Friday, October 21, 2011
In South Africa, where free expression is constitutionally enshrined, some of the most cutting opinion is freely expressed by two men who have battled two regimes, in a variety of genders, under four names. One of them is billed as South Africa's most famous white woman, the irrepressible Evita Bezuidenhout.
A journalist last week wrote that Jacob Zuma's government was corrupt and inept and was a cryptocracy. So we had to summon him to appear in front of the media tribunal. Of course, he apologized. He said he didn't mean to be libelous. I said, “Scotty, you're not libelous. It's just that you’ve disclosed a state secret.”
Such an institution is Evita that in her rural hometown of Darling, an hour west of Capetown, she is honored by a thoroughfare called Evita Bezuidenhout Boulevard, quite a tribute considering that, strictly speaking, Evita Bezuidenhout doesn't exist.
She is a fictional character, the creation of playwright-performer satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys. But when South Africa's foremost comedy transvestite dons the dress and wig and heels, lo and behold, Evita appears. And she is boulevard-worthy. Evita is Bill Maher in Dame Edna's clothing. And the Sunday cabaret audiences here in Darling adore her.
Here comes Mrs. Evita Bezuidenhout.
[CROWD SHOUTS, CLAPS, LAUGHTER]
Evita's character became famous in the apartheid period as a hilariously out-of-turn-speaking wife of an Afrikaner cabinet minister. Now, after a bizarre personal and political journey as a worker and revolutionary, Evita has a different ruling class to embarrass.
She's no longer the minister's wife. She has — having gone through the kitchens of the — of the ANC because in '94 bec - she lost her job as the ambassador and she started cooking for reconciliation.
Evita's alter ego, Pieter-Dirk Uys.
So she's been in the kitchen, she's been their nanny. And she's been the babysitter for hundreds of little Zuma zellas. So she comes very much from that point of view, trying to share with the majority of her audience, who are the white people, that they must stop being frightened because there's nothing really to frighten.
One of the lines she says, she says, “You must please understand, what I've observed is the ANC will investigate every cul-de-sac before they find the freeway.”
He, she, they have come a long way from the PW-Botha-South-Africa, as the performer, his makeup baby-oiled away, almost wistfully recalls.
I had to be on my toes all the time and doing the show in the mouth of the dragon, I would do a show in the Pretoria Opera House in 1985 with PW Botha up the road, with the security police waiting for me behind the curtain. That's why I never left the stage. I would change onstage because if I went offstage, they might grab me.
Seventeen years later, the tables have long since turned. But Evita Bezuidenhout has more to ridicule than ever, to Pieter-Dirk Uys' delight, and to his accumulating horror. Jacob Zuma disappoints him, Julius Malema scares the daylights out of him and the ANC asks to be made fools of every single day.
I am in clover. That's why I don't pay taxes, I pay royalties because they really give me so much. The only problem is that it is so third rate, it is such — they're third-rate people with fourth-rate idea.
Perhaps, but with first-rate lawyers. Back in Capetown resides another famous anti-apartheid voice with an assumed name, the political cartoonist Zapiro, who has taken on the ANC and been rewarded with a defamation lawsuit from President Jacob Zuma himself, two of them, actually.
The latest followed Zuma's acquittal on suspicious procedural grounds of major corruption charges. That, following Zuma's previous acquittal on rape charges, stemming from an encounter with the HIV-positive daughter of the president's close friend. Here is Zapiro, AKA Jonathan Shapiro.
I, I did a cartoon that was very, very tough. It looks as if he's about to rape Lady Justice.
Unsurprisingly, Zuma and his cronies, who were depicted as holding Lady Justice down, totally flipped out, and a good part of South Africa with them.
The furor around the cartoon was the biggest that's ever happened in South African cartooning, was our equivalent here, I suppose, of the Prophet Mohammad, you know, furor that happened in, in Europe and then worldwide. It was huge. He sued me for —what was it, seven — seven million rand.
Not to be confused with the 2006 lawsuit following Zuma's rape prosecution when, Zapiro ridiculed the politician's claim of protecting himself from HIV infection by showering after sex. The cartoon depicted Zuma with a shower head [LAUGHS] attached to his skull, where it has remained in virtually all of Zapiro's Zuma cartoons ever since. That suit was for 15 million South African rand.
Which was a world record for a cartoonist [LAUGHS] being sued. That was 15 million rand, which is, you know, two million U.S.
Mazel Tov on the world record.
Thank you very much, thank you. [LAUGHS]
The case is set for trial next year, and Shapiro is nervous about it, hinging as it does on the question of dignity, which, like free expression is guaranteed by the South African Constitution.
But he says he's far more concerned by proposed press laws and the chilling effect they would have on bringing to light the massive problems of South African governance and society.
Instead of fixing those problems, instead of admitting quite how bad they are and trying to sort something out, what it appears to be is that they are trying to put a lid on the people who are exposing them. They're putting a lid on, on the whistleblowers, on the, on the media, on anyone in civil society who's critical. They're trying to paint all those people as counter-revolutionaries and they're trying to up the idea of, of dignity so that they can say, well, my dignity has been impinged by that press report.
And I think that this is really mounting to the point where I'm not sure exactly — I can't, you know, forecast exactly when it's all gonna explode.
[SOUND OF CANNON FIRING]
It's exploding in small — well, it’s funny enough, there goes the noon gun, just as a graphic example of that.
Oh yeah. As he speaks, as if on cue, the noon cannon fires off of a Capetown cliff, a centuries-old warning to seafarers of the rocky shoals ahead.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
That's it for this week’s show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Jody Avirgan, with more help from Gianna Palmer. Special thanks to Doug Anderson who produced the hell out of the South Africa package. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Dylan Keefe.
Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYCs senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
And I’m Bob Garfield.