Pieter-Dirk Uys Born, or, as he describes himself, ‘invented”, in Cape Town, and now living in the small West Coast dorpie of Darling, Pieter-Dirk Uys, actor, comedian, satirist, author and playwright, has won international renown as one of the most significant figures in South African Theatre. Closely associated with both the innovative Space Theatre in Cape Town and Johannesburg’s Market Theatre in the 1970’s and 1980’s, he has written and performed in 18 plays, revues and one-man shows. His extraordinary body of work has been celebrated all over South Africa, in Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States. Uys has also published several books, including A Part Hate A Part Love, a pseudo-biography of his most beloved creation, his alter ego, Evita Bezuidenhout.
Over the years, during his one-man-myriad-character tours de forces, Uys has transformed himself before the eyes of his audiences into many of this country’s most revered and most reviled characters (male and female), using the art of the theatre, impersonation and merciless satire to explore the relationship between the individual and the state. Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and the apartheid era cabinet ministers like the Botha’s, PW and Pik, and Piet Koornhof have all fallen victim to his meticulous satirical attention. Through his creative activism Uys has engaged with many of the key social issues with which Wits has identified in the past several decades. He has gained legendary status both nationally and globally as a human rights campaigner and has been involved with many of today’s leading political and cultural figures. As an advocate of gay rights he has played an important role in the evolution of attitudes to gay communities.
The provocative and ebullient environment of satire that Uys creates has helped produce a uniquely South African context in which difference is celebrated. Hundreds of thousands of South Africans have, thanks to his theatrical genius, found themselves laughing at their own prejudices, decrying bigotry and celebrating diversity. We now accept the cross-dressing performer with ease in our society but when Uys begun to construct his performance identity he did so in a very different country at a very different time; breaking new and controversial ground. In these terms his theatrical creations were avant-garde and exceptional.
Equally remarkable is the combination in Uys’s work of irreverent performance, public intellectual engagement and concern with citizenship. He made himself available as an inexhaustible campaigner for the country’s first democratic election in 1994 and was also a very visible presence in the period leading up to the second dissemination of information and the promotion of dialogue and debate about HIV/Aids, with his most recent one-man show, Foreign Aids, concentrating on the issue. In an effort to spread the message of safe sex to the next generation, he takes his critical and lively information campaign into up to 400 schools a year. The campaign is augmented by a compact disk and by a website linked to other sites that disseminate information about Aids. His Aids information performance, full of wild humour, pathos, care and intimacy, is one of the most original and successful devices for breaking the damaging silence around HIV-Aids issues in this country.
In addition to his growing commitment to education and transformation, Pieter-Dirk Uys still plays a key role in South African theatre and has converted Darling’s old railway station into his own cabaret venue, called ‘Evita se Perron [station platform]’ and consisting of two theatres, a restaurant/bar, an arts and crafts market and a satirical garden called Boerassic Park.
In recognition of his of his contribution to South Africa Uys was nominated as a national Living Treasure by the Human Research Council (HSRC) in November 2002, joining a group of individuals described by the HSRC as ‘magnificently creative South Africans who have achieved excellence, critical acclaim and international success. They are truly free, since they know, accept and celebrate who they are. They suggest that individual creativity is a gift to share, and that it is in the generous sharing of it that we build our society, and ourselves. They inspire fearless self-discovery and propel us towards the deepest respect for ourselves and others. In May 2004 he was awarded the prestigious Obie at the 49th Annual Village Voice Obie Awards in New York for Foreign Aids, which he performed at the legendary La Mama Theatre last year.
The University of the Witwatersrand has identified its own role as a socially responsible agency for transformation and the exploration of new modes of knowledge and creativity. Its commitment to human rights and an open society underpins its leading role in debate and investigation in the field of HIV/Aids intervention. It is thus wholly appropriate that Wits recognize the great achievements of Pieter-Dirk Uys, a key cultural activist and a playful campaigner for a more tolerant and more informed society. It is also appropriate that after many years, during which the irrepressible Evita Bezuidenhout has stolen much of the acclaim and celebration from her creator, it is he who should be honoured for his lasting contribution for forging a tolerant and compassionate South Africa culture.
It is with great pride and pleasure that the University confers upon Pieter-Dirk Uys the degree of Doctor of Literature, honoris causa.