UYS OF HEARTS
Evita’s still pricking egos
● 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 …”
Pieter-Dirk Uys, left, at his home in Darling, and as his prickly alter ego, Evita Bezuidenhout, right.