Review: VIVIEN HORLER
The Echo of a Noise – A memoir of then and now, by Pieter-Dirk Uys (Tafelberg)
Divergent voices have greeted the death of apartheid era foreign minister Pik Botha.
Some have described him as the best of a bad bunch, other have expressed their views considerably more forcefully. And just hours after Botha’s death Adriaan Vlok, former apartheid era law and order minister, described him on Cape Talk as “a visionary”. (Well he would, wouldn’t he?)
Pieter Dirk Uys, the satirist and alter ego of Evita Bezuidenhout, has just published a new book of memoirs, and he could have had Botha in mind when he wrote about the end of the apartheid.
As World War II wound up, he writes, Adolf Hitler committed suicide along with several of his general staff.
“When apartheid officially ended in 1994, not a single member of the apartheid government killed themselves. They rushed off to the local Oriental Plaza to get their latest Nelson Mandela ethnic shirts…
“They even joined the African National Congress, the liberation movement they had us believe for 46 years was our version of al-Qaeda. They were now proud members of the ANC, proving once again that hypocrisy is the Vaseline of political intercourse.”
(For Uys on Pik specifically, see below.)
This is Uys’s third book of memoirs; the first, Elections and Erections focused n Aids, and Between the Devil and the Deep looked at Uys’ theatre career.
This one shines a light on his childhood, his difficult relationship with his stern Calvinist father, his troubled German-born mother, musically gifted sister Tessa, and Sannie Abader, who was the Uys family’s live-in domestic worker during most of Pietertjie’s childhood in Pinelands, and who, he says, had a profound influence on his development as a child and as a South African.
When people think of Pieter Dirk Uys, Evita Bezuidenhout springs to mind. As a satirist, Uys is of course acutely politically aware, yet in these troubled times he tries to avoid being “the white mouth criticising black action”.
If Uys himself were to complain about things, many people would be irritated. But when Evita does it, it somehow “floats on top of the turmoil. After all, who can take offence at someone who doesn’t exist?”
Uys says Evita used to make Nelson Mandela laugh. One night Uys, once again in his Evita persona, muttered that every time he saw Mandela, he was being Evita.
Mandela chuckled: “Don’t worry, Pieter, I know you’re inside.”
But this is not a book about Evita, although she does get a short chapter. No, writes Uys, “this will be PDU, unpowdered. No props, no false eyelashes, no high heels, no security blanket. Whatever echo I expose here will be heard for the first time.”
Uys’s father, Hannes Uys, who died in 1990, was a stern Calvinist who loved music and ran a Kindersang Kring. The kring made two long-playing records, the first featuring an angelic blond Pietertjie as boy soprano on the sleeve.
Hannes Uys did not worry about nepotism: looking at the programme for a Kindersang Kring concert in Bellville in 1961, Pieter and pianist sister Tessa are named in virtually every second item.
Uys’s parents loved each other, but there were tensions. Hannes was a perfectionist, his wife Helga suffered from depression that eventually killed her.
In his 70s, Uys says he has only now become aware of how deeply afraid he was as a child. “It took me another 50 years to find the courage to use the f-word to fight fear – and that word is fun!”
He realised that to cope with fear he had to laugh at it. To look fear in the eye puts you in charge, he writes. “Give your fear a name; show it who’s boss. It will never be taller than you. Lethal, oh yes, it can kill you, but at least you can see it coming. Then step out of the way.” Laughing at fear, he says, has become the subtext to his life.
Uys has been on stage more than 7 000 times. We figure we know him backwards. And yet this sad, tender and often hilarious memoir reveals a lot about the man and how he became who he is – a national treasure.
A national treasure who is not above speaking sharply about members of our government – then and now.
- This week I asked Pieter-Dirk Uys for some of his memories of the former foreign minister. Here’s what he had to say:
Pik Botha was the eternal foreign minister, one of the Bothacracy. The National Party shared so many with me: PW Botha, Fanie Botha, Stoffel Botha, Bothalezi … and Roelof F Botha. (Never found out what the F stood for.) Pik Botha was my inspiration: the orange on my aerial, the fur on my steering wheel, the St Christopher on the dashboard of my sports car of satire.
In my first one-man show Adapt or Dye, I did him on stage as the Hamlet of Westdene, (He was already the all-round actor). To be or not be in Namibia, that is the question. Then when Evita Bezuidenhout became the South African ambassador in the independent black homeland Republic of Bapetiksoweti in 1981, Pik Botha became her boss. So we spread the rumour that Pik Botha was having an affair with Evita Bezuidenhout. Trouble was: he started believing it! He would fax pages to her after midnight with hints on how to be a diplomat: “You will have to get on with people you can’t stand”‘
I started impersonating him on stage in virually every show, especially into the new democracy when he became the Minister of Minerals and Energy Affairs. (Always the question: how does he mix his minerals with his energy affairs?) Eventually he and she met: in the MNET series Funigalore in 1995, where Evita interviewed all the new leaders, the “terrorists and communists” of the yesteryear, now Mandela, Slovo, Ginwala, Naidoo – and Pik Botha. (The episode is on You Tube!) Minister Botha and Mrs Bezuidenhout clicked as there were two actors manipulating them, Pik and me. The times the ex-politician and the ex-ambassador would appear on television together reminded one of an ageing Richard Burton with his overweight bejewelled Elizabeth Taylor.
Alas, the last of my old herd of boere-dinosaur is now gone. My most recent Pik Botha, a star turn in my shows, would start with him donning his ANC scarf, peering into the audience, and in the gruff-growl mutter: I’m not here. I have nothing to confess. But because you are here, I have to be here. Ironically now the sketch makes even more sense, because I’m definitely not here …