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Breyten Breytenbach (1939 – )

Why do we intellectuals not adopt a more positive, even a militant, political attitude? Are we looking for a change of heart (magnanimity!) in the Afrikaner, or do we want justice and recognition of human dignity in South Africa, in spite of the prejudices of the sly White devils? I myself will only acquire respect for the Afrikaner (for myself) when I learn that ‘Jan Smit’ has been placed under house arrest or has vomited all over himself with electrodes attached to his fingers… Where are the Afrikaners among the accused of the Rivonia trial?

The above expressed Breyten Breytenbach’s conflicted and complicated relationship with the Afrikaans people and illustrates his disagreement with André Brink. Whereas Brink once wrote, ” I am here because I want to be here, because in my innermost self I know I must be here: because I love this land with a deep and terrible love: because not being here would be spiritual death,” Breytenbach immigrated to France and has no intention of ever living in South Africa again. He has also on more than one occasion promised to never write in Afrikaans again – only to find himself publishing in his mother tongue a few years later.

Whereas it took some time for many of the Sestigers to accept their political role (and some never did at all) Breytenbach from the outset saw literature as having a social function. The fire was fanned when his Vietnamese wife, whom he met and married in France, was denied a visa to visit South Africa because she was not white and their union reflected a mixing of races unacceptable to the Apartheid regime.

This exile quite permanently altered his views of his homeland. He became both more radicalized against the Nationalist regime and disassociated from the volk. He was very skeptical of white liberal values – those espoused by many of his fellow Sestigers – which he saw as ultimately a form of tacit collaboration with the state that didn’t truly aim to subvert anything.

Feelings of guilt and self-chastisement are self-indulgent emotions, whereas a sense of responsibility gets you moving. Avoid jubilation in haircloth. Clean out the cellars. Guard against the corruption of suffering and self-pity. Do not go and sell yourselves as brave warriors. To be opposed to apartheid is normal, not heroic. Recognize the concealed racism of the white world out there that will carry you on its hands and sing of your bravery, while it conveniently forgets about your black comrades. Keep moving, far beyond liberation. Nothing is won or established forever. Or, more likely, forever lost.

His first book of explicitly political poetry was Skryt in 1972. In it he offered brutal and bloody images of the apartheid regime. In the poem “Letter to Butcher from Abroad” he rails against then-Prime Minister John Vorster:

and you, butcher

you burdened with the security of the state

what are your thoughts when night begins to bare her bones

when the first babbling scream is forced

from the prisoner

like the sound of birth

and the fluids of parturition?

Breytenbach became a loyal member of and financial contributor to the ANC. In 1975 he returned to South Africa on a fake passport in order to recruit representatives of black trade unions to be members of his organization Okhela, which was committed to overthrowing the government. He was arrested and sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment under the Terrorism Act.

Two novels were born from his time in captivity. They are his most severe indictments of the Apartheid regime and are also his most well-known: Mouroir: Mirrornotes of a Novel and The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist.

As long as a society is characterized and conditioned by exploitation and oppression, no one in that society can be free; the oppressed person is not free from poverty, hunger, squatter conditions, sickness, bitterness, humiliation, corruption and collaboration. Even the oppressor is not free from his fear, his greed, his ignorance, his prejudices and delusions, his inhuman way of life, his economic and political and cultural and moral corruption.

A reading of Breytenbach’s “Today I Went Down” (1978) with pictures of his artwork. Breytenbach considered himself a painter first and a writer second.

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