By Christopher Torchia, AP
JOHANNESBURG–The cross-dressing South African satirist says he doesn’t tell jokes and can’t remember punchlines.
“Sometimes the truth is funnier,” said Pieter-Dirk Uys, who lampooned the leaders of white racist rule decades ago and now pokes fun at South Africa’s politics 20 years after its first all-race elections.
Uys, who is 69 years old but said Tuesday that he feels 30 years younger, was on the cutting edge of criticism of South Africa’s white rulers, who more or less tolerated his pointed humor during an era of conflict and censorship. And he’s still around, a monument to reinvention who targets a messy democracy.
In a sense, Uys is back where he started.
In 1981, when apartheid South Africa was edgy and fearful, he launched a one-man show called “Adapt or Dye” at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, a crucible for criticism of apartheid despite official curbs on expression. He used to bring a cardboard box with his outfits onstage so he could change under the lights, just in case police were waiting in the wings.
Now, on the same (recently renovated) stage, he is opening a four-week run of “Adapt or Fly,” in which he sends up political figures of the past and present.
They include P.W. Botha, an apartheid president; Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president; and Julius Malema, a former member of the ruling African National Congress who is now one of its fiercest critics.
Uys will play signature character Evita Bezuidenhout, a flamboyant white woman from the Afrikaner minority and stalwart of the apartheid era. Uys has kept the character current — Evita is now a member of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, which won re-election this year but has lost some luster because of concerns about corruption and mismanagement.
Evita even has her own Twitter account.
“It’s really important that she is in the armpit of power because she reflects power,” said Uys, who put on false eyelashes, makeup (including lip gloss, or “portable Botox,” he said), a wig and a wispy garment in the ruling party colors of green, gold and black.
It was part of his transformation into the gaudily attired Evita, a kind of behind-the-scenes performance for journalists who joined him onstage.
“Every time I do her, I must remember she’s not a cartoon,” Uys said. “In fact, she’s got to be so real that the women recognize the woman and the men forget the man.”
He pulled out a puppet of Malema, a self-styled advocate of the poor whose new opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, captured attention for its trademark red overalls and berets, and a confrontational manner in the normally staid parliament.
Malema, who has hammered at President Jacob Zuma over alleged corruption, is also under scrutiny, appearing in court Tuesday for a fraud and racketeering case against him. The case was postponed until next year and he defiantly said he had nothing to hide.
Malema has introduced a “new energy and new alphabet in this country,” Uys said. “Do not ignore the things that he says.”
Uys doesn’t expect a return of racial segregation — “We’ve got the T-shirt,” he said — but he worries about segregation in education and other infringements on democracy.
“The cornerstone is to keep a sense of humor,” he said.