When the Mail & Guardian‘s hour-long interview with Pieter-Dirk Uys begins to eat into his next engagement, he nervously looks at his watch, drags a makeshift diary out of his bag to consult a scrawled schedule for the day.
The diary, a sizeable pile of printed-paper made into a book, is packed with what must be loads of chow downs with groupies, reporters and the like. Uys, after all, is working two big stage shows back-to-back and is planning the launch of Evita’s People’s Party.
He stands up, shakes our hands dutifully and rushes out of Melville’s De la Crème restaurant, where our breakfast interview took place at 7.30am.
Elections and Erections, the show featuring his doppelganger, Evita Bezuidenhout, had a successful run in Durban and has opened at the Jo’burg Theatre (the new name of Braamfontein’s Civic Theatre).
Evita has been busy in Johannesburg. On Wednesday morning she launched her one-woman political party, at which she reaffirmed her links with the ordinary folk. “My party is not about politics. It’s about people. It is about elections. It is about the vote,” she said at the launch.
That same night Elections and Erections opened to an almost full, rapturous Jo’burg audience. In attendance was Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille, who, in the second segment of the show, went on stage for a one-on-one. In discussion with Evita Zille dissed then dismissed Julius Malema, who turned down a public debate with a DA youth leader because he doesn’t wish to talk to “Zille’s garden boys”.
Uys says he mooted the idea of bringing Malema on as a guest in his show to ANC spokesperson Jessie Duarte. “He is a gift. Isn’t he? I think he is a DA mole.”
The show contains gags about the Home Affairs Department, Evita’s time in the United States, a preachy session on the importance of voting, her creator Uys’s sexuality, a puppet exchange between former presidents PW Botha and Thabo Mbeki and a puppet of ANC president Jacob Zuma with a (now familiar) shower affixed to his head.
During our interview Uys is regularly interrupted by friends, fans and colleagues — inside the restaurant and out — some even approaching to greet the affable star. Returning to our interview, he says that he is careful not to offend. Indeed the comedian accurately sums up his jokes as 49% anger and 51% entertainment: “I want to offend everybody at least once in the show. More than once it becomes tiring.”
Although, as a comedian, Uys has more freedom than the average citizen to poke fun at his subjects, he is aware of the sensitivities in South Africa. In the puppet exchange between Mbeki and Botha, for instance, he says he is aware of the broader meaning “of a white Afrikaans man manipulating a black person”. He was once pleasantly surprised when a black audience member said he enjoyed his show. “I wasn’t offended. It’s a doll,” the man said.
As with many whites he was brought up racist, he says, and is always cautious not to offend. “There is an obvious danger in playing in the racist comfort zone. I have to tread carefully. It must not be seen out of context. This is why I avoid using words such as ‘kaffir’ for effect.”
Although Uys is sensitive to race and other potentially offensive jokes he “doesn’t soften the blow. What has to be said has to be said.” At 63 he is able, unlike most South African comedians, to cast retrospective glances into his country’s past, an object of his satire. He has come a long way, is less uninhibited and he is healed of what he describes as “the disease to please. If people don’t like what I say they can go elsewhere.”
Elections and Erections is partly born out of his fear of a one-party state, like the one he grew up in, under a regime that outlawed democracy and relations between the races. He says the advent of Cope is good for democracy: “I grew up in a one-party state. We don’t want to go there again. We don’t want to lose our freedom,” he says, adding that “freedom is the right to fight for your freedom so that every day you are free”.
Uys finds his ideal audience is made of young people because of their openness. He regularly reaches out to school pupils and in the past seven years he says he has engaged more than a million young people on the dangers of HIV.
He finds the naivety and the unbelieving nature of young people endearing. On one of his forays a child came up to him and asked about the nation’s apartheid history: “All this stuff — did it really happen?”
“Yes, it sounds stupid,” Uys replied, rolling his eyes. His answer is equally relevant for those who will vote on April 22: “Stupidity sometimes re-invents itself as politics.”