Pieter-Dirk Uys: “We are the luckiest people in the world in this country. We could have been every horror story in the world.”
On 12 October 2014 at 20h27 on SABC 3, the acclaimed series 21 ICONS South Africa will feature the eleventh icon of its second season: satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys who has been using comedy and caricature to oppose the Apartheid government for the last 30 years.
21 ICONS is a showcase for the South African spirit; a tribute to the men and women who have helped to shape our country and, indeed, our world. The series is part of an annual project which features unique narrative portraits and short films by Adrian Steirn, one of the continent’s pre-eminent photographers and filmmakers. To watch the 21 ICONS promo video, visit: http://youtu.be/U7_9DBTLq0U
On Uys’ selection as an icon, Steirn says, “Uys uses intelligent and thought-provoking content as entertainment but his statements and observations that underline many of the absurdities of Apartheid remain insightful. He is iconic when it comes to political and social satire because he used observation and humour to fight oppression and political hypocrisy and highlight the confusions and contradictions of the oppressors.”
Steirn’s portrait of Uys will appear in the Sunday paper alongside the collectible poster and will be sold at a charity auction next year. The funds raised through the sale will be donated to his nominated charity.
In an intimate conversation with Steirn, Uys reveals that Evita Bezuidenhout first started as a character in a newspaper column. “Between 1978 and 1980 I had a weekly column in a Sunday newspaper, and I needed it because the Apartheid government banned all my plays.”
The plays had been banned, he says, because they portrayed South Africans living in a situation which was reputed to be normal and Christian and civilized – but was not. His characters reflected the confusions and hypocrisies of this society, earning him the outrage of the Apartheid government who lashed out him for blasphemy, obscenity and setting racial groups against each other – “which was great, coming from the architects of Apartheid.”
Not that Uys set out to be an incendiary. The child of a Jewish German immigrant mother and an Afrikaans father, his childhood was marked by bullying – until he realised that laughter was an effective weapon. As a playwright, he tried to harness his talent for comedy, creating entertainment and making people laugh – although he confesses that there is a small part of him that was also trying to anger them. “It’s as if there was a 12-year-old inside of me that was sticking out my tongue at Verwoerd.”
This is ironic, coming from a man who was raised to believe that Verwoerd was untouchable, and idolised ministers to the point where he wrote them letters. It was only as a university student that Uys realised that the principles he had grown up with were not incontestable.
Having performed over 20 plays and 30 revues and one-man shows both in South Africa and around the world, Uys is committed to helping his audiences share his courage. Although the era of Apartheid may be over, he still finds plenty of subjects – from the comic to the controversial – to tackle, including South Africa’s new political regime and HIV. “In the 20th year of democracy, I’m still trying to reflect the ‘mock’ in democracy and the ‘con’ in reconciliation with humour,” he says.