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Culture : Grinning Through Apartheid : Pieter-Dirk Uys is South Africa's equal opportunity satirist. He pokes fun at blacks as well as whites.


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — For more than a decade, satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys left audiences in stitches and the censors in knots with his merciless parodies of the thick-accented white leaders of South Africa. But he always knew that his favorite punching bag might disappear if the government ever freed Nelson Mandela, promised to dismantle apartheid and began to shed its jackboot image.

Well, that day has arrived, and Uys is still on the stage. He continues to lampoon the government, questioning its sincerity. Only now he's added a few new characters to his act.

"Oh my gaaaawd," sighs Uys, playing Winnie Mandela with a black wig and a long whip. "I am so exhausted . . . contradicting my husband."

Uys, who virtually created anti-apartheid satire in South Africa, hasn't switched allegiances. But he isn't taking sides anymore. And everyone, from the political right to the left, has become fair game.

Amid the breathtaking political change in South Africa, Uys (pronounced Ace) has quietly launched a cultural revolution. His new one-man revue is expanding the limits of contemporary political humor, for the first time winning laughs at the expense of the black leaders seeking political power as well as the whites who already have it.

"It's no longer so easy to tell the good guys from the bad," Uys explains. "Everyone is a gray character." And judging by the ovations he has received from multiracial audiences at the Market Theater in Johannesburg on the first leg of his national tour, many South Africans agree.

Uys' show has arrived in the midst of a growing debate in anti-apartheid circles over artistic freedom in the "New South Africa." Mandela's African National Congress, with its "cultural officers" and international blacklist, has long had a powerful influence over who performs in South Africa. And some artists fear that their freedom--to criticize those in power, for example--would be curtailed under an ANC-controlled government.

Satire, relegated almost exclusively to the stage, has had a small but important role in transforming South African society, helping blacks and liberal whites survive the turbulent 1980s by laughing at the government. And Uys, for years a lonely satiric voice, hopes his new show will help preserve a place for political humor in the future.

Satire as a cultural force already has been extinguished by thin-skinned, autocratic leaders elsewhere in Africa, and Uys doesn't want to simply replace white censorship in South Africa with black censorship.

"Satire is a tradition that mustn't stop," Uys said in an interview. "I don't want to have to pack my bags one day because these people (the ANC and other black leaders) can't take a joke."

His show is called "A Kiss on Your Koeksister," named for the gooey pastry that is a traditional dessert of the ruling Afrikaners, descendants of the first white settlers.

"Koeksister" is set at a fund-raising bazaar for the newly reformist National Party of President Frederik W. de Klerk, and Uys plays a cast of characters that spans the spectrum from a right-wing white security guard to a tough-talking Winnie Mandela. (So far, Nelson Mandela is absent.)

De Klerk, as played by Uys, is a clown who hypnotizes white voters to accept his reforms and tricks the black majority into believing the reforms are irreversible.

The star of the show is a fictional character named Evita Bezuidenhout, whom Uys plays in a wig and dress, with large earrings and red lipstick.

Evita is the South African ambassador to the make-believe black homeland of "Bapetikosweti" and an unabashed National Party supporter. Through the honeyed mouth of Evita, his most famous character, Uys has over the years bitingly exposed the hypocrisy of South Africa's white leaders.

But in the new show, Evita manages to skewer both the government and the black liberation movement.

She welcomes "Pretoriastroika," for example, which she helpfully defines as "the Afrikaans word for the Russian word meaning 'April fool.' " And to show how liberal she's become in the new South Africa, she says that "some of my best friends . . . now have black friends."

Evita gushes that "Nelson is a wonderful man." And although Mandela still calls for sanctions against South Africa, she observes, "Nelson is still big enough to accept a free motorcar from Mercedes-Benz, the one company that ignored sanctions for 20 years." That just shows, she adds, "how quickly Nelson has become a South African politician."

Uys, the 45-year-old son of an Afrikaner father and a German-Jewish mother, began his career as a playwright, but four of his early plays were banned by the censors. "I realized then that they couldn't take a joke, and that's when I began thinking about comedy," Uys said.

His first satirical reviews relentlessly targeted former President Pieter W. Botha, and Uys altered his performances nightly to make it difficult for them to be banned by the censors.

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