Never let SA tire of satire: Pieter-Dirk Uys is still our Darling

Caryn Gootkin has recently encountered several reminders of the publication restrictions placed on South Africans over the years. She discusses the tyranny of censorship and satire as a valid form of political commentary, before making a shameless punt for the Big Issue.

A while ago I read Patrick Flanery’s Absolution, a novel that characterises our beloved country so well, despite being written by an American. I was interested to read that he wrote the book after reading J M Coetzee’s Giving Offence: Essays on Censorship but that when writing the first draft he had no setting in mind. Later, when he revisited the book after some years, he realised that it had to be set in South Africa.

Flanery’s book enthralled me for many reasons, one of which is how it made me reconsider apartheid-era censorship. In a review of the book in The Independent, Leyla Sanai wrote of those dark days: “Censorship loomed over every form of media, and those who displeased the government met death, imprisonment or exile.”

These words reminded me of the poignant Gillian Slovo memoir, Every Secret Thing. In 1997 she published this book about her early years as the child of two iconic white anti-apartheid activists. Sanai’s reference to those dark years in her review of Flanery’s book aptly describes the fate of Slovo’s parents whose dedication to the struggle against injustice cost their family dearly.

As these books recall, the harsh realities of the day were, and remain, difficult to stomach. Those involved in anti-government actions paid heavy prices; it cost many their life. They gave up a ‘normal’ family life for an underground existence, constantly looking over their shoulders and meeting in secret.

In our twisted pre-1994 society, while clandestine activists plotted to remove the unjust government, other protestors used different means to drum up support for the struggle. They used their artistic talents to force the public in South Africa to take notice of what was going and act against the oppressive minority.

Satire – the highest form of wit?

While no-one is sure who coined the saying, ‘laughter is the best medicine’, social scientists agree that it helps us to tolerate discomfort and establishes a sense of connection between people, bringing them together. There are many ways to make people laugh; we all laugh many times each day. But to make your audience think at the same time requires an insightful mind coupled with razor-sharp wit. And satire makes us laugh at things that our mind may not be able to deal with as plain facts.

Oxford Dictionaries define satire as “the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues…”

Satire, although funny, is often meant as pointed political commentary and social criticism using wit as a weapon.

The master of satire, Pieter-Dirk Uys, is as much part of the South African landscape as Table Mountain in Cape Town and summer thunderstorms in Johannesburg. With the concepts of censorship and its anathema, freedom of expression, swirling around in my head, I went to see An audience with Pieter-Dirk Eish! at the Baxter Theatre.

Uys lures the audience on a roller-coaster ride through South Africa’s political history, cleverly using different characters, both real and imaginary, to convey his message.

From the simply funny (“I grew up thinking Shakespeare was Afrikaans. Now I know he is Zulu: Shaik’s Spear!”) to the breathtakingly profound (“In 1994 I stopped being a white Afrikaner and became a South African”), there are no sacred cows for Uys. He even uses Mother Theresa to convey the futility of religious extremism, putting these words in her mouth: “Muslim suicide bombers come to heaven in little pieces”.

His most acerbic warnings are delivered in simple comparisons ( “The apartheid government killed people. The current government just lets them die.”) and twists on popular notions (“In SA we have “government by the people for the people who obviously don’t give a f$&k about the people”.)

Pieter-Dirk Uys is South Africa’s Darling

For satire to succeed, it has to be relevant and current. Uys ups his game with passing reference to events of the few days leading up to the show. He remarked that Helen Zille was going to Nkandla the next day, probably cycling from Cape Town. And so he manages to include everyone in his show, even those he admires. It is a treat to watch him metamorphose into Desmond Tutu; we are swept away on the mischievous laugh of the man Uys so openly admires. Free of the costume, he tells us that Tutu shows that practice makes perfect: “He’s practised decency so long he’s become a near-perfect human being.”

A shameless punt for the Big Issue, an organisation close to Uys’s heart

As regular readers and followers will know, I am involved with the Big Issue and never waste an opportunity to beat its drum. Uys has always been a strong supporter of the organisation, which is evident from his imaginary character, a Big Issue vendor who went to school with Trevor Manuel (“clever Trevor”).

While standing on stage branding our democratic government as “non-racial non-sexist and nonsensical”, Uys reminds us also of the men and women on the street. And in so doing, he raises the profile of organisations such as the Big Issue that are empowering the people the government are failing.

I can’t end this column without urging you to buy your 2012/2013 Big Issue Collector’s Edition and, in so doing, contribute to your vendor’s end of year bonus. It is a magnificent collection of prose, poetry, commentary, satire and pictures describing what the high profile contributors, all of whom donated their work, consider the big issue of the year. At R30 it’s the best value 2012 time capsule you’ll find; whether you keep it or give extra copies as gifts, just buy it.