South African Elections: Evita lives on to send up new regime: Raymond Whitaker meets the satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys and his 'chorus line' in Cape Town
Saturday 30 April 1994
The Independent Electoral Commission? 'I think they're doing wonderfully for a Third World organisation,' she coos. The new flag? 'How nice to have a Y-front beach towel]' What about the election result? 'If the left gets in, nothing will be right,' she predicts. 'If the right gets in, nothing will be left.' The audience at Cape Town's Dock Road theatre roars appreciatively.
Evita is the most famous creation of South Africa's leading satirist, Pieter-Dirk Uys, whose show, One Man One Volt, was pulled off television screens by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) on Sunday, 90 minutes before it was due to go out. The corporation said it had done so on legal advice, claiming that it might be seen as an attempt to influence voters. Uys, sitting in the theatre's cafe-bar before his performance, sees the cancellation as a reversion to old habits of censorship.
'The biggest insult was replacing me with Barry Manilow,' he says. He has refused to make changes sought by the SABC, which wants him to drop his final sketch - a savage monologue in which a Coloured (mixed-race) woman keeps denying she is a racist, while laying into Jews, the Portuguese and especially blacks. He doubts whether the show will ever be broadcast.
A short while later he is on stage with his 'chorus line' of imaginary characters and impressions. They include the Queen, who congratulates South Africa on its 'free and fair fraud', a Tory MP who puts a plastic bag over his head and emerges as Baroness Thatcher, and Nelson Mandela, who suggests that right-wingers' demands for an Afrikaner homeland and King Goodwill Zwelethini's desire for Zulu sovereignty should be solved by a time-share in Natal.
These are difficult times for satirists. Half the show has to be rewritten every night, and Uys says both Mr Mandela and President F W de Klerk are 'bloody hard' to capture.
Mr de Klerk is 'such a lawyer, he has no verbal mannerisms'. As for the ANC leader, 'How do you do a saint? It's like trying to do Mother Teresa - you put a tea-towel on your head and then what?' Uys has found the voice but not the look, so he performs his Mandela skit with his back to the audience.
The comic finds his edge blunted by his admiration for both men, and his excitement at what they have achieved. During the show he keeps breaking out of character to comment on South Africa's 'miracle'. Winnie Mandela is an easier target ('Come on baby, light my tyre'), and Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi are 'absolute gifts'.
But he refuses to do the right-wing militarist, Eugene Terre-Blanche, 'a third-rate loser who can't even draw a swastika properly. They should turn Robben Island into a Boerassic Park for him and his followers'.
Uys, a 'Jewish Afrikaner', has been battling the censors for more than two decades. He began doing one-man shows with nothing but a few props because they could be changed overnight whenever they were banned. Evita Bezuidenhout emerged from the chorus line as a means of saying the unsayable: in her role as South African ambassador to the fictional black homeland of Bapetikosweti, she sent up apartheid's lunacies so successfully that Uys received a death threat.
Though Evita has been all over the world - she was at the Edinburgh Festival last year, and leaves tomorrow for the Netherlands - Uys has talked about phasing her out. In the new South Africa, he imagined, she would be past her sell-by date.
But a recent performance has made him think again. 'I was asked to appear in front of Nelson Mandela and 20,000 ANC followers at a rally on the Cape Flats. It was a bit of a shock meeting him in a dress - me, I mean - but they all loved it. I had to sit there for three hours in Evita's Voortrekker costume. I thought, 'What am I doing here?' especially when I saw some comrades in balaclavas staring at me. But they called 'Madam, madam', and threw sweets to me. It seems Evita may be appointed South African ambassador to the Boer volkstaat.'
There could still be difficulties with the ANC's notoriously Stalinist cultural department. 'Political correctness is the biggest problem - the fear of giving offence, the danger that people will be persuaded not to attend. One has been approached and asked not to write about this or that, but when I ask their names they run away. I'm giving the new government 100 days before I start sending them up.'
Uys believes humour will be important in bridging South Africans 'from fear to acceptance'. 'I think you're so brave to come out,' Evita greets the packed audience. 'I thought you'd all be at home, grooming your Rottweilers and cleaning your guns.' As for the uncertain future, the show closes with the assurance: 'When the shit hits the fan, the fan won't be working.'
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