New South Africa has drag queen for its guide


Johannesburg, South Africa -- It is not every country whose citizens can sit down in front of the television on Friday nights and watch some of their top government officials getting interviewed by a drag queen.

Then again, not every country is South Africa, where the times have been changing so much for the last few years that what was up is now down, what was sacred is now profane and Pieter-Dirk Uys is as close as you're going to get to Barbara Walters.

Indeed, Mr. Uys' character of Evita Bezuidenhout seems the perfect guide through this nation's ever-changing landscape. Created 15 years ago, in the hands of Mr. Uys, Evita became one of the most effective weapons of subversion in the last decade of the apartheid era.

"Evita is the most famous white woman in Africa," sums up Pieter Cilliers, executive producer of "Evita's Funigalore," the new series that is airing on the country's subscription channel.

In this land where politics provides the celebrities, these half hour programs feature interviews with some of the country's biggest names -- Cyril Ramaphosa, who heads the African National Congress, Joe Slovo, the communist minister of housing, Frene Ginwala, speaker of the new Parliament, Mac Maharaj, minister of transportation, Patrick Lekota, premier of the Orange Free State, and Roelf Meyer, minister of local government.

"No one turned us down," Mr. Cilliers said of those contacted to be on the show. "That shows the kind of respect people have for Evita."

Mr. Uys first came up with Evita in the late 1970s when he was writing a column for a Sunday newspaper. At first, she was an anonymous Pretoria matron who kept showing up at parties and saying the most outrageous things.

According to Mr. Uys, readers gave her the name Evita, after Mrs. Peron, the title character of the then-popular Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical. "Evita has always grown out of the public's reaction to her," said Mr. Uys. "That's where she got her name, she was our Evita from Pretoria."

He was speaking from San Francisco where he is currently performing an Americanized version of his one-person show "One Man, One Volt."

"Even here, she's the character who steps out of the chorus line," he said. "People respond to her. It's like everyone has known an Evita in their lives."

Eventually, Mr. Uys wrote a biography of Evita which, like all good parody, was completely fictional but full of truth. "It was really the history of apartheid," he said.

During the 1980s, when Mr. Uys took Evita onstage, he found that a man dressed up like a woman could get away with saying things about the apartheid system that no one else could.

If she has an American equivalent, it would be Archie Bunker. Evita is a bedecked, bejeweled, beehived Afrikaner madam, someone who bought into the system that put her on top, cloaking her bitter prejudices in a veneer of mannerliness as thick as Mr. Uys' makeup.

Her many fans have spent the last four years watching her gymnastics as she adjusts to the new South Africa, trying to figure out how to make the new system work for her benefit.

Just as Archie Bunker had to get used to having the Jeffersons move in next door, so Evita has to get used to having Nelson Mandela as president.

There's a serious side to all this. Seeing Evita manage the transition shows the way to other white South Africans, especially those who watched Evita to laugh with her, not at her, identifying with her prejudices in the way many Americans did with Archie Bunker's attitudes.

"I think this series will be an important bridge builder in this country," Mr. Cilliers said, indicating that it will introduce South 11 Africans to their new leaders in a way only Evita could.

"You have to realize that the propaganda was so good, the information so controlled, that most white South Africans, and many blacks, did not see these people as human beings," Mr. Uys said of the country's new leaders.

He admitted that, whatever his protest politics credentials, this propaganda affected him, that he wasn't sure what he would think of these new leaders.

"The main thing I came away with from making this series was the feeling that the country is in good hands," he said.

Each episode has plenty of humor -- inevitable when you team up government types with an amazingly quick-witted man in a wig and lipstick -- but there's a serious side as well, a sit-down interview in which Evita asks the kind of questions an intelligent Afrikaner woman with political ambitions would ask of these new officials who now control her destiny.

In the opening episode, Mr. Ramaphosa took Evita trout fishing -- she looked smashing in waders -- before sitting down and talking about his role leading the ANC into these uncharted waters.

She takes a swim with the avuncular Mr. Slovo who continues to defy the image painted by the apartheid leaders who told South Africa that the head of the country's communist party was public enemy No. 1.

Later, Evita helps Mr. Slovo lay a few ceremonial bricks at a housing project in a black township and holds him to one of the new government's promises. "Let's hope you build a million houses in five years, and not five houses in a million years," she quips.

Mr. Maharaj agreed to let Evita accompany him on his first trip back to Robben Island, the infamous prison where, like so many members of the new government, he spent much of his 12 years in jail.

"I felt a little ridiculous teetering along in my high heels next to him," said Mr. Uys of what was clearly a very moving visit for Mr. Maharaj and his family.

"But I think it actually helped him to have Evita there because otherwise it might have been too emotional for him."

But perhaps the most amazing moment in the series comes when Mr. Lekota accompanies Evita to Bethlehem, the small town in the Orange Free State that Mr. Uys chose as Evita's birthplace in her autobiography.

The town's city council agreed to give both of them the freedom of the town, something like the keys to the city. On television, it plays like a scene out of "60 Minutes Meets Monty Python." The city council appears to have come direct from Boer Central Casting.

"I remember sitting there with my little Evita grin on my face thinking, 'Is this surreal or is this surreal?' " Mr. Uys said.

But, as out of place as Mr. Uys might have felt with those council members, Evita was, in many ways, one of them, an Afrikaner who speaks their language, knows their fables and foibles, their strengths and weaknesses.

"They even referred to her as a daughter of our town," Mr. Uys said.

And, it also turns out that this was the first time the town council had met Mr. Lekota. Building bridges to these conservative white local governments is considered to be one of the most difficult, delicate tasks facing the new South African leaders.

So Evita Bezuidenhout is at work in the new South Africa, fishing, swimming, building houses and building bridges.

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