Is there a cobra under the South African carpet like the proverbial elephant in the room, defined by Wikipedia as “an obvious truth that is being ignored or goes unaddressed”? Is there a near future in which the South African media will find itself, or parts of itself, suppressed for the first time since PW Botha successfully stilled its bark two decades ago?
The “cobra”, in Pieter-Dirk Uys’s own interpretation of the idiom, is the possible threat to democratic freedoms by a government led by a man whose recent behaviour rings alarm bells. The cause of Uys’s alarm: Zuma’s lawsuit against cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro).
There was something naked about Pieter-Dirk Uys as he stood on the stage of the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town addressing a press conference to express his fears about a future under Jacob Zuma. Marginally more naked at his side, beneath a covered easel, was his alter ego Evita Bezuidenhout, soon revealed in a cross-over bra at the heart of a painting after French artist Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. You had to consider the unasked question: would our beloved Tannie Evita ever be naaied by our president-in-waiting? Politically speaking, of course. You knew, obviously, that she would shower afterwards, and Uys had a puppet of Jacob Zuma with him on stage, shower-head and all, ready to rush to his alter ego’s aid.
In ons eie new version of the famous work by artist Nina van der Westhuizen, Evita is as near as naked as her modesty would allow as the seventh Mrs Zuma, leading, in Uys’s words, “the total onslaught against Constitutional Freedom on the barricades of our young democracy”. In “Tannie leads the People”, Uys’s satirical alter ego has a reluctant entourage including a gun-toting Julius Malema, Tutu looking worried, Carl Niehaus looking jobless and even lifeless, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at Evita’s feet, Mbeki looking vanquished, Malema looking out of control, and Motlanthe merely looking on.
A man who had the courage to savage successive apartheid governments through humour now found himself facing what he perceived as the possibility of the media and arts having to face off new threats to hard-won freedoms. He averred that, in those dark days of the 80s, it was only his white skin that saved him: “I had the advantage of being white. If I had been black I would not be alive today.”
Many media voices in those days were successfully stilled by the PW Botha government’s draconian legislation and successive states of emergency, he reminded us. “The greatest problem in those days was self-censorship. I hope this is not going to be the case in a month’s time.”
I chatted to Pieter-Dirk after last night’s opening performance at the Baxter Theatre of his Elections & Erections, and he reiterated something to which he had averred at the earlier press conference. I remarked that the one thing we do not yet know about Jacob Zuma is what he will be like as president. Cometh the hour, will the man show himself to be the kind of leader we hope for? We agreed: it can happen, we hope desperately it will happen, but … well, the portents cannot be ignored, and are only ignored by fools. “I am an optimist,” Uys said, “but I am also a realist, and I am not a fool”.
Most important, he said, was to ring the warning bell BEFORE Zuma becomes president. The bell has been rung before any of our democratic freedoms have been eroded. It is time, as one visiting academic cautioned in the Cape Times this morning, to be vigilant and to start being more vocal about our opposition to any erosion of our freedoms. It is time for South Africans, and for the media, to stand up, stick our necks out, and say with all the courage of a Desmond Tutu, a Suzman or, let’s be honest, a Pieter-Dirk Uys: No you can’t!
And for more on Uys’s delicious undoing of Obama’s US election campaign slogan, see his hysterically funny but sobering Elections & Erections at the Baxter. Thank God we have voices like his, and Tutu’s, and Zapiro’s, in the times ahead – and please God we will still have those voices. As Uys says in the show’s darkest moment, there are times when he fears that, when voices like those of Suzman, Mandela and Tutu have all gone, we will be left alone.
All of us in the media and arts must stand with such voices and say what needs to be said as loudly and clearly as we can muster. Here’s to a bright and happy future, or, if the worst fears come true, to a media with the balls to publish and be damned.