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SA laughs all the way to the ballot box

"WHY DO all South Africans need bar-coded identity books? Nelson Mandela is sentimental. He was behind bars for 27 years. Now he wants everyone to have bars in their books."

In a five-week, stand-up roadshow, Evita Bezuidenhout, the drag queen persona of Afrikaner comedian Pieter-Dirk Uys, is putting smiles on South African faces ahead of the country's second democratic elections on 2 June. It is hard: democracy was more fun in 1994, when the country's most prominent political prisoner became president, a pariah state became a "rainbow nation" and, as Evita said, South Africa got a Y-front beach towel for a national flag.

This time there is political violence to control and real issues, such as housing, education, health care and crime, to address. Not to mention the tedious business of voter registration, with its obligatory bar codes.

"I am so pleased to see you all here tonight," says the overweight, overdone Evita, on stage at Johannesburg City Hall. "Two million other people were too scared to come in case their cars were stolen." You can't accuse her of not confronting the issues. "Have you all registered to vote?" she asks the racially mixed audience. "I know registration involves standing in a queue, and the white people have been getting whiter from standing in line. But black people stood in a queue for 360 years, and just look at how nice and smiling they became."

Before 1994, Evita was South Africa's (frequently banned) ambassador to the fictitious homeland of Bapetikosweti. Now a humorous feature of the New South Africa, the "godmother of the nation" appears with a sidekick, Basil Appollis, an "affirmative white" (mixed race) comedian who, she claims, "grew up in my kitchen, where his auntie was my cook".

The idea of Evita's Ballot Bus is to counter voter apathy. Despite a registration drive which has signed up 70 per cent of the country's estimated 22.8 million electorate, fewer people may vote this time because they know the ANC will win and Thabo Mbeki will replace President Mandela.

"If the ANC get the two-thirds majority they are after, we are back to the one-party state," says Evita, who, as part of her indabas (meetings), allows representatives of political groups 90 seconds to outline their programmes, then takes questions from the audience.

Of the 41 parties fighting the forthcoming election, seven turned up at Johannesburg City Hall last week, including the main players but also Kiss (slash tax to make the rand strong) and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance ("Isn't that a contradiction in terms?" asks Evita).

The election will not contain many laughs. Last week five ANC and United Democratic Movement activists were murdered in Western Cape townships, and rivalry between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party frequently flares in KwaZulu-Natal. But Evita's weapon is laughter and her message to this country of 11 official languages is "vote, vouta, khatha, stem, tlhopha, kgetha".