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Why Sophia Loren is one of many who love South Africa’s Pieter-Dirk Uys

Anne Susskind
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Published: 6 May 2022

Last updated: 4 March 2024

The famous satirist and activist, who has recently discovered his Jewish ancestry, is the subject of a doco that celebrates his legacy. ANNE SUSSKIND previews this year's program

WHETHER YOU CALL him a Jewish-Afrikaner or an Afrikaner-Jew, Pieter-Dirk Uys says he belongs to “both the chosen people," quips one of South Africa’s most celebrated performers.

Uys is the subject of Nobody’s Died Laughing, a documentary which this week opens the fourth South African Film Festival, with 21 films available online in Australia and New Zealand.

All proceeds go to Education without Borders, a charity for disadvantaged children in the Western Cape. It is, says South African émigré and co-director Claire Jankelson, a festival “with conscience”.

Uys is a legend in South Africa. His best-known character, Afrikaner socialite Evita Bezuidenhout, is much like Dame Edna Everage, only more politicised.

“One does not run away. One runs towards,” is one of Uys’s lines. He was, as the documentary shows, an important social activist under apartheid and has continued to be so since its demise, using his performer’s licence to satirise both the old regime and the disappointing ANC government in today’s South Africa.

He is also known for good works, such as travelling solo the length and breadth of his country to 150 disadvantaged and rural schools during the height of the AIDS crisis, employing his humour with youngsters in teaching them how to use condoms to protect themselves.

Uys' praises are sung by Sophia Loren, actress Charlize Theron and Nelson Mandela, among others.

In the documentary, his praises are sung by Sophia Loren (she was his childhood dream and later formed a real bond with him), actress Charlize Theron and Nelson Mandela, among others.

Uys grew up as an Afrikaner, and it was only after his mother’s suicide he learned she’d been Jewish and had fled from the Nazis in Berlin. He treasures a letter, “a carbon copy of the one Ma wrote”, posted in 1948 to Franz Michels (her former fiancé) in Germany.

No longer Helga Bassel but MevrouHannes Uys, she writes from the tip of Africa, in disbelief at finding herself in another oppressive society:

‘I am sitting here in De Waal Park. It is a beautiful, sunny day in Cape Town. Table Mountain is looming over me like a huge wall. My little blond boy Pieter is three years old and playing in the grass with the dachshund, Fritz. I am sitting on a bench which has a sign on it that says: Whites-only/Slegs Blankes. How did I get here from a place that said, No Jews/Juden-Raus?”

Helga Bassel, who he adored, was bipolar and today would have been aided by medication, Uys says.

According to Australian government statistics, there were 193,860 South African-born people living in Australia in 2021, so between them and their families, there is a growing audience for this festival, Jankelson says. The array of films helps emigres to make sense of their backgrounds, as well as giving a bird’s-eye view into the complexities of post-apartheid South Africa.

The Jewish Independent

There are eight other documentaries on offer, including Pluck, which takes a warts-and-all look at the infamous Nando’s ads that have held up a mirror to South African society, and Dying for Gold, which humanises the history of gold mining in South Africa’s economy, and another about refugees who inhabit unused mineshafts.

The Art of Fallism delves into the student protests of 2016, focusing on the Rhodes Must Fall movement at the University of Cape Town, and Township Yogi explores the place of yoga and personal growth in the townships of KwaZulu-Natal.

Dance Me to The End of Time is a portrayal of American theatre director Nancy Diuguid's life and battle with cancer, made by her South African partner, filmmaker Melanie Chait, while The Untamed Voice takes a no-holds-barred look at Afrikaans music.

Atlantis is a tale of drugs, love, betrayal and murder in the Western Cape, while Gaia is an award-winning ecological horror story. Sons of the Sea is a thriller about abalone poaching. There’s a romcom, Mrs Right Guy, and Hotel Lerallaneng, a moody drama set during lockdown.

It’s the full South African panoply, that will tug at the heartstrings. When South Africans emigrate, some try to leave thoughts of their former country behind. But for Jankelson, growing up in apartheid South Africa shaped her.

She says the ethical challenges they face at a young age give many South Africans a wish to strive for tikkun olam, a desire to heal the world. The festival and its volunteers are part of this effort.

For Uys, there are not many holy cows, Australia and emigres included: "Many South Africans emigrated to Australia - and the IQ of both our countries went up!"

The festival runs from May 7-24.


Photo: still from Nobody's Died laughing, with Sophia Loren (centre) and Pieter Dirk-Uys (right)

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