Pieter-Dirk Uys Gets UKZN’s Highest Literary Honour
Author, satirist and activist Pieter-Dirk Uys has been a fearless critic of injustice in South Africa and an ardent campaigner for an open, tolerant and democratic society for more than four decades.
UKZN rewarded Uys for his fearless stance by awarding him its highest honour, the Degree of Doctor of Literature honoris causa.
In his opening remarks at the Graduation ceremony, Uys said: ‘We stand 30 days away from the most important election in the history of our place on earth. For the first time ever, young South Africans born after we had our first democratic election in 1994 will vote. They will vote without sentiment and not out of habit. They will vote for the future and not the past.’
Directly addressing the University’s graduates, he said: ‘When I went to study at the University of Cape Town in 1965, I was encouraged to go and get a degree to fall back on. Do we still say that?
‘When will we be encouraged to get a degree to fall forward on? That retreat mentality has haunted so many of us, starting life being told that: Your dream will never come true. So get something to fall back on.
‘Let me say this to all the individual minds that graduate today. Fall forward! You will never get the job you want. Become your job today. I’ve been unemployed for 40 years and I’m still here. You each have a unique talent that no-one in the world can match. Develop that. Work with that and for that. Be unique. Be special. Never stand in a queue to fall back on something that isn’t your dream.’
On the upcoming elections, Uys reflected on his experiences and memories during the apartheid era and afterwards, shared with the audience his experience of being allowed for the first time to stand in a queue with all races to cast his vote in the 1994 elections.
‘On 27th April in 1994 millions of South Africans queued up to vote for the very first time - and many of them voted many times. The Rainbow Nation was born. A new national anthem was sung. Nelson Mandela freed me from my jail of my prejudice and fear. It was now no longer politically-correct to be a racist in South Africa. In fact, I was no longer just a White Afrikaner; I was now a citizen in a democracy… at last. Who said life can’t start at 50?’
He shared his memories of the 1980s, both personal and from the theatre, saying: ‘It wasn’t just the National Party who gave me those gifts of a PW Botha, a Pik Botha, a Fanie Botha, a Buthelezi. There were also inspirational people among those White South Africans who fought the system from within the system.
‘Especially an unlikely freedom fighter called Helen Suzman. She showed what one woman could do, bravely trying as best she could to make her government accountable. For all those years - 13 of them alone - she sat in the South African Parliament, the only member of a White opposition to the apartheid regime.’
In 1985, Uys was invited to have lunch with Helen Suzman in Parliament. It was there that he encountered PW Botha, who he impersonated during his stage shows.
‘I took my seat and looked down: there sat all my scriptwriters, the entire apartheid government. And alone at his desk sat PW Botha, making copious notes on a pad – or signing death warrants. But busy. Then he put down the pen and looked up, up, up, right into my soul. My scrotum disappeared!’
Discussing the 2011 Census he pinpointed one of the question asked: ‘What is your race? Black, White, Coloured, Indian, Asian or other?’
‘I didn’t know what to fill in, as a few months before they did a DNA test on me for a television show, and the DNA test proved that I originated in the Congo. So obviously I’m Black. For 49 years my Book of Life assured me that I am White.
‘Then I did some research into my father’s family background and found that we had a great-great-great grandmother who in 1791 plied her trade on the road between Cape Town and Paarl. Her name was Wilhelmiena Opklim. So that means I’m also Coloured! I don’t know about Indian, Asian or Other, but hell, that’s 3 out of 6? I’m truly South African!’
Uys currently lives in Darling in the Western Cape where he continues to perform. He also continues his AIDS awareness activism and serves on the board of directors of the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation.
- Melissa Mungroo