup to look like the old f**ker,” he sighs.

Dye­ing is the act of chang­ing colour, which didn’t go down too well at one of his shows last year, when a group of young ac­tivists staged a protest.

“They de­cided ‘Uys must fall’. They got up dur­ing the show and ac­cused me of be­ing racist.”

Uys ap­proached them af­ter­wards. “They told me I can’t do Zuma be­cause I’m a white, and he’s a black. I said I’m not do­ing a black, I’m do­ing a pres­i­dent who needs to be kicked in the bum.”

The pro­test­ers in­sisted it was racist. “I thought, oh, yes, I’ve been here be­fore with the apartheid govern­ment. Has any­one re­minded these young peo­ple of the word ‘act­ing’?”

‘Stop mak­ing me look fat’ — Evita

Pres­i­dents have al­ways been Uys’s su­per­stars. So, af­ter think­ing care­fully about what the pro­test­ers had said, he de­cided he couldn’t do Zuma, so he came up with a so­lu­tion. Now Uys im­per­son­ates PW Botha im­per­son­at­ing Zuma. “It’s so much bet­ter,” he says.

I ask Uys if any­one has ever told him he can’t por­tray a woman.

“Only Evita,” he says. “She is al­ways ask­ing for this ap­palling third-rate co­me­dian to stop mak­ing her look fat.”

And that’s an­other rea­son for his longevity: his hu­mour is sub­tle, de­liv­ered with a twin­kle in his eye and a ra­zor-sharp wit.

He be­comes se­ri­ous. “I didn’t want to make fun of women. When I do Evita, the women must recog­nise the woman and the men must for­get the man.”

From the mo­ment Evita ar­rived, she cap­tured the coun­try’s imag­i­na­tion. She was the Ev­ery Tan­nie, who could re­flect on apartheid’s ab­sur­di­ties and get away with say­ing things no-one else could.

“Evita is not a vi­cious per­son and she doesn’t have a sense of hu­mour or a sense of irony. She’s suc­cess­ful be­cause peo­ple recog­nise that naivety,” ex­plains Uys.

Evita’s cre­ator, on the other hand, has a wicked sense of hu­mour. When PW and his wife El­ize went over­seas on a tour, a news­pa­per pub­lished a pho­to­spread of Evita in an ar­ray of out­fits, with Evita say­ing she was join­ing the Bothas. The Bothas were fu­ri­ous. PW loathed her, but other apartheid cabi­net min­is­ters, such as Piet Koorn­hof and Pik Botha, had a sense of hu­mour.

“When we spread a ru­mour that Pik was hav­ing an af­fair with Evita, he started be­liev­ing it,” Uys said. “They had a fan­tas­tic re­la­tion­ship. They were SA’s El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor and Richard Bur­ton.”

Man­dela adored Evita. “He had so much fun with her. One of the most im­por­tant rea­sons for her ex­is­tence is that she made Madiba laugh.”

Even Thabo Mbeki, not known for his hu­mour, was a fan. Af­ter Evita lost Bapetikosweti, he con­sid­ered mak­ing her SA’s am­bas­sador to Bulgaria.

Dur­ing one of Evita’s shows, she an­nounced that Zuma, then deputy pres­i­dent, wanted her to be his Afrikaans wife. A few weeks later, Evita was do­ing a show when Mathews Phosa de­liv­ered a mes­sage that No 2 was look­ing for­ward to meet­ing his new bride.

With the Zuma re­al­ity, Uys re­alised there was only one place Evita could be — Luthuli House. Evita’s in the Luthuli House kitchen, cook­ing for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. “It’s the ideal place to put her be­cause, as we know, the peo­ple in the kitchen know ev­ery­thing that’s go­ing on. Ace Ma­gashule, David Mabuza and Jessie Duarte come into the kitchen to steal her koek­sis­ters … and then you know there is such a thing as state cap­ture, be­cause if you can steal a koek­sis­ter, you can steal a coun­try.”

Uys pauses. “There are many mo­ments you can weave in a taai klap [sting­ing blow].”

Peo­ple needed to laugh

With the con­tro­ver­sial Ma­gashule, the ANC’s sec­re­tary-gen­eral, there’s a good chance Uys will bring back two of his plays, Farce about Ace and Skat­ing on Thin Ace.

The fear is com­ing back, and Uys is armed.

“Fear has be­come a very suc­cess­ful weapon in the hands of a demo­crat­i­cally elected govern­ment and, once again, we need to laugh. There’s a new mine­field of hash­tags and hate speech, but we mustn’t go there — jour­nal­ism and satire will be neu­tralised by the peo­ple who don’t like what we’re say­ing, of which there are many.”

He has joined a group of co­me­di­ans op­pos­ing the govern­ment’s pro­posed Hate Speech Bill, ar­gu­ing that, though hate speech is not ac­cept­able, if the bill is passed it will make sweep­ing in­roads on free speech.

“Fight hate speech with love speech. Fight hate speech with ed­u­ca­tion and al­ter­na­tives. Fight hate speech through lead­ing by ex­am­ple. And let us all re­mem­ber: don’t press send when pissed,” he says.

Uys believes Evita was suc­cess­ful be­cause she ar­rived at a time in pol­i­tics when peo­ple re­ally needed to laugh. Uys ar­rived in Dar­ling at the right time too, just as he was about to turn 50. On the first Free­dom Day — April 27 1995 — he was mak­ing his way to McGre­gor when he landed in Dar­ling. “It’s like fly­ing from SA to China and end­ing up in Brazil,” he says.

Within half an hour of be­ing in the small Swart­land town he had fallen in love with a ram­shackle

Vic­to­rian house — and bought it. “How’s that for a men­strual mo­ment?” he asks.

Six months later, he was stand­ing on Dar­ling’s sta­tion plat­form and his synapses started to fire. “Per­ron is Afrikaans for ‘sta­tion plat­form’ and Evita Peron is that lady in Ar­gentina, and Evita Bezuiden­hout is in the boot of my car … I’m go­ing to turn this into a theatre. Ev­ery­thing just knocked on my door and wanted to come in.” Uys opened the door and Evita se Per­ron was es­tab­lished.

He re­calls get­ting ready for the first show. He changed into Evita at his house (his dogs didn’t recog­nise her and barked) and made his way to the stage, bump­ing into the NG Kerk con­gre­ga­tion that had just come out of church.

“The dom­i­nee came up to me and said, ‘Mevrou Bezuiden­hout, welkom in Dar­ling.’ The way the com­mu­nity — the very na­tion­al­ist Afrikaans com­mu­nity — ac­cepted me was won­der­ful. Dar­ling liked me com­ing and I liked it trap­ping me here. And it’s Dar­ling. Hello? I mean, puh­lease. ‘Where do you live?’ ‘In Dar­ling.’ ‘Yes, dar­ling, where?’ ‘In Dar­ling, dar­ling.’ ”

Fight hate speech with love speech. With ed­u­ca­tion and al­ter­na­tives. Through lead­ing by ex­am­ple

The dar­ling of Dar­ling

Evita has made her mark in the town. She’s the face of Dar­ling’s clas­sic tof­fees; she’s on the cover of the lo­cal magazine; and she’s a mas­sive tourist at­trac­tion. The long­est street in Dar­ling has been named Evita Bezuiden­hout Boule­vard (Zille hasn’t got a boule­vard).

Uys added Bo­eras­sic Park to the Per­ron, a mu­seum/nau­seam of re­cent his­tory with a col­lec­tion of po­lit­i­cally in­sen­si­tive sym­bols. There are more heads of Ver­wo­erd than you can shake a stick at.

“It’s not a mon­u­ment to apartheid, it’s a Dis­ney­land of hor­ror. You laugh at the k*k. It’s not about apartheid, but about the hypocrites who cre­ated it.”

He watched a fam­ily walk through and over­heard a girl ask her grand­mother, “Ouma, ‘Wat beteken ‘whites only’?”

“And then I heard this de­cent, civilised racist granny ex­plain some­thing she took for granted. That’s why it is here. Kids ask and par­ents must ex­plain. See­ing a black fa­ther, white mother and brown child stand in front of the ‘Whites Only’ sign is a big up-yours to apartheid.”

Uys, him­self, is in­volved in Dar­ling, hav­ing founded The Dar­ling Trust to em­power the town’s dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­nity. He’s al­ways been a com­mit­ted so­cial ac­tivist, and for decades has worked on voter ed­u­ca­tion and HIV/Aids aware­ness, us­ing hu­mour to con­front fear and stigma. He takes his show, For Facts Sake, to schools. “I love hear­ing the prin­ci­pals try­ing to in­tro­duce me at as­sem­bly. ‘We’re very proud to have Mr Uys here to tell us about his show For Fu… For Fuc… For Fack’s Sake’ — and the kids fall to pieces and then I’ve got them.”

And that’s an­other rea­son for his long-term suc­cess. Af­ter half a cen­tury in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, he still works at the same pace, pas­sion and in­ten­sity, writ­ing, di­rect­ing, pro­duc­ing and per­form­ing. He’s done more than 7,000 per­for­mances and count­ing; and his novel, Trekking to Teema, was SA’s first in­ter­net book ever.

“The recipe is com­plex and one has to keep throw­ing in dif­fer­ent spices to keep it fresh. I don’t call it work; it’s life. I am re­spon­si­ble for ev­ery­thing I do. If I do noth­ing, noth­ing will hap­pen. If I do some­thing, any­thing can hap­pen. Some peo­ple go to the gym, I go to the stage.”

● Tan­nie Evita Praat Kak­tus is on ev­ery Sun­day in Dar­ling, and he’s just recorded his 162nd episode of Evita’s Free Speech on YouTube. “The chal­lenge is that she doesn’t wear the same out­fit twice …”

Pic­tures: Ste­fan Hurter (main) and sup­plied

Pi­eter-Dirk Uys, left, at his home in Dar­ling, and as his prickly al­ter ego, Evita Bezuiden­hout, right.

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