Tot Ziens, Barack!

Above: Pieter-Dirk Uys, a man who never misses an opportunity to wear a dress if it makes a point

New Zealander Julian Shaw’s 2007 documentary on Evita Bezuidenhout, South Africa’s most famous woman, has finally made it to the UK. It stars Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.(Compared to them, Tom Cruise et al are mere asteroids, to run with a heavenly metaphor.)

Alright, so Darling! is not simply all about Evita as much as her creator, Pieter-Dirk Uys, an actor who took up the arms of satire against the apartheid regime. With the election of Mandela, there were those who thought that Uys’ work was done. That he could take off his dresses and do something classical. Shakespeare, perhaps. But no. An unholy trinity – Mbeki, Aids, ANC corruption – has ensured otherwise.

It’s into this arena, particular that of Aids, that Uys has leapt with commendable courage. Since 1999, he has been visiting schools – in townships, cities, everywhere – lecturing children on the necessity for safe sex. “It’s ridiculous that an old queen has to go out talking to kids about heterosexual sex,” he jokes in one show, Foreign Aids (2001). He’s aware that the activity puts him at odds with both Calvinist and traditional societies where blunt talking about sex is an awkward virtue. But, he counters, he lives in a country where infected men think that sleeping with a young virgin is a cure for Aids and where a government minister can talk about making anti-viral muti or magic potion out of peach leaves. If the Act Up movement in Europe and the US has as its slogan “Silence = Death”, one might say that Uys’ equivalent is “Speaking out = Life.”

If Uys’ one-man Aids-awareness campaign is unparalleled on the level of singular political engagement – he has spoken to hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren in over the years, and he finances himself from his earnings at his own cabaret theatre, Evita se Perron in Darling, near Cape Town, and abroad – then it’s also doubly extraordinary in that he draws a humour from the appalling situation. To be sure, it can sometimes be a dark humour – when the South African Department of Health released 44 million free condoms to the population, they stapled each one to a piece of card – but its thrust is brilliantly effective.

Uys never misses a chance, even in this advert for the South African franchise of the Nando’s burger chain: go, girl!