German-Africa Prize: art as a weapon for change | Africa | DW | 05.12.2012
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German-Africa Prize: art as a weapon for change

Pieter-Dirk Uys and Marlene Le Roux, both from South Africa, have jointly won this year's German-Africa Prize for their services to peace, democracy and human rights.

Pieter-Dirk Uys has many faces. The cabaret artist can look back on a stage career of more than 30 years, a time in which he used humor to accompany the process of development in South Africa.

The German-Africa Foundation is now honoring him "for his fight against all forms of discrimination and inequality using the weapons of art."

67 year-old Uys' parodies of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu are just as skilful as his take on former apartheid prime minister Pieter W. Botha. His performance as Evita Bezuidenhout brought him international fame. Some consider the overdressed woman with long red-painted fingernails to be the most popular white woman in South Africa.

During the apartheid era, Uys/Evita was the personification of all possible clichés. When democracy came she learnt political correctness and was even given the opportunity to hold a speech in 1994 before the country's first freely elected parliament.

Pieter-Dirk Uys as Evita Bezuidenhout (Photo:Pieter-Dirk Uys)

Pieter-Dirk Uys as Evita Bezuidenhout

Pieter-Dirk Uys was born in Cape Town in 1945. His father was of Dutch origin, his mother a Jewish concert pianist from Berlin. In 1938, she fled the Nazi regime and went to Cape Town. Uys' artistic career began after he finished a film studies course in London. He discovered that humor was his greatest strength and has used it ever since as a weapon against oppression. His sardonic satire first targeted apartheid-era politicians, but Uys cannot complain about a lack of material in today's ANC-ruled South Africa.

South Africa's 'good conscience'

For nearly two decades Uys has denounced the country's irresponsible AIDS policies. He runs his own campaign to increase youth awareness. With his free "AIDS awareness show" he visits schools across the country, from the remote Kalahari desert to well-to-do urban locations. His frank words about sexuality go down well, the young audience roars with laughter. "Never forget you are the future of South Africa, and therefore you cannot fear the virus, nor life. In a democracy, it's your right to ask questions," Uys tells them.

Then he shows the girls in the audience how to protect themselves against rape using a special condom for women. He tells the boys they should never force girls to have sex. So far, he has warned thousands of school students about the virus – earning him the nickname "the conscience of South Africa."

"There is no more time for pleasantries," he says soberly and compares South Africa's AIDS policy with genocide. "Ignore the people and they will die, but this is not Rwanda, and I'm not going to wait 20 years." That could be interpreted as a reminder that Uys has always been a patriot, always ready to protect his people against their own government.

A voice for the disabled

The second prizewinner is Marlene Le Roux, honored for her dream of a democratic society in which equality and human rights are part of everyday life. In 2010, Le Roux, director of the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town, was declared the most influential woman in South Africa in the fields of art and culture. In summer 2012 she was in London as part of the international jury panel for the Olympic and Paralympic games – the only expert whose first language was not English.

German-Africa prize winner Marlene Le Roux (Photo: Marit Arnold)

Marlene Le Roux uses theater to fight oppression

According to the German-Africa Foundation, she is someone who can walk into a room and fill it completely with her voice, her way of laughing, her body language.

All Le Roux's energy goes into fighting the discrimination of minorities and disadvantaged groups - in particular, women, people with disabilities and those from poor backgrounds. The 42-year-old knows about their problems from personal experience. As one of 11 children, she grew up in a poor family. At a young age, she contracted polio which left her physically disabled. The trained singer and music teacher rarely talks about her disability but regards it as a privilege that she had the chance to determine her own life.

Since 2002 she has been the director of the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town. "We urgently need a different kind of awareness in everyday life," she says." Art can build bridges and bring together nations, cultures and races." Le Roux wants to contribute to the unity of South Africa by using art to strengthen people's self-esteem and help heal the wounds of apartheid. Another big concern for her is to improve the status of women. To achieve this she organizes the annual Artscape Women's Festival.

Poverty exacerbates disability

Her best-selling book "Look at me," with 23 portraits, caused a change in the general perception of people with disabilities. Until recently, Marlene Le Roux was active in politics. She is still very concerned about the social and political situation in the country and the widening gap between rich and poor. The level of integration of disabled people into the community is still inadequate, she says. "I want to raise awareness of disabled people's rights so that they are represented more prominently on the social agenda of the African continent."

Since 1993, the German-Africa Prize has been awarded to individuals who have rendered outstanding services to the continent for peace, democracy, human rights and development.

Marlene Le Roux, and Pieter-Dirk Uys join an illustrious list of prizewinners, including Christiana Thorpe, head of Sierra Leone's electoral commission, and Ghanaian diplomat Mohamed Ibn Chambas.

The 2012 award is being presented on 5 December by former German President Horst Köhler at a ceremony in Cologne.

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