Pieter-Dirk Uys doesn’t get nervous before his performances. He gets excited. It’s a subtle difference, perhaps, but one that highlights his approach to life.
‘I am a terminal optimist,’ he confirms. ‘My definition of optimism is: expect the worst, hoping it will never be as bad as you imagine. And I have never been disappointed.’
His choice of words is ironic. The man who’d gone to university to become a teacher only to fall in love with the theatre instead doesn’t actually believe in disappointment.
‘When I plan something I really want, it is Plan A. The failure of that is Plan B. So there is always something to work with.’
And work he certainly does.
‘Work is my life. I enjoy everything. Why do something you don’t enjoy?’ Pieter asks with the comfort of a man who’s packed several lifetimes into one CV: author, playwright, Aids educator, director, actor, TV presenter, satirist and dressmaker. ‘I don’t consider it work. This is my life,’ he says, looking back on four decades of a truly unique career – if he’ll excuse the term.
‘I’ve been unemployed since 1973 when the SA government stopped my work through censorship. So I became my job. Now it all depends on me: if I do something, anything is possible. If I do nothing, there will be nothing,’ he says, the lessons in professionalism learnt while studying stage management at UCT in the 1960s clearly still fresh in his mind.
‘You’re only as good as your last show, your last appearance, your last performance,’ he continues. ‘And you’re on your own. Never depend on anyone to do your job for you. There is no democracy in art. The democracy lies with the audience. They have the choice. You have the commitment.’
And he’s certainly never lacked that commitment. With the ’70s playing out as his decade of discovery and confusion – marked by a series of ground-breaking (and often banned) plays – his incisive and politically charged work was sometimes subsidised by bit parts in awful Afrikaans films, and the occasional screenplay for said films.
‘I worked for 15 years and earned just enough to feed my cat. That was okay. There was no ambition to be rich. I just wanted to stay alive. Humour helped me. And when suddenly I earned money, it didn’t change much, other than it made my cat fatter.
‘Nothing happens in 10 minutes. It took me from 1969 to 1997 before I really believed I knew what I was doing. Then it was essential to get better,’ says the eternal perfectionist.
As a necessity, during the dark days of apartheid, he learnt to face his own fears.
‘I spent most of my early life terrified of being alive, hoping to please everyone and never daring to have an opinion,’ Pieter explains, remembering his sheltered childhood in the leafy suburbs of 1950s Cape Town. ‘Then the theatre hijacked me and I haven’t stopped making noise ever since.’
When he began laughing at his own fears, making them less terrifying in the process, he realised he could use humour as a weapon.
‘Fear is not allowed into my world, because fear is my target. Politicians can always resign and then I’ll leave them alone. But they work for me; I don’t work for them. They are not holy or royal. They are not supposed to be all-powerful killing-machines, so why should I fear them?
‘The anarchy of humour confused them in the ’80s and most of them died alone and reviled,’ Pieter recalls, chuckling: ‘So he who laughs last, laughs last.’
Providing much of that laughter has been the instantly recognisable, perfectly coiffured, immaculately polite Evita Bezuidenhout, originally the South African Ambassador to the Independent Homeland Republic of Bapetikosweti. Or the most famous white woman in South Africa.
‘I am constantly surprised by her impact,’ admits Pieter, remembering how he first created the indomitable figure for a newspaper column back in 1978, before bringing her to life on stage in Adapt or Dye three years later. ‘Her success depends on me; I have to diet for her, prepare for her, and respect her. She must always be so real that women recognise the woman – and men forget the man.’
With Tannie Evita hailed even by Nelson Mandela as one of his heroes, Pieter certainly doesn’t mind being overshadowed by his creation.
‘The fact that she is so independent and that people believe she exists, means she’s real to them. That’s a good feeling,’ he offers. ‘I have prepared an obituary from her for me when I fly away. She will live on, happily rid of my ‘‘third-rate comedy’’, where I dressed up as her and made her ridiculous. But, as she will say: ‘‘At least he did have nice legs’’.’
And Evita, who launched her own political party to aid voter education in the run-up to the 2009 elections, would also approve of Pieter’s increased community focus over the past two decades. He’s created The Darling Trust to empower local people of the Western Cape town he calls home. Since 2000, he’s taken his For Facts Sake Aids awareness production to schools, prisons, and reformatories – for free.
‘Call it putting back; call it a conscience. I call it the inspiration for the rest of my life,’ says the once-aspiring teacher whose safe-sex message has reached more than 1.5 million school children. ‘The youth of South Africa can turn this country into the greatest in the world. They are so ready to listen to common sense and be talked to as adults, even though they are 10 years old. So I do. And so many have come back to me, now in their twenties, and said: ‘‘Look, Pieter, I’m still alive!”.’
Pieter’s career remains just as alive, but, after four decades of making people laugh, think and sometimes despair, what drives him to continue?
‘I’m 65. The audition is over. I’m no longer suffering from the disease to please. So if people don’t like what I do, it’s okay. They can watch TV at home instead and leave me alone.’
Just don’t expect him to stop making noise.
- This article originally appeared in Signature, the official magazine of Diners Club South Africa.