You had to laugh, really

When apartheid fell, it was time for Pieter-Dirk Uys, South Africa's Dame Edna, to come up with a new act.
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The Independent Culture
Under the apartheid regime in South Africa, it was illegal for a man to dress up as a woman. Whenever stand-up satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys took to the stage as Mrs Evita Bezuidenhout, totem of verkrampte Afrikaaner values, he ran the risk of arrest by mean-looking cops with shades, military- style fatigues and snarling Alsatians. In fact, Uys's act landed him not in jail but in the position of being the most famous white woman in South Africa.

Known as the Godmother of the Nation, Evita danced the toyi-toyi with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in his garden, her picture adorned cell-walls in the country's most notorious prison on Robben Island and its most celebrated former inmate, Nelson Mandela, put a photograph of himself with Evita on his presidential desk. Wife of a Nationalist MP and ambassador to the homeland of Bapetikosweti, Evita sent up apartheid by being its most ludicrous advocate. She was a politicised Dame Edna Everage, kicking against apartheid pricks by embodying one herself.

Uys (pronounced "ace") took delicious - and brave - pleasure in baiting the apartheid bear to take a swipe at him. According to her creator, Evita "went into politicians' underpants and played with their balls". With her own television series and books, she could get away with things Uys would have been jailed for even thinking. Tucking into beer and steak in Berlin, he recalls Evita making a comparison on stage between apartheid and the Final Solution that he would never have dared utter. He is not exactly an exponent of cosy "knock-knock" comedy.

Uys's creations always flirt with tastelessness. "People used to say to me, 'How can you make jokes about apartheid?'," he muses, "but there were no jokes about apartheid. There were only jokes about the sort of people who said, 'There are two things I hate about South Africa - apartheid and the blacks'.

"The great weapon is humour," he continues. "If you fight anger with humour, you can make a very interesting cocktail. Jani Allen did the greatest thing when she produced Eugene Terreblanche's green, holey underpants in court. He was never effective after that."

Dressed in a black woolly jumper and matching hat, Uys is reluctant to provide an assessment of his own political influence; all he will say is that "under apartheid, I could take my own fear and put it on stage. When you laugh at the absurdity of racism, you make fear less fearful. I said to myself, 'let them lock Evita up and see what happens.' I did an interview as myself with the Morning Star in Britain in the mid-1980s - anything Communist was totally anathema in South Africa. Then I sent a letter with Evita's letterhead to the Minister of Police saying, 'Look, this Uys is a Communist, lock him up'. He wrote back saying, 'We have decided not to lock him up because the jails are full'. I was disappointed because it showed the bastard had a sense of humour."

Uys needed a sense of humour himself as the authorities tried to destroy him. He was spied on by the City Council of Johannesburg as a potential "subversive", and when he announced plans to write Evita's biography, a growlingly unambiguous message was left on his ansaphone: "Drop Evita Bezuidenhout or we'll kill you!" Uys was forced to check out emergency escape-routes in the halls he played, and he once discovered the bolts removed from the front-wheel of his car. "The fact that they didn't succeed in assassinating me shows how bad they were at their job," he laughs. "They couldn't even run a terrible system properly. Nothing came out of apartheid; it was a freeze-frame of death for 40 years."

Even at the height of his anti-Thatcher ranting, Ben Elton was never the target of political killers. Comedy - like everything else - was a deadly serious business in apartheid South Africa. "Apartheid made everything political," Uys avers. "Sex was political because whites and blacks couldn't do it. Food was political because only whites could eat properly... But politics on its own is deadly dull, and entertainment on its own is deadly irrelevant. My aim was to find an interesting overlap."

After a decade, disaster struck for Uys. Apartheid was dismantled - and so, at a stroke - was the satirist's armoury. What does a comic archer do when all his arrows have been snapped? "Now the people in charge are the good guys. How do you despise politicians who bring the moral high ground with them, like mud on the shoes of the prophet?" he asks.

"When Pretoria-stroika struck," he recalls, "I saw on the seven o'clock news that PW Botha had resigned and I thought, 'You bastard. I'm doing you in my show. Don't do this to me.' It was like The Debbie Reynolds Show without Debbie Reynolds. Since 1985, wherever I'd performed, the audience had come in with all the answers: free Mandela, get rid of apartheid. Now there were no more answers. There were only questions - what's going to happen after Mandela?"

A vivacious 51-year-old with thinning grey hair and twinkly eyes behind half-moon glasses, Uys had a year's break from performing to take stock after Mandela came to power. "I didn't want to bad-mouth the government I'd voted for. I just waited for them to make arseholes of themselves. And they didn't let me down. Politicians are like monkeys - the higher they climb, the more of their arses we can see."

He hit on the idea of performing Truth Omissions!, his own version of the Truth Commission, the panel chaired by Tutu that is shining a torch into the murkier corners of the apartheid regime. "Nothing's funny about it," Uys concedes, "but my Omissions are about who gave the orders. Everybody says they were only following orders. But why is PW Botha sitting comfortably at home on a double state pension? It's important to expose the hypocrisy that says nobody played any part in apartheid. Evita epitomises that. She says she didn't know about apartheid until she read about it on a T-shirt in London."

Reviews for Truth Omissions! in South Africa have been favourable - one said: "We need Pieter-Dirk Uys to poke us in our collective ribs. Perhaps even more than a Truth Commission." But Uys has received critical approbation from a higher source even than journalists. Tutu came backstage to congratulate Uys, who does a wicked impersonation of the great man.

So the perennial outsider has finally been admitted into the inner sanctum of political respectability. But now he's inside the tent, you can be sure he'll continue to urinate with gusto out of it. "I was born a political irritation," Uys asserts. "A rash on the bum of South Africa. I'm delighted to meet people who don't like what I do - that's democracy."

n Pieter-Dirk Uys's 'Truth Omissions!' is at the Tricycle Theatre, London, NW6 from Monday 10 to 29 June. Booking: 0171 328 1000

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