Forget Madonna. Sure, she’s sold more than 300 million albums over a career of 30 years. But, as someone hailed for her constant reinvention, all she’s really done is change her outfits and dance moves every few years. Those who call her multi-talented clearly haven’t seen her films, or heard of Evita Bezuidenhout.
The most famous white woman in South Africa has been (take a deep breath) an actress, newspaper columnist, politician, TV talk show host, chef, educator, activist, author, tweeter and musical performer. But before all that, she was just known as Evangeline Poggenpoel: a timid, shy girl growing up in Bethlehem in the 1930s.
‘I don’t think I had ambitions,’ Tannie Evita says, looking back on her childhood in the Free State. ‘I just wanted to get through school, not get fat and have my teeth fixed. Only when I was 12 did I start seeing films and thought acting would be quite nice.
‘I never thought the world outside was different to life in Bethlehem, otherwise I suppose I would have left it sooner.’
When she did eventually leave after Matric, it was for fame and fortune. She didn’t quite achieve her dreams of Hollywood success, but became a local star with roles in such 1950s Afrikaans films as Meisie van my Drome, before marrying and starting a family.
‘I sometimes catch the old movies on Kyknet and I really enjoy watching them,’ she confesses. ‘I can’t believe that girl is me, but then maybe I’m acting so well that it isn’t me. My grandchildren think my films are funnier than American
TV programmes. I just nod and smile.’
Nodding and smiling are what she learnt as the wife of Hasie Bezuidenhout, the National Party MP for Laagerfontein and cabinet minister in HF Verwoerd’s government. But Evita has never been one to stay in the background. Rubbing shoulders with future political heavyweights – surnames usually Botha – paid off. PW appointed her the South African ambassador to the Independent Homeland Republic of Bapetikosweti.
By then a mother of three in her late 40s, she embraced the new chapter in her life with open arms.
‘An ambassador is after all very much like a mother – constantly trying to keep the peace, always attempting to make the right decisions,’ she explains. ‘And as for a diplomat? Pik always said a diplomat must get on with those he or she cannot stand. That’s also the job of a wife and mother,’ she adds. ‘We were in the wilderness on so many levels. Apartheid was obviously not a gift from God. The world was wearing our hearts on their T-shirts. I just knew that if I could get the enemies round a table together and serve them my bobotie, things could improve. I did get the ANC and the NP together on 31 December 1985. That was the beginning of what FW de Klerk later called “Pretoriastroika”.’
And so the wheels were set in motion for the release of Nelson Mandela, who would famously go on to keep a picture of himself and Evita on the presidential desk. Theirs is a friendship she still relishes.
‘Madiba freed me from jail,’ she admits, referring to her apartheid past. ‘He had all the reason in the world to be angry. He could have spoken like Mugabe. Instead, he came out of jail with that lovely smile and said: “Evita, give me a koeksister.”’
The koeksister became the symbol of her next reinvention. With the Nats out of power and her political career over, Evita began cooking for reconciliation.
‘By then I knew that when enemies sit and eat together, they talk together. Koeksisters became the Viagra of politics; melktert the Valium.’
Now she’s sharing her recipes with the nation, although Evita is no typical celebrity chef along the lines of Gordon Ramsay or Nataniël.
‘There is nothing you can learn from a TV show or even a recipe book. Use your instinct. That’s the secret of my book, Evita’s Kossie Sikelela. There are no pictures of food – what you cook will never look like the picture. It will only depress you.
‘So I say: don’t panic. If you don’t know where the kitchen is, follow the cat. Kick off your shoes and start peeling an onion. Before you know it, you’re a Jamie Oliver.’
She’s not just educating people about cooking, though. Mrs Bezuidenhout has bigger fish to fry, figuratively speaking. Even though it frightens her, she’s teaching children about HIV/Aids.
‘I’m still scared of all that talk,’ she says. ‘My son De Kock, he talks to my grandchildren and I think they know more than I ever knew. All I was told was: “Evangelie? Lie there with closed eyes and pray and in nine months you will have a baby.”
‘I believe it’s not so simple any more.’
Neither is politics, which is why her Evita’s People’s Party teaches the South African public about the importance of voting. ‘If the people lead, the government must follow. I want to remind the voters that voting is secret, sacred and essential. Politicians work for us, we do not work for them,’ she says.
‘Obama told the world: “Yes, we can”. I remind our politicians: “No, you can’t!” Politicians are all the same, no matter which side of the divide they are on. Some are good, some are bad. Do your homework and support the good ones. Send the bad ones to Mongolia as our representatives. Or maybe Libya,’ she adds with the quick smile that is so reflective of her eternally optimistic, unflappable attitude. To her, there’s simply no reason for pessimism.
‘If we can’t have hope, what’s the point of looking forward? Keep your eyes on your destination and as we say: “Moenie panic nie, alles sal regkom”.’
But, it’s not going to come right without a lot of hard work and Evita realises that. The word ‘retirement’ simply doesn’t exist in her vocabulary.
‘I have a country to run,’ she coughs at the suggestion of taking it easy and crocheting doilies. ‘If I don’t do my job, who will? Governments will not help us, they help themselves. So let them plunder the till. It will keep them out of our way and then we can get on with putting SA back on its feet.’
Anyway, keeping busy keeps her humble: ‘Ego is a full-time job. I don’t have the time.’
There is always time to look stylish, though. ‘It is part of my job to make those who see me feel better. I’ve always treated fashion as a means to an end, not the be-all.’
Unlike the Material Girl, then, she’s not one to follow fashion fads: ‘Usually I notice people with style. A barefoot woman with a bucket of water on her head on a hill in the Transkei can be an inspiration.’
It’s all about ageing gracefully, which means that even for this former star of the silver screen, plastic surgery is not an option.
And, frankly, the money could be better spent by The Darling Trust, the organisation that empowers the people of the town she now calls home. She’s behind projects such as the public swimming pool and Evita’s Darlings Education Centre, which currently caters for 80 young children. With a street named after her, she has even converted the old Darling Station into the Evita se Perron theatre.
‘That is where I base myself and my recipes of reconciliation: bobotie, hope, optimism and laughter.’
And even as she takes those recipes to Twitter (‘I use @TannieEvita like a blank wall for some intelligent graffiti’) and abroad, having visited The Netherlands on a goodwill tour in November, she’s hoping to get busier still … and reinvent herself once again.
‘I have been approached to be the first chairperson of the proposed media tribunal,’ she confides. ‘I am very excited and it’s a good choice as I was a censor for PW Botha. I know what to look out for. Freedom of speech is safe with me – it’ll be after speech that freedoms will go.’
Madonna, eat your heart out.
- This article originally appeared in Equinox, the official magazine of the Tsogo Sun hotel group.