I must admit feeling a touch nervous as I dare to question the analytical powerhouse that is Essop Pahad, minister of no defined portfolio in the Presidency. Far worthier minds than mine would hesitate to interrogate an archetypical revolutionary intellectual of Pahad’s faculty. Honed to a razor’s edge in the years he spent patiently rubbing up against the scholarly whetstone of Sussex University, Essop Pahad’s mind is a rare phenomenon.
I hope, nonetheless, he will forgive me my audacity in telling him that in the matter of the bitchy little spat that, for the last few weeks, has been going on between him and the serried ranks of Pieter-Dirk Uys, he’s been hopelessly wide of the mark.
For the few who might not have seen the veritable cataract of letters and comment in mainly the news-papers of the Independent group, let me outline briefly what has been going on. While he was in the United States a few weeks ago President Thabo Mbeki gave an interview to The Washington Post in which he said that he had not known anyone who had died of Aids; nor did he know of anyone close to him who was HIV-positive.
There was a fair deal of outraged press comment about this, but no one fell upon Mbeki’s remarks with such avid delight as did Pieter-Dirk Uys. He dashed off the same incensed letter to the long list of newspapers he keeps ready for such occasions, saying that the interview proved that Mbeki was not the sort of leader South Africa deserved, that obviously he was lying through his teeth and should be replaced with a “caring” president.
In responding to this, Pahad made his first big mistake. In a letter of adolescent miff he replied in defence of his boss and friend: his letter pubished with glee by the papers. In it Pahad called Uys a “house clown” and said that HIV/Aids was far too serious a subject for idle satirical comment, adding that Uys was traducing the fine efforts of the African National Congress government in tackling the health crisis.
In so doing he played right into Uys’s hands. What Pahad had not recognised was that, in writing his letters to the papers, Uys was launching yet another of the ambush campaigns he regularly launches in order to gratify his insatiable need for self-advertisement.
Pieter-Dirk Uys’s overriding talent has very little to do with satire or playwriting. Those two latter are the window dressing. What he has delivered in those avocations has, in any case, been all but obliterated by his relentless touting of himself. Uys’s real gifts lie in the resourcefulness he displays when it comes to keeping his name, comments and pictures on almost permanent exhibition in the media. His methodologies are without equal. You cannot get through a week in our press without seeing several references to him and his doings.
Pahad didn’t recognise the bait. What he should have done was ignore Uys’s letter, left it to wither. Instead he reacted strongly and then had to suffer onslaught by the murderously efficient Pieter-Dirk Uys self-publicity juggernaut.
First came the battery of outraged letters in support of Uys: all extraordinarily similar in content, all ablaze with admiration for Uys’s salutary contributions to South African political and social matrices. Following closely came what is an obligatory Uys tactic: the one where, under the guise of his alter ego, Evita Bezuidenhout, he writes saucy letters to the press about himself. Sometimes he re-inflates other characters from his stage shows to add their ha’pennyworth. But, just like Evita, they are Uys writing in illumination of Uys. He operates an impressive rig of personal spotlights.
Over the years Uys has somehow managed to generate a formidable gallery of back-up letter-writers and acolytes. One of these, recently, was an asinine full-page Cape Times article in piping support of Uys from a latter-day publicity junkie in the shape of Mike van Graan. Faced with empty pages and low staff complements, such bilge must taste like manna to newspaper editors.
In this recent brouhaha much was made of Uys’s own selfless contributions to countering HIV/Aids. Again he did not disappoint. The letters and editorials started reminding us how Uys had toured schools warning children of the dangers of irresponsible sexual practices. No one would deny him credit for these commendable efforts, but do we really have to be reminded of them three times a week? What made the recent campaign look so bogus is that it was quite clear that the squabbles with Pahad were being used principally to reassure everyone that, despite his good-natured levities, Pieter-Dirk Uys is a deeply committed and socially responsible paragon. The carefully lit and composed photographs of him clutching a plastic penis were there to underscore that most crucial point.
Uys has played his game for many years. There is no professional publicity organisation that comes near to his proficiency in getting column inches and photographs into the papers.
Essop Pahad has been well and truly suckered.