His shows have had some interesting titles - from Elections and Erections, to Adapt or Fly or my favourite, The End is N**i. You’d be forgiven for not recognising Pieter-Dirk Uys in the street, even though he is the person behind the most famous white woman in South Africa, Evita Bezuidenhout.
But the man’s work as a political satirist cannot be ignored. He is one of the few people that risked, through comedy, speaking the truth to those in power.
Celebrating 40 years in the business of laughter and theatre, Uys has learnt some valuable lessons. Some, in the importance of freedom of speech, accompanied with the responsibility of knowing history so as to avoid it repeating itself.
His recent show, When in Doubt Say Darling, is an exploration of this journey. Uys sits on the stage during the show, surrounded by boxes, and boxes of props that he has used over the years. What struck me about watching the show, is that it feels like Uys is about to take a bow.
When I meet him, it’s over a cup of tea in Melville. For a person who’s performed several times for Nelson Mandela and had something of a pen pal relationship with Nomzamo Winnie Mandela, he comes across as easy going. He’s warm, approachable, polite and funny, without even trying.
An idea that Uys holds dear is the importance of history. He says in his show to the younger members of the audience: “You probably won’t know what the hell I am doing here with this character.
But you must remember where you come from, so we can celebrate where we are going, and to make sure that the bad doesn’t come back as policy.” This subtle warning prepares you for the wackiest stories about yesteryear’s politicians.
He’s raised this belief in relation to the current conversation around the Expropriation of Land Without compensation, stating: “It’s exactly what the apartheid government did.” An opinion that has not been popular with those who believe in the move as a form of redress. This is what has been the theme of Uys’s career: having strong, albeit, controversial beliefs and using comedy to challenge standing stereotypes.
Now, he faces a different challenge. Of militant, vibrant “born frees” who tell him who and what he can portray in his shows, especially when it comes to re-enactments of black politicians.
The most recent example was when Uys took on the character of former president Jacob Zuma. He explained that presidents have always been important characters in his work since they’ve signed off on some of the most ludicrous decisions.
“Some young people, who seem to have had an irony bypass, have said you can’t do him. And I asked is it because my portrayal of him is that bad? They said no, you’re white. He’s black. My response to that was no, I am a performer. An actor. That’s my job. If I did a tree, would you call me a forest?
“This is the exact thing I faced during apartheid. They said, ‘jy mag nie.’ So I did it there. Then they came again and said, ‘jy mag nie.’ So, I put on a dress and then they didn’t know who to lock up,” he explains with a chuckle.
This is the attitude that has kept him going. The defiance that he feels is lacking in comedy today. “There are some wonderful comedians who could do this, and there are a few of these young people who I really enjoy. I have gone backstage to greet them, to encourage them to take on this form of comedy. I met one comedian who I told he’s the split image of Zuma. He said ‘Nah, I’m not doing politics, I want to be a millionaire by the time I’m 30’,” he said.
With as many brilliant shows and some lukewarm responses, there have also been a plethora of lessons. The most poignant one? To always respect the audience enough to give them a brilliant performance.
“There’s a very bad habit in our modern theatre life where a cast of six people will say; ‘oh we cancel’, or they don’t turn up because there aren’t ‘enough’ audience members. No. You don’t do that because the people that you send home will never come back, and they will tell a thousand people within 24 hours,” he added.
Another trick up his sleeve has been finding ways to be relevant. “I think relevance is the key to the success of what I do. It’s here, now. Even though I bring issues of the past in order to reflect where we are today,” he said.
Politically, Uys has taken his alter ego to the greatest of lengths. From spreading rumours that Pik Botha and Evita were in a relationship, right down to fishing with President Cyril Ramaphosa shortly after 1994.
He’s also gifted the EFF with stationary and other office supplies when they got to Parliament. The idea behind this, he says, has always been to tackle the hardest of subjects through laughter, but also, the most famous white woman, who happens to be an ANC NEC member in good standing (not), just wants politicians to also lighten up.
Now, in between filling up his days with theatre work, Uys took up the challenge of moving to a city that’s not a metropole. He moved to Darling in the Western Cape almost 22 years ago, where he’s now set up a theatre in the small town.
The theatre’s made an important change: it’s introduced young people who probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get access to the arts.
Asked if this the legacy that we will one day talk about at his memorial service, he said: “I don’t know, I’ll be dead then! If it happens, it happens.
“What I normally say when asked who’s going to follow in my footsteps, I’ve answered that won’t be easy to do. Because nothing is easy.”
And it’s probably this understanding that’s made Pieter-Dirk Uys the household name he is today.