I’m waiting for the day someone will say to me: ”Pieter-Dirk Uys! You can’t do women! It’s politically incorrect.” For the last 40 years it’s been part of my job to impersonate males, females and convertibles. It’s called acting.
Now my characters and I find ourselves in the 2018 minefield of hashtags and hate speech. May I wear the #MeToo button on Evita Bezuidenhout’s blouse? Next to her ANC badge? Or on her ANCWL Gucci jacket?
I have been impersonating this woman I invented since the late 1970s, first as a character in a Sunday Express newspaper column, where once a month this boere tannie after a party in Waterkloof Pretoria would spill the beans on the National Party regime’s state capture, the Information Scandal etc. My editor was perplexed that this character could get away with saying things in the column that he would not dare print on his front page.
Then in my first one man show Adapt or Dye, I put on her costume, make-up and wig, knowing full-well that it was practically illegal for men to wear women’s clothing. I ticked that box with glee. Then she was just one character in a chorus line of racist political clowns that included PW Botha, Piet Koornhof, Pik Botha and Nowell Fine. This Evita of Pretoria upstaged them all and a legend was born.
The farce of the apartheid homelands gave her the perfect job as South African Ambassador. Minister of Foreign Affairs Pik Botha became her boss and we spread the rumour that he was having an affair with Evita. Trouble was, he started believing it. She introduced her family in the show Farce about Uys and De Kock, Izan, Billie-Jeanne, Oom Hasie, Ouma Ossewania and sister Bambi Kellermann joined the cast. In those days I was seldom invited to appear on SABC, but Evita Bezuidenhout often appeared live.
In 1990 I wrote a biography of her life, A Part Hate A Part Love, which immediately invited threats of lawsuits. I believe President Botha was advised to stay out of the fray as he would have been in the queue behind Evita herself, who threatened to sue me for libel. The press played along; a nation divided itself between those who loved the Tannie and those who loathed her.
Evita’s personal letterhead gave me a chance to write letters from her to the Minister of Police in which she demanded that this third-rate comedian, Uys, who was wearing woman’s clothing and demeaning her in public should be arrested. A letter came back from the Minister pointing out that his jails were full. It was a chilling wake-up call: do not underestimate the enemy. They also have a sense of humour. So the soap opera of the Bezuidenhout family played itself out over the years, much to the delight of the fans and the irritation of the foes. Daughter Billie-Jeanne had an affair with a young black “terrorist”. Her brother De Kock turned out to be ultra-sensitive and threatened Evita with becoming a ballet dancer. His twin, Izan, joined the AWB and wanted to shoot the “garden boy”. Husband Oom Hasie became a cabinet minister.
Meanwhile apartheid churned along lethally – completely unfunny. All I had to do was to keep my eye on the headlines and keep my weight down to preserve the image of most famous white woman in South Africa. Just because she didn’t exist, didn’t mean she was not real. Soon her homeland republic of Bapetikosweti was the only homeland that people could name. Pik Botha faxed midnight letters to his Ambassador. Dr Piet Koornhof stalked her. Even Helen Suzman realized that she had met her match.
Then Nelson Mandela came out of the darkness and spoilt the fun. He dissolved the Bantustans into one black homeland called South Africa and Evita lost her job as the most glamourous member of her white country’s Diplomatic Corpse (sic). It was time to urgently reinvent her modus operandi. As the steel fences round the white apartheid playground dissolved into small pockets of frantic racism, the rainbow ended the storms of censorship and control. Evita could step out of the limelight into her role as mother and grandmother. Her daughter legally (and fashionably) became the wife of her black secret lover, and to add shock to horror, Evita found herself the Gogo of three black grandchildren. Today she refers to them proudly as not black, not white, but Barack Obama-beige.
Why has Evita Bezuidenhout survived the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? She has no sense of humour or irony. The joke passes her by. And as we have developed along our unexpected high road of democracy, she has surprisingly become a spokesperson for a silent majority of women who also have to adapt or dye. White Afrikaans matrons of her generation also have to confront the reality of their offspring embracing their new freedoms with passion. Former illegal criminal relationships are taken for granted. Soft drugs are acknowledged as part of choice and a social media has revolutionized the world. Evita has been challenged by her grandchildren to protect their democratic rights and so logically she went back into politics, this time into the deep throat of the beast of power. Ons Tannie Evita is now a member of the ANC. They really deserve her!
My impersonation of this complex woman, my Trojan Horse, has always been led by the politics of the day. I loved her regime as diplomat in her homeland, but when they disappeared, Bapetikosweti also vanished. If Thabo Mbeki had appointed her the Ambassador to Mongolia, she would have had to go. Jacob Zuma enjoyed the rumour that she might become his Afrikaans wife. Her relationship with a retired Pik Botha echoed memories of an aging Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor arguing on live television about a life well-shared. All nonsense. Within the disguises of ex-minister and ex-honourable were two actors delivering the goods.
Evita’s greatest thrill was the friendship that blossomed between her and Nelson Mandela. She met him for the first time at an ANC rally in 1994, just before the election. She, dressed in her Voortrekker costume, presented him with koeksisters and he held her hand during the singing of Nkosi Sikelele Afrika, with Evita carefully mouthing the sounds to look as if she knew the words. She interviewed him for television, a surreal exercise straight out of Alice in Wonderland, which has been viewed by thousands on You Tube. She was summonsed to appear at many of his glittering gatherings where her 15 minutes of fame endeared her to Oprah Winfrey and others, including Bill Clinton, who looked her up and down with a practised eye.
It soon became obvious that this impersonation of a familiar icon, no longer an aikona, was becoming the only way I could comment on the society around me. A white mouth criticising black action is not very helpful anymore, but the opinion of a glamourous designer-democrat, who is now the perfect example of the National Party’s state capture of South Africa between 1948 and 1994, seems to enjoy some acceptance. Elections are the arenas for Evita Bezuidenhout’s bullfights. She launched her own Evita’s People’s Party (EPP) in the presence of the world media, Premier Helen Zille, Mayor Patricia de Lille, ANC MP Lynne Brown and the IEC. She undertook her Election Trek for the 1999 General Election, travelling for six weeks from Cape Town to Pietersburg, presenting voter education at two shows a day in townships, town halls, city halls and community centres, accompanied by the BBC, Radio South Africa and best wishes from President Nelson Mandela.
Evita Bezuidenhout is now 83. I am happy that my impersonation of her allows for a respectful and fashionable performance. The women must recognize the woman and the men must forget the man. Will she retire? Will I retire? If the public interest diminishes, then we might both ride off into the sunset. But there is much to do in the next few months. Her reality show on You Tube and Daily Maverick, Evita’s Free Speech, has been a weekly treat for the last three years and still going strong. The 2019 General Election will take place before May next year. Evita will deliver her Luthuli Housekeeping Report 48 hours before the President’s State of the Nation Address.
Comrade Evita would be the first person to demand an end to my politically-incorrect, sexist exploitation of her. I will reflect all that in my new show for next year. The Tannie and I will appear on stage together and at the same time. The title should say it all: #HeTwo.
(Pieter-Dirk Uys will present WHEN IN DOUBT SAY DARLING at the Fugard Studio from 27 November to 15 December. Book on line at THEFUGARD.COM or 021 461 4554)
Cape Times, Pieter-Dirk Uys. Wednesday 21st November 2018