An Introduction to the Sestigers
During the early 1960s a new literary movement, known as the Sestigers, or the generation of the sixties, embraced secularization, modernity, racial tolerance and sexual freedom, and used modern literary techniques and subject matter to explore these themes… This literature helped to change the political imagination of the Afrikaans reading public in subtle yet profound ways. They offered a new conceptualization of the Afrikaners and their history that differed starkly from the image the political leaders and cultural leadership tried to project of the Afrikaners as a people determined to crush all threats to their survival.
– Hermann Giliomee, prominent historian and author of Afrikaners: A Biography and co-editor of New History of South Africa.
The Sestigers was the moniker for a group of dissident Afrikaans writers. Their subversion of the status-quo was total. Their work was certainly politically engaged. Many of their novels, poems and plays focused on the subject of Apartheid and race-relations generally. But they also rallied against the censorship of work that was sexually explicit or otherwise fell out of step with Afrikaner Christian Puritanism. They wanted to use Afrikaans in ways it never had been before. They were tired of romantic pastorals. They were sick of having to toe the nationalist line as their writerly duty. Their goal was not only political revolution – it was the reclamation of a language, and a people, from an oppressive and monolithic system through literary revolution.
The Sestigers earned their name from the experimental journal of the same name. The magazine, started by André Brink and Bartho Smit, was short-lived (1963 – 1965) but gave expression to the dramatic changes in Afrikaans literature. The name stuck long after the publication’s demise.
What distinguished the Sestigers was their intense and purposeful experimentation with form. Their first act of dissidence was against the established Afrikaans oeuvre. Even before an explicit alignment with the anti-apartheid movement, the writers gained prominence and controversy for their use of Afrikaans in postmodern modes. First and foremost they wanted Afrikaans to be engaged with literary movements in the rest of the world – rallying against apartheid South Africa’s political backwardness and subsequent isolation followed almost naturally.
If Jan Rabie is the father of Die Sestigers and André Brink its golden son, then Uys Krige
is the movement’s grandfather. It was he who urged Jan Rabie to go to France and it was in France that the movement was born.
“I was born on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, in the early spring of 1960”- André Brink
Barto Smit came second, followed by André Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, Ingrid Jonker and Etienne LeRoux. It was during this time abroad that a fraternity of artists was born. All who weren’t already became very critical of the National Party regime. They began to experiment dramatically with the various forms they encountered in France and elsewhere in Europe. They decided that Afrikaans literature needed to rid itself of provincialism and be held to international standards – in the same way they rejected Afrikaner political isolationism in a continent moving swiftly away from colonialism and toward majority rule.
In this situation the (younger) Afrikaans writer finds himself in a peculiar position. Almost all writers of the younger generation suffer from cultural schizophrenia. Because most of them have lived in Europe for longer or shorter periods, and because of the writer’s natural inclination towards the larger philosophies and the ideas of his time, they write their books from a world whose common denominators have been created by Sartre and Camus, by Henry Miller and Ionesco and Beckett: and international and cosmopolitan world. On the other hand, their very language ties them to a specific cultural group – a group which, through apartheid, through geographical necessity, and through the rigidities of Calvinism, has made a virtue of isolationism; a group almost wholly out of touch with the ‘world outside.’ – André Brink
The group’s youthful, idealistic and rather naïve manifesto was laid out as follows:
First: Freedom, responsibility, honesty, joy in creation, to lay open repressions and taboos, to break down the false hierarchy and recreate the equivalence of life.
Secondly: The development of technique, experiment, word usage.
Then: No tolerance or mercy for the inferior and hypocrtical; truth to the spirit of our time. Whether the volk like it or not, we are the new generation. We are not ‘anti’ the volk or ‘anti’ anything… But we don’t write ‘for’ the volk. Art is not a way of talking with people: it is a way of life.
What do we seek:
Art is a wind that blows into a musty house and pulls down an ornamental burial urn.
Art is a muttered incantation in a pirimeval cave.
Art is a shriek: of birth, and mating and death.
Art is a young woman walking with bare breasts through the temple.
Art is the potsherd with which Job scraped his sores.
In this initial statement, the cause of the Afrikaans writer during a time of absurd oppression of most of the South African population was simply left quiet. But all of the writers associated with the Sestigers came to know sooner or later than any action against orthodoxy – even literary orthodoxy – would place them in opposition with the regime. It is important to acknowledge that as much as they are associated with the political struggle some of the writers, Bartho Smit most notably, remained strong Nationalists while still pushing the literary envelope. Responding to Bartho Smit on their disagreement on the role of the Afrikaans writer André Brink wrote in an edition of Sestiger:
If I speak of my people then I mean: every person black, coloured or white, who shares my country and my loyalty towards my country. This is the essence of my argument that our whole country must be written open and that writers should start taking account of what ‘our whole country’ really is.
The following pages hope to give at least a glimpse at how select authors in this movement went about “taking account.”