From Jy-is-’n-drol to Je-suis-Charlie

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In Cape Town , when I started using my theatrical alphabet from 1974, which eventually became the bulletproof Teflon suit of satire, one only died on stage when no one applauded. The worst massacre was when the three local critics hated your work. You always lived to tell the tale. Recently in the Paris of 2015, there was no confusion about the results of free speech. The blood on the blank page of tomorrow’s expression will stay fresh for long.  Oh, for the days when censorship was just funny!

I started out wanting to write plays like Noel Coward and Tennessee Williams, dramas that reflected the world around me. I joined the Space Theatre in 1973 and there we did my first bilingual play Selle ou storie. It was then that I met the great love of my life, a diversion that made me famous: the Publications Control Board. In quick response to an anonymous complaint, they put a 2-21 age restriction on Selle ou Storie at the Space, thinking it would die a natural death. But then we toured the play to Stellenbosch! As the censors couldn’t go back on their decision, they banned the script. So we ran the show on an English translation of the Afrikaans which was legal because Same Old Story was not Selle ou storie.

Then in 1975 I wrote Karnaval, a play set in Long Street among the colourful black, white and beige characters that made Long Street so special. Within a week, Karnaval was also banned as a production. So now I had a play you could see but not read, and a play you could read and not see. It was a marriage made in heaven. The Censor Board became my public relations department. Imagine how I must have corrupted their typist.  My delight and gratitude to the Mevrou van Staden who typed out the long list of obscene and unacceptable words and phrases, only to add to the bottom of the last page in her own writing: Meneer Uys, u spel die woord ‘fok’ met ’n f en nie met ’n v nie.

Die van Aardes van Grootoor started its Johannesburg life in 1979 and within three weeks it too was banned. The typist was at it again, swearing and vloeking. But by this time I had learned my lesson. There were no real swearwords in the play; just suggestive ordinary Afrikaans words like naaimasjien and boerewors. I also made up words that sounded really gross but meant nothing: like trawantgetras and genotskrots. But this time round, we could afford an appeal hearing. This meant the same people who banned the work would sit in appeal against their own judgement.

The Nat government was spending millions building a new Publications Control Board headquarters in Pretoria and so we couldn’t use the main courtroom which was not yet finished. So we sat in the passage outside. All state buildings and arts councils had passages so wide you could park six Mercedes Benzes and BMW’s comfortably side by side. Until recently, I never understood why – it was future planning. Nowadays, civil servants can park their Mercs in the passage outside their offices for safety. There we sat in the passage; the proceedings solemnly opened met ’n gebed.  Suddenly with a great banging of buckets, the coloured cleaning lady arrived.

“Nay man, yous people must bugger off here. I mus’ clean!” So we upped and awayed while she swept and muttered and waddled off and we sat again and were very serious.

Hierdie stuk is onwelvoeglik. Hierdie vieslike woord: genotskrots?”  They paged into their groot HAT woordeboek to G:  genots – genotskrots? But of course they couldn’t find it. “Meneer Uys, hierdie vieslike woord ‘genotskrots’. Wat beteken dit nou eintlik in u konteks?”

Konteks my voet: the buggers had no clue what the word meant.

“Die woord bestaan nie, Dokter. Ek het dit geskep.” Ja-nee, I made it up and only I know what it means within my context - and I’m not telling. They conferred; they mumbled; they smacked their lips and then they decided. “U kan die woord terugkry, maar sorg dat dit nie weer gebeur nie!”

The Publications Act stated that the censors still only needed one anonymous complaint in order to act, and to come and stop the fun. Since Die van Aardes van Grootoor, I had been sending them complaints about my new work: three or four letters from different locations saying sies sies sies. The Board would react to these complaints and come and judge and make utter fools of themselves. With the revue Info Scandals in 1979, the night the Appeal Committee was in to judge if their banning of the revue was to stay or to go, I added this sketch about censorship:

  1. Whereas because of the obscene nature of their shapes, the following objects are deemed undesirable: candles, cucumbers, paw-paws, bananas, boerewors and plural orbs, formerly known as nigger balls.
  2. Whereas the following places have been declared indecent and/or obscene, the following places in South Africa will hereby cease to exist: Holfontein, Kakamas, Nigel and Donkergat.
  3. Whereas tomorrow has been declared undesirable because of the obscene phrase: the crack of dawn.
  4. Whereas the following are also banned: photographs of any prison in South Africa; media coverage of any unrest in South Africa; quotations from the utterances of any banned person and organisation; the wearing, flaunting, displaying and /or circulating of the banned ANC flag, colours and/or any other communist slogans.
  5. Whereas because of the obscene insinuations as perpetuated by the koek and moer in Koekemoer; the shits in Lipschitz; the tiet in Titties, the telephone directory has been declared undesirable.
  6. Whereas all Afrikaans universities are to be closed forthwith because of the fak in fakulteit.
  7. Whereas all nudity, other than that of large black women in the homelands which is regarded as officially natural – all other nudity is deemed offensive and undesirable. If we meant to walk around with no clothes on, we would have also been born black.

We won our appeal, but the committee banned this sketch because of the obscene word ’nigel’!

In the good old days of NP government censorship, when intelligent people had their creative energies wasted fighting for the right to say poep and kak, and while that was diverting a nation, our army marched into Angola, our education lobotomised a generation, and PW Botha took our so-called parliamentary democracy and stuck it up his p**ph*l!

So where are we today? Je suis Charlie. The relatively unchartered territory of satire has always been a minefield. More often than not, democratic freedoms of speech and expression have offered a safe passage, but those who tiptoe through this unknown known, armed only with humour as their weapon of mass distraction, must understand how badly it could end. Today, urban terror as a career-move for fanatics, shows how Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes of bling-fame congeals into hours of bloody infamy.

Our world has morphed into a stunned neighbourhood as social media reflects the opinions, prejudice and common sense of people not yet used to the fact that bombs and news can break in the palm of our hands.

Censorship now happens in many subtle ways. The bigger concern is self-censorship where the fear of violent retaliation, no matter how small, mutes the voice and cripples the word.

Nothing is beyond satire. There are a million ways to find the target without igniting the mines under our feet. Writers must write. Cartoonists must cartoon. Readers must read. And everyone must stand up and be counted. Then there will be more exclamation marks of question than question marks of fear.

Dus, fok sensuur, met ’n f en nie ’n v nie!


*** Die versameling van vyf van Pieter-Dirk Uys se Afrikaanse dramas, Stukke teater (Human & Rousseau) sal teen 20 Maart 2015 by alle goeie boekhandelaars verkrygbaar wees.

***AN AUDIENCE WITH PIETER-DIRK EISH! performs at Theatre on the Bay Camps Bay from 18 Feb to 14 March and at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre from 17 March to 12 April.  Book at Computicket.

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